The Future of Education
The Future of Education
Moving to Mastery Learning Class by Class, Teacher by Teacher

Moving to Mastery Learning Class by Class, Teacher by Teacher


The Modern Classrooms Project is a nonprofit dedicated to helping teachers enact personalized learning, student-centered instruction, and mastery-based assessment. They take a grassroots approach by supporting teachers with making the transition to a specific new learning model. Their theory of change is that this approach can help create a tidal wave of change through the resulting ripples and tensions. In this conversation with the co-founder and CEO Kareem Farah, we dig into just how they operate and what he sees as the most critical points of leverage in changing the system. We also dug into the results of their work--both in terms of student learning outcomes and attitudes from the teachers themselves.

As always, subscribers can listen to the conversation, watch it below, or read the transcript.

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Michael Horn:                Delighted to be with you all today to talk about what I'm passionate about, which is helping build a world in which all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their human potential. And today, we have someone in Kareem Farah, who is the co-founder and CEO of Modern Classrooms, who is seeking to do that in our nation's classrooms and with our nation's teachers. And so, Kareem, welcome to the Future of Education. Great to see you.

Farah:               Nice to see you as well. Thanks for having me.

Horn:                Yeah, you bet. So, Modern Classrooms is one of these organizations that I've long heard of and seen in the ecosystem, but we haven't gotten to connect before. For our audience that perhaps doesn't know you, just tell us what is Modern Classrooms and what's the theory of change behind what you're doing?

Farah:               Yeah, absolutely. Modern Classrooms project's a nonprofit, we were founded out of DC. And our entire vision as an organization is to support educators in actually accomplishing a lot of the buzzwords we often hear, right? Things like personalized learning, student-centered instruction, mastery-based and competency-based grading. I think for a lot of educators across the country in the world, they aspire to create classrooms that look like that, including myself, when I was teaching in DC public schools. But when you wake up in the morning and you go, I support either 30 students a day or 150 in my... If I'm at the secondary level and I need to figure out how to pull this off with all the challenges and constraints that I face within a traditional school system, what do I actually do? We built an instructional model that provides a blueprint for how educators actually do that.

                        It's a blended, self-paced mastery-based approach where essentially educators eliminate live lectures with digital resources and instructional videos that they create or leverage from external resources, letting students work at their own pace within a unit of study or a short burst. And then finally getting to mastery-based grading where students don't move forward based on day of the week, but actual understanding of content. So, we created the instructional model, we saw a ton of success with it. And now, the organization's vision is to very simply empower as many educators as possible across the country and the world with our instructional approach.

Horn:                So, it sounds awesome. Before we go with the plan of questions that I wanted to ask, I thought actually maybe it makes sense for you to quickly define those buzzwords in a bit of a lightning round, if you will. Let's start with... You said, personalizing learning. What does that mean from your perspective?

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Farah:               Yeah. I think personalized learning is really the idea that you use data to drive instruction to support students with their unique needs, and that's the academic side of personalized instruction. And then there's the social emotional side, which is that you as a human being and as an educator are available to understand how students are feeling, and then support their unique needs and\or leverage external resources outside of your classroom to support their needs. I think in very simple ways... When you teach traditionally, it's very hard to look at each student who walks into your classroom and feel like you understand them both academically and socially emotionally, because that doesn't fit with traditional approaches of instruction that sort of use the classroom as the primary venue. And personalizing instruction means digging in really quickly in a detailed way to each student's unique needs and then leveraging that to actually define their supports.

Horn:                Perfect. Now, let's do the mastery-based one. That was the next buzz phrase I think that you said. So, what does that mean?

Farah:               Mastery-based grading is one of those where the buzzword is actually quite clear in what it is intended to say, I think, what's much less clear is how you do it. To me, mastery-based grading just simply means students are assessed based on what they actually understand, and they move forward based on what they actually understand and not day of the week or after.

Horn:                Perfect. One other question on that. Why do you call it mastery-based grading instead of say, mastery-based learning or competency-based learning or some of these other phrases for it?

