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Modern Classrooms Project Envisions Classrooms of the Future

A Washington, D.C., nonprofit is promoting a new approach to K-12 that replaces the old “factory model,” one-size-fits-all schooling with prerecorded lectures, small-group lessons and mastery-based testing.

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Modern Classrooms Project Facebook page
A nonprofit organization based out of the nation’s capital is taking the traditional format of education and throwing it by the wayside to focus on teaching students at their own pace. The Modern Classrooms Project wants to focus on personalized learning for K-12 students to keep an eye on mastery of a subject rather than time-based learning.

The nonprofit’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Kareem Farah began his career as an educator, first in Hawaii and then in public schools in Washington, D.C., and it didn’t take long before he came to the realization that traditional forms of teaching — live lectures and fixed pacing — failed to meet students’ needs. It built a mountain of stress on his shoulders.

“It didn’t allow me to do what I wanted to do,” Farah, who worked as an educator to support students with diverse academic and social-emotional needs, told Government Technology. “Which was ultimately to work with students in a one-on-one and small-group setting to move them across a continuum of mastery and also support their social-emotional health as it was appropriate.”

Farah’s hope was to think differently about teaching and learning. He saw how many companies were creating technology and other innovations to change instruction that were either available at schools that weren’t nearby, or required the adoption of a tool or platform district-wide. So Farah said he and fellow Modern Classrooms co-founder Robert Barnett committed themselves to creating a better way to teach than a traditional grading system of A through F, within a learning management system, paced by the same calendar and standardized testing for everyone.

Farah said the concept of Modern Classrooms was being implemented as far back as 2015, but the organization was officially founded in 2018.

“We knew that traditional approaches weren’t working, that traditional approaches treat every kid as a one-size-fits-all like you all operate and learn the same way,” he said. “We knew that we had to build a model that was responsive to kids’ needs. … I think there is no doubt this is the direction teaching and learning is headed.”

The Modern Classrooms Project trains educators to help students through a three-tiered learning approach. The first part of the program prepares teachers for blended instruction, training them to build their own instructional videos and then do face-to-face work with students one-on-one or in small groups. Unlike most blended or technology-driven learning programs, Farah said, Modern Classrooms teaches educators to build their own instructional videos to replace live lectures. The second component is training teachers how to run self-paced classrooms. Farah said that within bursts of time — it could be one week, three weeks, or one full unit — students work at their own pace, tackling each lesson. They don’t progress through to the next lesson until they’ve learned the requisite skill, ensuring educators are teaching students something that is appropriately challenging and digestible to them. The final aspect of the model is mastery-based grading, which is how students show their proficiency in a subject matter. Farah said this phase is synonymous with competency- or proficiency-based grading, in which the assessment determines whether the student moves on.

The organization’s website says it’s leading “a movement of educators” who will use technology to better effect and create classrooms where all students can learn. The program provides a free online course with a full introduction to the organization’s model; a Virtual Mentorship Program, which allows users to build their own “Modern Classrooms” with the support of an expert mentor; and school and district partnerships, which provide transformational support for school communities. The website says to date, about 38,000 educators from more than 140 countries have tried the free service. Farah said that another 3,500 educators from around 100 school districts are going through the virtual mentorship program, which is the organization’s paid service. He said the organization has 180 expert mentors coaching educators on putting together their own Modern Classrooms curricula.

Farah pointed to controlled studies and other impact studies conducted by Modern Classrooms that found its teachers feel more capable of meeting students’ needs, helping students to catch up when they are behind, using data to drive their instruction and building effective relationships with students. The studies show that students feel more comfortable in the classroom and have stronger relationships with their teachers, which is the core of what the organization does, he said.

Farah also said the studies revealed that teachers are more likely to stay in the classroom and are more “optimistic about the future of education when using our model,” potentially preventing some teachers from burning out. Farah said Modern Classrooms isn’t about creating new technologies to improve the education process, but using what exists to make teachers more effective.

“There’s plenty of ed-tech tools out there. The real problem is that folks struggle to implement them effectively. So we are the implementation support, centered around a particular instruction approach,” Farah said, adding that in building this model, they have not seen any clear competitors that provide the same professional development and implementation training. “We are really about training teachers to implement it effectively through a very clear blended, self-paced, mastery approach.”
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.