It’s a common trope that the classroom of today has not evolved much over the past hundred years. From the agrarian schedule that schools follow, to the way they seat students in neat rows (the trope continues), there’s little to distinguish a (pre-COVID-19) classroom in 2020 from one in 1950. This is a simplistic story, of course: project-based learning, virtual reality technology, and more have been introduced to classrooms in recent years, changing what and how students learn, even if the classroom itself looks much the same.
But therein lies the issue: even with the move to virtual classes amid the pandemic, the classroom model remains at the heart of education. The model is still based on physical proximity: students from a specific geographical area meet in a classroom with a designated teacher. This model brings with it a host of constraints, especially around human resources – such as teachers and advisers – because they also must be present in the same location as the students.
While a model centered around local presence, 30:1 student/teacher ratio and the like may well be important for certain aspects of learning (including crucial developmental factors such as social interactions, in-person collaboration and behavioral accountability), our unplanned experiment in virtual learning over the past several months presents an opportunity for reflecting on what’s worth keeping and what we can discard from the old model. Indeed, with more intelligent use of physical spaces, virtual learning platforms and online tools, school systems can forge new educational paradigms, enhance instruction and open up pedagogical possibilities that extend beyond the walls of the physical classroom.
Take one of the universal problems with classroom instruction: the varying levels of individual capabilities in a given classroom. This compels teachers to provide instruction that’s above certain of their students’ developmental levels, while also being well below the capabilities of other students. As any teacher can attest, juggling these varying needs simultaneously is a mighty challenge. Not every school has the resources necessary to divide grades into different learning classes where students can learn at the appropriate level. Teachers have, for quite some time, attempted to search for solutions within a single classroom – including dividing students into smaller groups according to ability (a method called differentiated instruction). Ultimately, however, a teacher must choose at what level to pitch the class for maximum benefit, a system that will always be imperfect, with only limited time for personalisation or extra help.
One answer is to push students forward a grade or hold them back; which may work for some students, but also creates additional problems. If we have a larger group of students, we can more granularly divide them into suitable classes (algebra 1 advanced or algebra 1 basics) wherein the content is more precisely targeted to student needs. New York City’s School of One initiative was an interesting experiment along these lines, although it was still constrained to a physical school building – and worked only in large schools.
The future is virtual
A better and more scalable solution, which is already happening in some areas, is to turn to virtual courses and virtual spaces to help make specific courses of study available in areas where there are not enough students to support dedicating a teacher to this subject: for instance, in providing certain AP courses (but the same could be said for any subject or grade level). If only two students in a certain high school want to take AP psychology, this simply isn’t sufficient to justify a course offering – but if other area high schools also have small groups of students interested in taking the course, it’s suddenly possible to envision 10, 15 or 20 students from different schools taking the class together in a virtual format with a single teacher located anywhere. This is the virtual equivalent of what many colleges and universities in proximity to each other, like California’s Claremont colleges, have long been doing.
Transforming SEND education
Special education is also ripe for new thinking. Often there are only a handful of special needs students in a building, and often they represent multiple special needs – a range which no single teacher can be fully expert in. While distance teaching can create various challenges for some special needs learners, it can also make it easier to bring together groups of students with similar needs from multiple locations, working with instructors who are well-versed in the unique issues these students face. Whether this model is pursued online, in person or in a hybrid approach going forward, the basic idea is the same: schools should be leveraging teachers’ particular expertise to personalise learning for students of all backgrounds – segmenting pupils by need, not arbitrary location.
Of course, we don’t simply want to put students at a distance in front of a screen as if in front of a television; the lessons at a distance need to be interactive, and measurably so – where we can see whether students are truly participating and learning in their virtual classes. Happily, this is now easier than ever, with newer generations of asynchronous and synchronous learning tools that can infuse virtual learning with interactive elements such as quizzes, polls and branching scenarios. These tools also make it possible to capture data from each student so that teachers can see how much they have learned and how engaged they are – insights that can enable teachers to fine-tune their instruction and improve student engagement.
By freeing ourselves from the models of physical proximity that long characterised the learning experience, it’s possible to build an educational future that better serves the needs of teachers, students, parents and staff. Education was long overdue a reset – and while the current crisis has brought far more abrupt change than anyone thought possible just a few months ago, it also presents an unprecedented chance to break from outdated models and blaze new trails in how we teach and learn.
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