Farah:               Yeah, that's a fascinating... In fact, I probably misspoke a little bit. We call it mastery-based assessment at this point, and we've iterated on that a number of times. For us, what really matters is this idea of, hey, the grading practices in your classroom are centered around this idea that you are assessing whether a student has demonstrated full understanding or mastery of a particular skill. I think we've floated around a lot of different ideas around this and even played around with changing it. To us, we see mastery-based assessment and competency-based assessment as equivalent. And I think we switched to assessment because the word grading is so loaded and so complicated. And I actually think it can be a lot simpler in some ways or at least moving teacher practice can be a lot simpler. And we've really overcomplicated it for most folks, which makes people freeze. As soon as you were say the word grading, you get panic in rooms. So, I think it's more about the assessment than the grading practices in some ways.

Horn:                Super helpful. Let's do the last one you mentioned, which was student-centered. There's all sorts of notions of what that does or doesn't look like. What does it mean to you?

Farah:               Yeah. When I think about student-centered, I think about this fundamental idea that when you walk into the classroom, students are doing most of the learning. And I think what that looks like and feels like can be on a very broad range. So, I think it's actually one of the toughest ones to define. But I think ultimately, what it fundamentally means is that students have greater agency over the learning experience. Doesn't mean they're determining what they're learning, I think that's another one of those very hotly debated topics that we tend to stay away from, but it means they're in the driver's seat of the learning experience. And the educator's job is to support them as they're driving that experience and then intervening when they're struggling with particular skills or with the 21st century skills of leveraging time effectively.

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Horn:                Super helpful to delineate what we're talking about here and perhaps what we're not talking about. So, thank you for going there. Let's talk about your founding story behind the Modern Classrooms Project and the moment you said this needs to exist and your personal passion for this, coupled with how the organization came together.

Farah:               Yeah, absolutely. So, first thing I'll say to anyone listening, I never intended to find an organization. I tell folks all the time, my co-founder and I were sitting at a Qdoba just hanging out in probably 2015, and he asked me what I was going to do for the rest of my life and I said, I was going to be a teacher. I asked him, he said, teacher, and then a few years later we were Modern Classrooms' co-founders. So, this was never the intention. We were classroom teachers. We founded this organization literally in the classroom. I was teaching in DC public schools. I was in my year four in the classroom, and it was that pivotal burnout year for me. I'm leveraging a traditional one size fits all lecture approach to high school math instruction. I have a huge diversity learning levels in my room as well as social emotional needs, massive chronic absenteeism and huge amounts of trauma.

                        I'm teaching every day. If you have watched the movie The Truman Show, I often describe teaching traditionally as being in the Truman Show, which is this bizarre world where you're delivering a product that so fundamentally misses the mark, but everyone's doing it. And then when you go to everyone who's doing it, you go, hey, is this missing the mark? Everyone's like, definitely. But then when you say, hey, do you have another plan or pathway? And they're like, absolutely not. This is what teaching and learning looks like. And that was just too uncomfortable for me. I know we're currently in a teacher burnout crisis, and one of the things I often say is teacher burnout to me is driven by the fact that most educators don't feel like they are accomplishing what they intended to do in the classroom. They don't feel successful every day, so then they ask themselves why they're staying in their profession.

                        And that was certainly how I was feeling in year four. Waking every morning, and I'm more concerned about compliance, and I'm more concerned about control than I am about my student's needs. When a student walks into my classroom and is dysregulated and struggling, I'm more concerned about what that student's going to do to disrupt the larger learning environment than I am about their actual pain and struggle and needs. And it was at that stage that I said, look, either I quit, or I redesign what I'm doing in my classroom. And I went the redesign route. And again, no intention of creating a model, right? Phase one was lectures are a really poor use of my time. Students who are absent, aren't seeing them. Students who are late, are missing them. And the students that are there, for the vast majority, it's not working because I'm teaching in the middle and I have a huge diversity learning level. So, how do I get rid of them?

                        I tried things like external videos and realized, my students want to hear my voice. I have a particular curriculum to teach, and I can actually build really bite-size instructional videos that align to the research that work. So, I built instructional videos. From there, I was like, wait a minute, why are kids all on lesson three today if they can access the content any time? So I said, cool, why don't I start self-pacing? But within each unit of study, because I have a curriculum and I have an end of course assessment and I want to hold students to high standards and also want to teach the content that's grade level. And then I launched this self-pacing and bursts, one or two weeks at a time, gave them little game boards and checklists. And then finally I said, well, now that they're self-paced, now mastery-based grading is super easy, or mastery-based assessment is super easy because all I need to do is figure out what assessment allows me to measure whether the student understands the skill and allows the student to demonstrate that skill.

