Q&A: A Conversation on New Learning Models and the Future of Education

New Classrooms CEO and Co-Founder Joel Rose recently joined The Business of Giving show for a wide-ranging conversation about the organization’s history and origins and how Teach to One: Math works. Here are a few of our favorite scenes from the interview. Check out the episode page here or listen to the whole thing below:

Optimizing Operations

When you’re really thinking about the classroom experience, there are certain elements around learning progressions and skill maps and content and assessment—all the things that you’d expect to see in any classroom. But to really make this work, you also have to think about things like: Where do kids put their backpacks? What if there’s a substitute teacher one day? How does grading work? How does homework work? Because you can’t just put the burden of all those logistics on the individual teacher to figure out for themselves. So, when we thought about the design of Teach to One, it’s not only the academic component, but it’s all those logistic components that really make the difference between a good program and a great program.

The ‘Sweet Spot’ of Middle School

What the national data shows is only about a third of kids are leaving elementary school ready for middle school math, and less than a third actually leaving middle school ready for high school math. You’ve got kids coming in to middle school with these gaps– They don’t know how to multiply or do fractions– that are really getting in the way of being successful. And if they leave eighth grade without the predecessor skills to be successful for algebra, their chances of catching up are very, very low. So, what we thought is: if we could come up with a solution that could really accelerate all kids, particularly those who come in behind and get them ready for algebra, that would be where we wanted to focus our efforts.

A Day in the Life: A Student’s Perspective

You’re a seventh grader; you go to one of the partners schools we work with, and you have reading first period in room 206 and you have PE second period in the gym. Third period, you have math. Instead of walking to room 105, you walk into what’s typically a large open space with lots of different stations. In some stations, kids work with teachers. In some stations, kids work with software. In some stations, kids work with one another on different kinds of projects. When you walk in, you look up and you see a big TV monitor that looks like what you might see at the airport, and you see your name, and you see which of those stations you’re supposed to go to.

You might spend the first 30 minutes working with Mr. Smith in linear equations at one station. And the next 30 minutes working online at linear equations at another station. The last 10 minutes, you take an online assessment on linear equations, and then you’re off to social studies. That’s your whole student experience. 

What we then do is: we take the data from that online assessment and create a new schedule for you for tomorrow based on how you did today.

Go Deeper: Watch our Student’s Day in the Life Video: 

The Tension Between Grade-Level Standards and Personalized Learning

The way school is organized is when you’re in sixth grade, you learn sixth-grade stuff, and then take a sixth-grade test. Then you go to seventh grade and learn seventh-grade stuff, and take a seventh-grade test, and so on and so forth. When a kid walks in to seventh grade on a fifth-grade level, it may not be the best thing just to give that kid seventh-grade material. You have to go back and properly fill those gaps in service of getting that student ready for high school and ultimately ready for college. The tension comes in when the teacher says, “Look, in our school, my evaluation is tied to the seventh-grade test. So, we really need to focus on the seventh-grade material,” when what’s actually best for some kids is a mix of both grade level, pre-grade, and in some cases, post-grade content to really enable them to accelerate.

Leveraging R&D & AI

Our core funders have basically said to us, “We want you to play the long game. Don’t worry about scale so much, but let’s use the data you get every day to really crack this code.” And that’s really been our focus. So, today, every student schedule is based on their own history and a bunch of different business rules or academic rules we would say in our organization. But ultimately every student schedule won’t just be based on their own history. It will be based on the thousands of kids who’ve been in this exact situation. And how do we use all of that intelligence, even leveraging things like machine learning to make sure that every student is positioned for success every single day?

We’re just starting to begin to ask these questions. How do we use the data we gather every day to really recognize the patterns to truly understand this student, in this situation? What does the data help to tell us about what would be most effective for each student? Some of that analysis we can do on our own, but some of it requires machine learning to help us to recognize what those patterns actually are.

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