Illustration by Edpuzzle Staff
Blended instruction. Self-paced structure. Mastery-based grading. Do these sound familiar?
Chances are you’ve heard of these educational concepts or have implemented some version of your own in your classroom. But have you ever thought of doing all three at once?
As the team at the Modern Classrooms Project has figured out, all three concepts work organically to create an environment that fosters self-regulation, productivity, and collaboration. At the center of their model is the idea that students should access new content from teacher-created videos.
We interviewed Kareem Farah, executive director and co-founder of the Modern Classrooms Project, about this innovative instructional model and how it’s paving the way for more educators to meet their students’ needs.
How and why did you decide to come up with this model?
When you’re an educator, especially a new educator, you’re taught to just go through the motions. This means stand at the front of the room and deliver information. Kids then go try to do something with that information, you assess them, and then you go on to the next lesson.
For me, it was quite clear that this was an ineffective way to meet students’ needs, particularly in environments with incredibly diverse learning levels. But ultimately, there weren’t any examples of how you could do it differently. It was as if everybody knew there was something wrong, but nobody had a plan for addressing it.
You quickly realize that the lecture is this elephant in the room, the bottleneck problem that is driving the bulk of the challenges that educators are facing. Behavior issues are happening, we’re forced to teach in a fixed-pace method, and we aren’t meeting students’ needs.
I started by eliminating the lecture. As soon as I did that, by building my own instructional videos and using Edpuzzle, I was then able to unleash self-pacing.
That’s when I realized that I could achieve an environment where students would only progress from one lesson to the next when they showed mastery. I would then intervene if they were not able to show mastery, and my time was being used in small groups and individualized instruction.
My co-founder and I realized that the angst I was feeling about not having an available instructional model that was different, adjustable and teacher-created, was a frustration educators had nation-wide. We crafted the Modern Classrooms Project, a non-profit, with the sole goal of getting our model in as many teachers’ hands as possible.
What steps do you recommend for teachers to ease their way into the model?
You can’t imagine self-pacing until you’ve eliminated the lecture. It doesn’t make any functional sense. Until you start to try to remove that from your day-to-day course of action, you will not be able to entertain this idea.
It can be as simple as taking an Edpuzzle video that someone else made and telling your students “Hey, today just watch this video and do this assignment.” It may not be perfect, your kids may miss your voice and you may have some challenges with it. But show yourself at least that you don’t need to be at the front of the room for kids to learn a skill.
Then you can say “Hey we’re going to focus on these two lessons over the course of these three days.” And it unleashes a broader variety of self-pacing. There isn’t a real ease-in because for some folks, not lecturing is very intimidating.
But that has to be your first step. If you don’t do that, you’re not willing to make that leap, you’re probably going to be stuck in traditional teaching for some time.
Teachers might think “That's awesome, but you probably put a lot of work into this.” Can you explain how much work it actually took for you to remove the lecture and create your own videos?
I describe it as becoming a first-year teacher again a little bit. Ultimately, it’s the learning curve that creates the work. It’s not actually necessarily more work over time.
If you watch me build video #40, it’s not like that took me much more time to plan than a traditional lesson plan. It was the fact that I had never built instructional videos before, that I was learning how to use that technology, and I was figuring out how to embed in an LMS to add questions through Edpuzzle.
That dynamic is a learning curve, it’s challenging. But for me, it was the first time in education where I was doing planning that I actually knew was paying off.
I always felt that I was doing planning that wasn’t putting me in a position to be more successful. The planning I was doing with the Modern Classrooms model, by building instructional videos and creating a self-paced environment, allowed me to control more of the variables that felt out of my control before. That was really powerful and I think building instructional videos is critical.
How did other teachers and administrators react when you yourself started following this model? Was there skepticism?
I always bring up the 10% rule. Expect 10% of colleagues, students, leaders, and parents to hate it. Innovation is hard and there’s a group of people that are going to have an extremely adverse reaction to change. Especially when it’s change they’ve never seen before.