                        And then when they get it right, they go to the next lesson. And when they get it wrong, then I do a reteach and give them a reassessment. And then it was a model. At that point, it worked really well in DC public schools, we got some awards for the model. And then we said, let's found an organization and start training teachers on it. And we found the non-profit back in 2018. And then today, we have a lot of different ways folks can learn the model, but have trained over 50,000 teachers in our free course and 7,000 teachers through our mentorship program. So, it's starting to reach a lot of educators.

Horn:                That's awesome. So, it sounds like you have a very clear instructional model to do this. How does the work itself come about? What does it look like?

Farah:               Yeah. There's a couple sides to it. So, there's a training experience and there's the actual experience of implementation. So, I'll start with the training experience because I think that's the kind of the first and most important part of digesting how this works. The first thing to know about our work is we're [inaudible 00:09:51] only, which is actually really interesting, and I think one of the more disruptive ways to think about change. I always say the diversity of learning levels in the classroom is honestly not that different than the diversity of learning levels of teachers, right? So, if you're going to throw something pretty innovative and different at a group of teachers and you're going to go, all you are doing this starting September. Well, good luck. I don't want to be in that room and I don't want to be a part of the change management journey that happens as a result.

                        So what we say is, look, anybody who wants to do this should be able to do this. So, we go to local communities with philanthropy, we go to schools and districts who partner with us directly and we offer our virtual mentorship program to these educators at scale. They raise their hand and say, I want to be a part of it. We say, great. At that point, they get paired with people we call mentors. They're teacher leaders, they're the people we've credentialed who are in classrooms today doing our model beautifully. And they travel through a virtual mentorship program, which means repairing the educators who want to do this program with educators who do it beautifully already. And in the virtual space, they design their Modern Classroom, they build real resources to leverage in their classroom, and it's reviewed by their mentors in a competency-based framework.

                        Once you've built the skills to execute a Modern Classroom, now it's the implementation time. And that's a journey. Right? Some educators right after they learn this, launch their unit and go. Some educators do bits and pieces of it. And it really is part of a movement and a community of educators who are trying to explore the different ways to run the classroom. I think the biggest push that folks experience and the biggest challenge comes down to how do you use your time effectively when suddenly you've unleashed time. Right? I think teachers are so used to having almost no time in the classroom that when you give it to them, they're like, wait a minute, what do I do with this and how do I leverage it effectively? And what is controlled chaos versus complete chaos? So, that's how we do the work and then we provide really structured supports to districts who are really trying to go deep with our work. But did that answer your question, Michael?

Horn:                Yeah, super helpful. I'm curious, is every teacher then, to your insight, that your students actually wanted to hear from you, not some disembodied voice or program? Is every teacher creating sets of videos then to do this work? Do you host it? Or is it maybe a little bit more à la carte, they might create some videos and pick others from what the wealth of things that's out there? How does that work?

Farah:               So, the first thing is we don't host anything. We don't even have a product. So, it's actually quite interesting that we're one of the only organizations I know that are just like, we have a different model of teaching that is curriculum, grade level, content area and tech tool agnostic, which was one of our goals as an organization. We were like, there's plenty of tech out there. The tools are doing all the things they need to do. There's plenty of curriculum, it's the approach to instruction, it's the instructional delivery model that's missing at the moment. So we need to dig deep into that. So at its core, most educators will build instructional videos for most lessons. But one of the things we make clear is A: that shouldn't be an impediment to implementing the model. So, plenty of educators take a little bit of that à la carte approach. They'll build some instructional videos, some lessons don't even require instructional videos, and then they'll outsource some.

                        I think what we've found is critical, is that if the teacher is not part of the content creation experience, the students start to feel like their educator isn't the expert in the room, and it actually has a deeply negative impact on relationship building. In addition to that, I think you start to see that teachers feel disconnected from the learning experience when they're outsourcing themselves continuously. So, we think it's important for students to hear their teacher's voice and see their teacher's face on the screen, but it doesn't need to be every single lesson and it doesn't need to be the only way that students access direct instruction or new information.

