The Classroom of the Future is Full of Creativity and Critical Thinking: A Response from the Principal of I.S. 228

Editor’s Note: On January 12, NPR Education published a story about the implementation of Teach to One: Math at I.S. 228, a middle school in Brooklyn, NY and New Classrooms’ longest standing school partner. Dominick D’Angelo, principal at I.S. 228, wrote the following response to NPR’s “Meet the Classroom of the Future“.

You may have recently been introduced to Teach to One: Math (known as School of One in New York City), New Classrooms’ personalized learning model, in an NPR story earlier this month.

As a school principal whose teachers have been implementing the model for the last five years (the longest of any partnership school in the country), we take great pride in the work we have done to implement the model and support its evolution. The article was right when it described the exciting ways that kids are learning in ways that are personalized to their unique needs and strengths.

But we were disheartened to see the model mischaracterized as a test-prep program where computers delivered instruction to disengaged students. That has not been our experience whatsoever. Here are a few details we want to clear up.

1. Algorithms make differentiated instruction possible, but teachers and students are at the heart of the learning experience in Teach to One/ School of One.

As the story noted, Teach to One’s innovative learning algorithms streamline or remove many of the administrative tasks that burden teachers and make personalized learning possible by helping teachers and school leaders coordinate a) what skills a student is ready to learn, b) what lesson is best suited to help them learn it, and c) how and where they should learn it. However, the piece implied that the majority of instruction in the model was delivered by computers. This is simply not true.

In Teach to One/ School of One, students learn in a number of ways depending on what skills and concepts they are working on that day. Students are assigned to one of seven different centers or “learning modalities.” This changes every day. Of the seven, just two involve computer-assisted instruction. The others are teacher-led. And in every learning modality, teachers play a key role in making the learning experience engaging and effective for students.

In addition to seeing multiple learning modalities in action, the NPR reporter witnessed a teacher-delivered lesson, which we call a “live investigation.” His portrayal of one of our very talented teachers, Mr. Devon Myers, misrepresented these types of lessons in general and the specific lesson Myers taught that day.

He stands silently next to a smart board and clicks a mouse. A tinny voice, a cousin of iPhone’s Siri perhaps, begins the lesson. “How do you say two-point-zero-five-three? To read this, break it into two parts,” commands the disembodied voice from a computer’s speakers.

In fact, Mr. Myers was using a video from LearnZillion as a “Do Now,” a teaching strategy used by teachers in all kinds of classrooms (not just Teach to One) to introduce a new topic. Mr. Myers’ lesson was 35 minutes long that day, but the reporter chose to discuss what happened in the first two minutes because it fit his “computers are taking over the classroom” narrative. This portrayal was disrespectful to Mr. Myers and an inaccurate reflection of teaching and learning in Teach to One/ School of One.

The fact of the matter is that our teachers’ talents are far better leveraged with Teach to One/ School of One than they were in a traditional classroom. While it’s true that the model changes the role of teachers, those changes are for the better. Our teachers spend far less time on administrative paperwork and more time collaborating with one another to shape each student’s unique experience.

2. Teach to One/ School of One was designed to accelerate and deepen learning, not to maximize standardized test scores.

Annual standardized tests are important tools, but Teach to One/ School of One is more concerned with helping students fill pre-grade level gaps in their content knowledge, deepen their understanding of concepts they engage with, enable them to accelerate their own learning, and develop an appreciation and love for mathematics. In the model, the time spent on—and the need for—test preparation is reduced dramatically. That’s because our teachers know at the end of every day whether a student has mastered a skill or concept. They don’t need to wait for the annual tests to tell them.

Teach to One recognizes that each student has different needs and abilities when they enter the classroom. Rather than pres rote learning, the Teach to One algorithms were designed to make possible the rich learning opportunities a one-size-fits-all model of education restricts.

The lessons students are scheduled each day are customized to their needs. Teaching a 6th grade skill because it will be on the annual test is futile if that student hasn’t yet learned the 4th grade skill the more advanced skill is built on.

The NPR piece noted that the sixth graders in the learning center at I.S. 228 were learning “everything from 4th grade level math to 8th grade level math.” It failed, however, to explain how that variety of content supports the critique that Teach to One/ School of One is geared to prepare students for standardized tests.

Mathematic instruction is cumulative. Students are best able to engage in deeper, authentic learning experiences involving complex mathematical reasoning once they have a firm grasp of more basic concepts. For students like those at our school, the Teach to One learning algorithms help teachers identify gaps in students’ knowledge and recommend a plan to help them catch up. The technology is in service of our ultimate goal of helping students master rigorous academic content and develop the skills that will help them thrive, not an end itself.

3. Teach to One/ School of One encourages deeper critical thinking, not rote memorization

One thing we love about Teach to One/ School of One is it that it asks students to explore complex ideas and problems through multi-day real-world applications of academic skills called “Tasks”. These opportunities ensure that students have a breadth of learning experiences that require them to demonstrate deep understanding of mathematical concepts. Each student has the same task session teacher throughout a learning period. As an example, one Task asks students to imagine themselves as owners of a catering company. They must plan for an upcoming reception where they will be responsible for creating a menu and seating plan, and arrange food on tables and serving trays to satisfy the party’s hosts. To complete the Task, they must work collaboratively with fellow students and draw from skills in their playlist.

And because teachers work with small groups of students all ready for the same skills, there are many more opportunities for debate, discussion, and dialogue. In the traditional model, teachers would work with a class of 28 students of widely varying proficiency levels for five straight periods. In those settings, it can be difficult to spark a valuable discussion when not everyone can participate. Helping students deeply engage with material is always a challenge, no matter what learning environment, but in Teach to One/ School of One those opportunities are more frequent.

I understand that the public will question whether Teach to One/ School of One is just another approach “plugging” students into computers without support and guidance. In fact, we had those concerns and also questioned the role teachers would play in this reimagined classroom. Luckily, those fears were quickly put to rest, through experience, debate, discussion and collaboration.

We know there are skeptics out there when it comes to the use of technology and education. History has given them good reason to be. But Teach to One / School of One is different. It is a completely reimagined classroom that builds computational, creative, and critical thinking skills while also giving teachers a more collaborative and joyful professional experience. Our teachers, parents, and students cannot imagine going back to the old way of doing things.

Photo by Dirk Eusterbrock

Dominick D'Angelo

Dominick D'Angelo is the principal of I.S. 228 David A. Broody Middle School in Brooklyn, NY, and a Teach to One: Math school partner.