Professional Learning
Professional Learning

Educators are the lead learners in schools. If they are to enable powerful, authentic, deep learning among their students, they need to live that kind of learning and professional culture themselves. When everyone is part of that experiential through-line, that’s when next generation learning thrives.

Learn More

Lessons from a Year of Innovation and Hard Work

When it comes to redesigning learning, what kind of professional development works best for teachers? Looking to teachers themselves is a good bet.

Less than one year ago, we launched a new initiative in teacher professional development: The Modern Classrooms Project. As teachers at a Title I high school in the District of Columbia, we had developed an innovative blended, self-paced, mastery-based instructional model that helped us serve students with highly diverse learning needs. As founders of a fledgling nonprofit organization, we aimed to share this model with our peers. We trained our first cohort of Modern Classroom Fellows last summer and have spent the past year watching, and supporting, as each of these eight exceptional educators made our model their own.

Our Fellows' work has made a powerful impact on the landscape of classroom instruction. Midyear survey results, analyzed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, showed statistically significant positive impacts on both Fellows' and their students' self-efficacy and attitudes toward learning. We were featured in an Edutopia video that has been viewed over 1 million times on social media. Most importantly, we know that all eight of our inaugural Fellows will continue to use our approach next year and beyond. What they learned in our professional development (PD) has stuck with them.

As we prepare to train our next cohort of 25 Fellows this summer, it's worth pausing to consider what we've learned from this first year of operation. I think we can boil it down into four major lessons about what makes PD work.

  1. Professional learning requires teacher buy-in. As teachers, much of the PD we received followed a familiar structure: We were told we had to do something and then trained on how to do it. But what if we didn't understand the purpose of the new initiative or didn't believe it was in our students' best interests? This sort of top-down approach discounts teacher agency and professionalism and rarely translates effectively into practice. We found that our Modern Classrooms training was most essential when we worked WITH our teachers. We didn't tell them what we wanted to see; we asked our Fellows about their goals and thought alongside each of them. We gave our Fellows tools, not mandates—and we listened and tried to improve when our Fellows told us we were falling short. Our Fellows appreciated the respect we showed and the autonomy we provided. Their Modern Classrooms are both uniform and unique: All of our Fellows use the same instructional model, but each innovates according to their students' particular needs. Our Fellows aren't using blended, self-paced, mastery-based practices to satisfy us—they're doing so because it's truly best for their students.
  2. Ongoing support is essential. As teachers, we learned lots of great ideas in PD. Yet we often encountered challenges applying what we learned to our own classrooms. Learning theory is one thing, but implementing new practices is another challenge altogether. We addressed this by supporting our Fellows year-round. We visited their classrooms, held regular cohort meetings, and consulted with each Fellow when roadblocks arose. We watched our Fellows struggle, offered our advice, and helped them improve. It required a lot of time and investment on our part, but it was effective.
  3. Teachers are our greatest assets. We designed and ran our trainings in the role of experts, to teach unfamiliar teachers something new. What we hadn't anticipated was the extent to which our Fellows would teach us! Each came to our PD with unique perspectives and insights; over the course of the year, each translated those assets into uniquely innovative adaptations of our model. We weren't sure that blended, self-paced, mastery-based learning would work in English or world history classes, or in a middle-school setting. Our Fellows showed us how it could. As we revise our training materials for future cohorts of Fellows, we find ourselves drawing on our Fellows' work as exemplars. Wouldn't it be great, we ask ourselves, to show our Fellows how Ms. McDermott uses videos to support small-group literature discussions? Or how Mr. Sholtas creates such engaging videos for his middle-school students? Our Fellows have become the experts. We're simply trying to amplify their expertise.
  4. The appetite for teacher-driven innovation exists. Throughout our first year, we wondered whether we were truly contributing to a crowded landscape of educational innovators. There are countless organizations that train teachers, and more and more ed-tech companies that aim to disrupt instruction. Is there really a place for us? The answer, we've realized, is unequivocally yes—because we fill a gap that few have addressed. Traditional teacher training is traditional: It too often fails to leverage the transformative power of technology. Ed-tech, on the other hand, too often seeks to replace the most important element in any educational experience: the human educator. What we do fills that gap: We work closely with teachers to make the most of ed-tech tools. And we've seen firsthand how hungry many educators are for that know-how.

The Modern Classrooms Project trained eight educators last year, but we're tripling in size for the upcoming year. We're learning from our Fellows, assessing our impacts, and building connections with like-minded educators worldwide. We aim to do nothing less than build a teacher-driven movement to reimagine the way classroom instruction occurs. We hope you'll join us.


Photo: Teacher and student panel at Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago (Courtesy of NGLC)

Guest Blogger graphic

Kareem Farah and Robert Barnett

Co-founders, The Modern Classrooms Project

Kareem Farah earned his undergraduate degree from Washington University and a master’s degree in secondary education at Johns Hopkins University. He has spent the past 6 years teaching in schools that support highly diverse student populations from low income communities. Farah was awarded the 2018 D.C. Public Schools Award for Classroom Innovation. Instead of using the lecture model, Farah taught mathematics through a blended model where students accessed the content through his self-made videos. The cornerstone of his classroom is the ability for students to work through the content at their own pace and Farah’s ability to employ mastery-based grading to evaluate student learning. In an effort to scale his classroom model, Farah launched a nonprofit, The Modern Classrooms Project. As the executive director of The Modern Classrooms Project, Farah trains and supports a yearly fellowship of teachers who seek to develop blended, self-paced, mastery-based classrooms of their own. Follow Kareem on Twitter @Kareemfarah23.

Robert Barnett is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of The Modern Classrooms Project. He has taught math, entrepreneurship, computer science, and law in the United States and Switzerland, and has written about education for Education Week, The Washington Post, and Washington City Paper. A native of Washington, D.C., he is a former City Year corps member and holds degrees cum laude from both Princeton University (A.B.) and Harvard Law School (J.D.).