Horn:                That is super helpful. And I imagine there's times where the teacher super comfortable with their content, but certain student maybe is struggling with a misunderstanding from a grade level years before, and it'd be better for them to pull someone else rather than them try to do the research and figure out how do I do adolescent literacy building or whatever it might be. So, that makes sense. Love some examples of real schools and classrooms where you've transformed them in this way. Just to give us a sense, you talked about DC public schools, obviously.

                        And talk to the student outcomes that you've seen. Do you try to measure these and understand the lift in how students are doing?

Farah:               Totally. So, what's really fascinating about our work, and this was my favorite stat that came out the other day, there are over 1,400 schools across the world that have a Modern Classroom trained teacher in it, that speaks to the virality that we have. So, I could speak to teachers in Zambia, in Australia, in Mexico, in the Middle East, all across the country. So in that way, it is truly a model that lives beyond the organization and there is a viral nature to it. So, when I go to our free course every single day, about 40 to 50 new teachers join our free course completely organically every single day. So in that way, we've touched a lot of classrooms and we touched a lot of communities. Our biggest partners include the state of Indiana, where we've trained nearly 1,500 teachers, districts like Jefferson County Public Schools and Wichita Public Schools and Tulsa public schools as well as individual schools that partner with us as well and do some really deep transformational work.

                        We have a school down in Texas, the Gaming Design Development school, that has a full implementation of our model. So, even though we're an opt-in approach, in that case, they got buy-in from every single educator to implement our approach. When we think about student outcomes, there's two parts of it. The first is because we're opt-in only, it's pretty hard to run randomized control trials on student outcomes. So, we measure the impact on the student experience in two ways. One, survey data on what they're experiencing versus control educators. What we found consistently is Modern Classroom students, and this was done in a Johns Hopkins study, Modern Classroom students, generally speaking, feel more connected to their educator, feel like their educator understands their strengths and weaknesses more clearly and they feel like they have stronger relationships with their teachers. So, it speaks this idea that in a Modern Classroom, students actually feel like they belong better and they feel supported better.

                        In addition to that, we have some really interesting case studies, like that school in Texas as well as a district up in Michigan that have both seen sizable gains in test scores. And the Texas school, we saw sizable gains in the end of year star assessment in Texas. And then up in Michigan, we saw sizable gains in their benchmark math assessments. So, in those cases, you see big academic gains. And then individual teachers present about this all the time, right? Their previous test scores grew drastically. And just one small point on this is I would actually say we have even more data on changes for teachers. So, you have massive shifts in teachers' competencies, like their capacity to do the things we want them to do in classrooms. But I think the most interesting is that the average educator who opts into our program has 14 years of experience in the classroom, and 86% say they enjoy teaching more. Right? So, it's those kinds of data points that I think are most compelling about our model is experienced educators finding a pathway to success. I know I went a little-

Horn:                No, that's super helpful because I suspect it blows up a lot of stereotypes people have that these sorts of approaches are for younger teachers or something like that. But you're saying 14 years of experience, that's a good deal of time in the classroom, even outweighs what I remember from years ago where the typical, I want to say, online learning teacher was eight years of experience before they get in there. These are even more senior teachers with a lot of years under their experience.

                        I want to stay on one of the elements that you talked about at the beginning, which was mastery-based assessment, and why do you see that as such an important lever in all of this work. I know from reading your writing and some of the things that you've talked about, not just in this conversation, but that you see that as a really important piece of the puzzle to moving this along. Why is that such an important lever in your mind? And maybe not just in math education because I think sometimes people are like, oh, I get it why it's in math, but these other subjects, I don't know. Is it the same?

Farah:               Yeah. I think there's almost a fundamental academic component to mastery-based assessment that is almost obvious why it's important. And then there's a larger question about the damage we do to this idea of learning in general with students when you don't hold them to that bar. So, I think from an obvious standpoint, it's like, how do I actually support students in a data-driven way and accomplish my goals and educator of having them learn a set of skills over a year when I'm not assessing for mastery. Right? When I'm just providing completion grades and effort grades and partial credit, it's completely meaningless, it's just a world of chaos. A four out of 10 on an assignment or an assessment tells me and the student and the families absolutely nothing about performance, and it also encourages a culture in which we don't actually generate high quality student learning and then don't know what to do about it.

