Changing the way teachers present material is one way to prevent student frustration. Maths Pathway in Australia tackles “math panic,” while the US-based Modern Classrooms Project can turn teaching and learning around in any subject. Caroline Smrstik Gentner talks with two proponents of these innovative approaches.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: What issue did your innovation set out to solve?
Laura Marinesco, Maths Pathway (Australia): There’s a stereotype that all smart kids are good at math. That creates a level of anxiety around math, leading kids to be afraid to raise their hands to ask for help. They don’t want to be judged, they don’t want anyone to think they’re in the slow group that doesn’t get it. Some pupils develop this “math panic” in their very first school year and then it just snowballs, because mathematics is a subject where one topic builds on the last. The more you don’t understand, the harder it gets.
Our approach to structuring, teaching, and learning mathematics allows learners to move ahead at their own pace. We set out to create a positive domino effect: When kids experience success in a subject that has eluded them, they develop an appetite for more.
Kareem Farah, Modern Classrooms Project (US): Traditional instruction from the front of the room is common across classrooms globally: Kids stare at teachers and take notes, not really engaging or truly learning. It’s quite a broken system. With Modern Classrooms, students can learn at their own pace. Just as importantly, teachers can evaluate students’ progress and give targeted input.
In our classrooms, students watch instructional videos instead of listening to long lectures. They work at their own pace. Interestingly, I’ve even seen kids take formative assessments on their own to measure their understanding.
LM: The fact that it actually works. I’ve been working in EdTech for more than 15 years and have seen many things that seem potentially transformational, but in reality most of them just use some level of substitution. But we – and Modern Classrooms – provide augmented learning. With real-time data enabling teachers to make targeted decisions, we are having a meaningful impact. You can double a student’s learning every single time they sit in the classroom.
KF: The shifts we see in individual students are really cool. But the part of our program that I find most inspiring is that it has the capacity to go viral. The education system is generally quite top-down, but that’s not how our model works. I can go anywhere in the US and find a Modern Classrooms educator, and within six months, that person will tell two to three teachers in a small community about it and it will grow organically. And that accelerates other kinds of innovation. Project-based learning functions better in a Modern Classroom, you can support social-emotional health and academic skills, and you can provide tutoring more effectively within the Modern Classroom.
LM: With Modern Classrooms, you’ve managed to bring formative assessment into a structure that places fewer administrative burdens on teachers, which is brilliant because it’s those burdens that prevent people from carrying out such assessments.
LM: It’s great to visit classrooms and see kids learning and enjoying math. Since they can work at their own pace, independently in small groups or led by the teacher, they experience less pressure. As they have those “aha” moments, they’re also picking up learning methods that support them in other subjects. And the fact that they’re finding joy in learning will serve them for a lifetime.
KF: I posted on social media about the project, and a former student of mine whom I hadn’t spoken to in several years replied, “I can’t believe you’re teaching other teachers about the model you used in our class. I love that.” That comment encapsulates what matters about the model to me: Students love it, and people really get excited about others picking it up and figuring out how to use it.
CSG: I really like how both of your innovations involve teachers, too.
KF: Our intention has never been to force innovation on anyone, because not everyone is ready for it. We started offering Modern Classrooms as a free course through a teacher fellowship model. We found that when you create a structure that allows people to access the program anywhere, it tends to go viral. It’s like a basket of seeds that we scatter and then wait to see what happens.
Whenever a school or individual enrolls in our program, they are assigned a mentor, an educator who is already successfully implementing our program and is responsible for virtual coaching. That adds up to a giant network of thousands of teachers paired with hundreds of mentors. The teachers have a virtual “educator commons” where they can chat freely about how things are going and ask each other questions.
“The most passionate teachers want to go out and share what they’ve learned with other educators.”
Now there’s also a Facebook group with 10,000 teachers, which is buzzing with activity every day. Modern Classrooms is not just benefiting students; it’s become a pathway for teacher leadership.
LM: When you’re a teacher trying something challenging, it helps to know that there are others behind you championing the model and providing support. None of the practices we introduce are new to teachers – they’ve already done individualized teaching and used virtual learning and formative assessment. Putting everything together into a perfectly organized symphony of activities enables them to do it in a consistent way that produces growth and results.
KF: Exactly. It’s about systemizing these practices.
LM: And once teachers see kids engaging deeply in what they are learning – well, they can’t see themselves going back to the way they taught before. The most passionate teachers want to go out and share what they’ve learned with other educators. We have an annual learning festival where teachers come together to share experiences and talk about challenges they see in their communities.
CSG: How do these methods of individualized instruction and assessment work when schools still require standardized tests as a measure of success?
LM: Students shouldn’t be learning just to pass the exam. They should be learning what makes sense. We recommend Maths Pathway for grades four to ten because we want kids to be prepared and have the skills they need when they reach grades 11 and 12. In Australia, that’s when students are focused on the university entrance exams and, sadly, being taught to the test.
“Standardized tests are an odd means of evaluating the quality of learning in a classroom.”
KF: Standardized tests are an odd means of evaluating the quality of learning in a classroom, especially if you’re teaching kids at a broad range of learning levels. That said, our model is designed with enough flexibility to support teachers in environments that focus on goals we might disagree with. Are higher test scores a confirmation that student learning has happened? Not really. But effective learning is effective learning, and when that’s done right, of course test scores will go up.