But if you can create a classroom environment where kids are engaged, they’re doing different things but they’re all learning, people will want to recreate it. Once school leaders saw our classrooms in action, they said “Oh, this is quite cool. Run with it.”
Don’t judge my classroom based on the fact that a kid told you that we watch videos in our class. Come in here and see what’s going down. We were very passionate about inviting other educators to our classrooms.
It immediately eliminates so many of the misconceptions associated with the model: that kids are just learning on screens, they’re learning in silos, there’s no collaboration, and the teacher’s just at their desk. All those things get destroyed when you see the classroom in action and you see the reorganization of teacher time.
I think that’s what we found captivated most teachers’ attention. They would walk into our class and realize what I was doing. I would tell them, watch the students but also track my behavior. Pay attention to what my time is spent doing. A lot of teachers would leave saying they wished that’s how they got to spend their time. I think that when you can build change from the bottom up, that’s when it’s most inspiring.
Did you get pushback from students with this model?
Pushback stems from kids feeling like their teacher’s being removed from the experience. That by introducing instructional videos and not lecturing in front of the room, that means that I as the educator am going to be less engaged with individual students and less available to support.
One of the things I always advise teachers and school district leaders on when they roll out our model is that you are going to get pushback from a group of kids because they don’t actually know what’s hitting them.
Students are used to traditional models and their gut reaction is ‘I’m using a computer to learn and not my teacher.’
One of the biggest priorities we tell teachers to focus on in those first couple of units is to show students that you are more available. Pull them for small group instruction and sit by them for an entire period.
Prove to students that by building these videos you’re near them now and the pushback suddenly disappears. It’s really powerful because ultimately, kids just want to know that they’re supported. If you prove that they’re more supported in this structure, that’ll come to life.
For those who are still skeptical of the model, can you throw out some numbers showing the impact that you’ve had?
What I’m most proud of is how we’ve changed teachers’ perceptions of learning. In our study with John Hopkins School of Education Reform, we did a full study on Modern Classrooms educators in comparison to traditional educators.
11% of controlled teachers felt like they could help students catch up, 100% of Modern Classroom teachers said the same.
44% of controlled teachers felt like they could serve all learning levels, 89% of Modern Classroom teachers said the same.
14% of controlled teachers felt like they were teaching students effective study skills, 100% of Modern Classroom teachers said the same.
This is no surprise because you’re not really teaching students self-regulation when you’re micro-managing the classroom.
If there’s one data point that I want the entire world to know, it’s that only 19% of controlled teachers felt like they could work closely with students in class, and 86% of our teachers believed the same.
That to me is the #1 data point. That small of a percentage of traditional educators feel like they’re able to communicate with individual students, consistently day in and day out, and the vast majority of Modern Classrooms educators can. And every great educator knows that’s where some of the most impactful learning happens.
How does this model impact students in the long term?
A local paper interviewed a former student of mine. She was a senior who I taught through this model in her IB math course. She said this model taught her how to teach herself.
When she got to college, they told her there’s the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of work happens outside of class, twenty percent happens in class. She said, had she not struggled and learned how to be a self-regulated learner that controlled her own pace in my class, she wouldn't have been well-equipped to handle the 80/20 rule.
She would have been blindsided by the reality that classwork is not a thing in college. Class is just a time where you sit in a room with a bunch of people when you get information and then you just have to figure it out. I hear the same things from a number of students who’ve graduated.
We’ve seen that kids are finding that this model is incredibly impactful when they leave our buildings. It’s been glorious to hear that from the older students because that’s what matters most. It doesn’t matter if they can factor a quadratic, it matters if they can be a self-regulated learner.
Interested in running a classroom where students set their own pace? We’ve partnered with the Modern Classrooms Project to offer a free Self-Paced Classroom course on Edpuzzle.
Once you’ve become an expert in self-pacing, make sure to round out your learning and study up on blended learning and mastery-based grading. Explore the Modern Classrooms Project’s resources where you’ll find free courses, exemplar units, tech tutorials, and more!