                        So, it's no surprise that when I'm teaching algebra two as a high school teacher in DC public schools at the time, my students had a 1% proficiency rate in Algebra one that year, and you asked the question, how did we get there? But then we have big graduation rates. So, we've created a world where we're not actually teaching students skills and then hoping that they understand them, we're just presenting a bunch of information, whatever sticks, sticks, and then we keep it moving. And that is not healthy and it's not good, and it makes it impossible to be an effective educator.

                        I think there's an even bigger point to that though, which is what happens societally when you start to send the message that actually understanding something doesn't matter. And that was to me, the most alarming part about being a high school educator because I was graduating these kids, many of these kids were going to walk across the stage, and then we were going to let them go to college or into the workforce with an operating assumption that as long as I try, I'll succeed, and it doesn't actually matter if I can do any of these things effectively. And what I think we all know as adults is that's not how the real world treats you.

                        And this idea that you create an environment for students where they don't actually believe mastery matters, competency matters, and then we send them free is a really great way to blindside entire communities. And I think that's why you see really, really tough graduation rates in college, right? Because we're sending students to colleges and then you see 40-50% graduation rates at universities, and you go, why did that happen? That happened because we coddled students into thinking effort was plenty.

                        So, I think that's probably the biggest passion of mine is really instilling this understanding that competency in math stream matter. And if we're not holding students to that, we're holding them to low expectations. And I think the variable to play around with there is not whether not a student can master a skill, the variable we play with is are we requiring too many skills. Right? What matters more is that a student looks at themselves in the mirror and says, I can learn new things and I can achieve maximum understanding, not, hey, I did a bunch of work, I feel all right about it and I got a C+ in my class. Right? That doesn't mean anything.

Horn:                Yeah. No. There's a lot of points there that I think are incredibly important. The other thing that strikes me from your statement is that frankly, they also might get the message that effort doesn't all matter that much as long as they show up and get by, they can succeed. And then to your point, that doesn't cut it once they get into college and the workforce. I want to stay on this point of mastery just for a moment because as we start to wrap up our conversation, I'm curious how you... You're working at the unit level of teachers in classrooms, some people obviously approach this work from schools, others approach it from the system on down, and I'm curious how you think about innovating within a structure that bounds, if you will, some of what's possible. And so, say, you're a fifth grade teacher, you move to mastery-based assessment, but then there's all these competing elements. You mentioned, right? At the end of the fifth grade year, they take the fifth grade test that has fifth grade elements.

                        So yes, maybe we've aligned to what's now thought of as accelerated learning, where they're doing on-grade level stuff and we're patching the holes the best we can, but at the end of the day, they may be taking something system-wide that's not mastery-based. And then the other piece of it is they in next to say sixth grade math, they haven't mastered all of the standards or things that you thought were important in fifth grade math because that happens if time is now the variable and learning is fixed, and yet, they go maybe into a classroom where they haven't adopted that philosophy. And so, all of a sudden, they're in the sit and get bunch of things that are not where they are and not focused on mastery. It feels like, and the other thing I would say is almost like the grading piece feels like easier to deal with in some ways than those system level issues. So, I'm just curious how you think about that friction. Or maybe you think that's not as much of a barrier is as it sounds like?

Farah:               I think there's a few parts to it. I think the first thing is we underestimate how much freedom educators ultimately have within the four walls of their classroom. And I think that's really hard to say to a group of educators without contextualizing what I just said. Because in some ways, being an educator, you're filled with constraints and requirements, and oftentimes, it's way beyond your capacity. So, when I say that, I don't mean they're not overstimulated and have too many things to do, they absolutely have way too many things to do and they're underpaid and there's like a lot of constraints that are challenging. But what is true is they walk into this room usually with four walls, they are teaching for 180 days or 181 days a year, they're given a curriculum, they're observed every now and then, they're given a great book that is honestly just a glorified spreadsheet, and they're told to go.

                        Now, I will tell anyone that that feels a little bit like an unconquerable task in the first place because you have these incredibly diverse minds with all these unique needs and you have this textbook that you have to teach and a test is super hard to pull off, but there are a lot of flexible constraints within that framework. Now, are they so flexible that it's extremely easy to launch a beautiful system that I would imagine to be perfect? Absolutely not. I think in many ways, there are clear constraints that are designed at their system's level that don't support mastery-based grading and don't support the type of learning environments that we cultivate. But what I often say is our model is evolutionary, not revolutionary. And I think a mistake we've made in K-12 education is thinking, hey, let's get a bunch of leaders to buy into a type of change.

                        And then once they change it, everything will follow suit. And it's this trickle down model of change that doesn't work because the most important advocates in our K-12 education system are the teachers when we think about creating a scale change. So, to me, what we need to do first is equip educators to change what goes on in the four walls of their classroom. And then that actually creates the test case, the example, what is needed to observe to then inform some of the bigger systematic changes that need to happen. What I'll also say is I think a lot of leaders are trying to create changes in a systematic way that they would've never been able to do in their own classrooms. Because when they were teachers 20 years ago, they didn't have the technology, they didn't have the buzzwords, they didn't have the resources.

                        So they're going, I want to create student-centered learning. I want to create personalized learning, but they didn't do it when they were educators and they don't know what it looks like. So, you actually need to give the freedom to the educators first to play around within the constraints. Let them innovate, let them execute, and then use what they create as a test case to then create bigger innovations that are systematic. Like, hey, why do we stop grade books after a quarter? Hey, why do we use number grading systems and percentage grade systems anyways? Right? But that's not a limitation to changing a lot about what's going on in classrooms right now. So, I think that's critical. You asked the second question, or part of your question was about this idea of I'm a student, I'm a fifth grade student, and then I go into my sixth grade class.

                        What I tell folks about that is I love how disruptive that is. To me, that is true disruptive innovation because first of all, what happens is that student goes into their next class and frequently will go to the teacher and say, how come you don't teach in this different way? Which, no better way to convince a teacher who's not bought in to change than to hear their student go, hey, in my fifth grade class, this thing works. Can you go figure out what was going on in there because this isn't working for me?

                        And then on the student side, students need to become adaptable. You need to be ready for this because what's true is that the least innovative learning models, in my opinion, are at the university level. Right? So, you're going to sit through two hour lectures when you go to college, you may only do that for 15 hours a week, and then you have a bunch of free time to learn and leverage the skills you learn in a Modern Classroom. But you are going to be sitting through lectures, so be ready to handle those environments and be able to adapt. So, I actually see it as quite a powerful way to think about how change can happen and the purpose of bottom up disruptive innovation.

Horn:                Love it. Love it. So, let's wrap with this last question. I've just invited you to say why... It's okay that they're running into the frictions of the system, and that's actually how to change it over time. But let's just pretend you get to be the wizard of education for a day, you get to change one barrier in the system-wide thing and everyone will magically get along your point not withstanding that the best way to get them to be you excited is grassroots, what's the one thing you would decide to change?

Farah:               I really wish that educators had greater autonomy over their professional development. I wish they had dollars behind it and I wish there was a culture in education where every summer educators had both the financing and the drive and time, because I think that's a key constraint, to engage in professional development that works for them. Because I think, right now, while we're a bottom-up movement, we're a movement where we're sharing teacher to teacher a lot of resources ultimately to get our full paid experience, it costs money, and teachers are underpaid. And if there was a world where educators had a really sizable amount of dollars to spend on their own professional learning and were also equipped with the capacity to choose that and the time to invest in it, I think you'd see a lot more innovative models that we could all be drawing on.

                        And it wouldn't just be the Modern Classrooms' approach as one instructional delivery model, teachers would be creating them everywhere because it was creating in our classrooms just because we were trying something different. Well, that said, the most incredible innovation in K-12 education happens in the classroom level, and it usually happens when educators are given the time and the freedom to innovate and the professional development they deserve.

Horn:                Awesome.

                        Kareem, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much for the work that you are helping spur in classrooms, not just across America as I've learned, but across the world.

Farah:               Awesome. Thank you, Michael. Thanks for having me.

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