Eric Westendorf
Eric Westendorf is the co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.
Jan 3

The Future of Curriculum: An interview with Joel Rose

Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf; Founder and CEO of New Classrooms Joel Rose

This is the third installment in a series of interviews we’re calling The Future of Curriculum. LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf is sitting down with education thought leaders from across the country to discuss how technology will continue to shape education.

In this episode, he chats with Joel Rose, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of New Classrooms, which imagines a world where personalized learning is just the way students learn — a world where all students attend a school that meets them where they are, adapts to the unique ways they learn, and develops habits for lifelong success. Joel began his career in education as a 5th-grade teacher in Houston in 1992 and has since served in a variety of leadership roles in education, including as Chief Executive for Human Capital at the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), where he led the creation of School of One.

A selection of Joel Rose’s insights on the future of personalized learning are excerpted below:

The job of the teacher today is nearly impossible

I mean, when I taught, I taught 5th grade, and there were kids in my class at a 2nd grade level and kids in my class at an 8th grade level, and I was given a 5th grade text book and told, “good luck.” So just providing content or just providing tools doesn’t necessarily solve that problem.

We’ve got to find ways to make the job of the teacher more sustainable, and that’s been a core part of the design tenets of what we’ve put together.

Varying modalities

One of the things we’ve learned is that if [teachers] go in one day, and the schedule says that they’re going to support kids working online, that’s not a particularly satisfying experience.

At the same time, if they go in every day, and their schedule says that they’re going to have live instruction for every period of the day, that’s a pretty high burden as well. So [at New Classrooms], we’ve learned that and have tried to solve for that.

[In our model], sixty percent of the time, teachers are supporting live instruction. The rest [is spent on] some other types of modalities, whether it be collaborative, or independent, and that seems to be the sweet spot for matching what’s best for students with what keeps teachers engaged.

Relationship-building between teachers and students is key

We’ve learned that the relationships that teachers build with kids are so critical to the learning process, so if teachers aren’t fully motivated, fully engaged, and fully connected to their work, they’re not going to be as effective in the classroom and that’s going to show up in the experience that kids have as well. So solving for the teacher role is critical when you’re designing new [classroom] models.

The current state of personalized learning

I’m seeing more districts and boards that are including personalized learning in their strategic plans. We’re seeing more funders that are interested in personalized learning. We’re seeing more schools that are coming to us trying to understand what personalized learning is all about. So that’s all good.

What I find sort of interesting at this phase is there’s this belief that, well, we sort of talk about personalized learning and then we train the teachers to do personalized learning and then they just do personalized learning.

Schools and teachers don’t have the design capacity to actually create that so I think some schools realize that sooner rather than later and try to fix how they supplement their design capacity or partner with an organization that has designed something they can work with. But there are others that are creating solutions that are certainly better than textbooks. [There are] phenomenal examples of teachers who have taken the tools you’ve created and create a much better experience for kids, but there are limits to how much an individual teacher can actually design that experience.

How New Classrooms models personalized learning

We’re continually grouping and regrouping students based on their common needs. So if you’re a teacher, the schedule might say “Teach 18 kids how to factor trinomials today at 10”. You know that those 18 students have all mastered all of the precursor skills to learn that skill and none of them already know it. Because we’ve done that matching behind the scenes, we’ve changed the context that that experience is going to happen in and have given the kids a much better chance of being successful than they would in a traditional model, where the teacher might teach to the middle and only hit 30 or 40 percent of the students in the classroom.

So even though you might walk in and it might look like a traditional classroom, what happened the night before to change that experience is a game-changer for many kids and many teachers.

When kids learn skills and concepts through different modalities, it actually deepens their conceptual understanding.

You learn something from a textbook, you might get the answer right on the end-of-chapter quiz but you can’t necessarily apply it when you’re exposed to that skill in a totally different context. But when you’ve got to learn in a book, learn with a video, collaborate with your colleagues, work on it by yourself, work on a multi-day project involving it, that’s when it’s really going to deepen understanding.

We’re trying to tailor the experience to each student, but this doesn’t mean that it’s kid-on-machine. And that I think is one of the challenges we have as personalized learning grows. It’s the impression that people have. But those that experience it and see it and realize that it’s anything but. 

This model better leverages teacher talents

They [teachers] can begin to diagnose misconceptions, and they can begin to sort of foresee where kids might get stuck. And because they get data every day on how kids do on their exit slip, they can then refine their lesson the next day they give that lesson based on the previous time they gave it.

So you might give that same factoring trinomials lesson six times over the course of five or six months and get better and better at it every time based on the data that you as a teacher get.

The other thing it does — not only are we constantly regrouping students, but instead of being the 6th grade math teacher or the 7th grade math teacher, you’re a math teacher. You’re in a space with all of the other math teachers from the school, so you’re actually team-teaching with your colleagues in a way that many teachers find much more fulfilling and rewarding than a traditional model, where the job is so isolating.

Really being in it with your colleagues and teaching as a team is a much better experience [for teachers] and models for kids what a 21st century workplace really looks like.

Designing models that give students ownership over their learning

So now, teachers in some ways are partnering with students. [They’re] both on the same team, in ways that when the student says, “I really want to learn this. I want to pass my exit slip today, can you please help me understand what I’m not getting right?,” that creates a whole other level of relationship between the student and the teacher which sometimes is hard to do when you have one teacher and 30 kids and you have to get through the lesson each day.

The future of curriculum

[New Classrooms] certainly views the future of curriculum as models. Models that integrate academics, operations, and technologies that are multi-modal, that are adaptive, and that have the delivery component as a core element to them.

The future of personalized learning

The world that we would hope to see is a world where school districts, instead of buying textbooks, buy models or buy model providers. So if you’re the head of math for a 20-middle-school district, you say: I’m going to do an RFP, I’m going to pick three or four different model providers — organizations that have created something totally different and that meet criteria that I’ve set forth — and I’m going to let my schools, in conjunction with the providers, figure out which model is the best fit for each school. And I’m going to manage that as a portfolio and hold them accountable for the outcomes. It would be my job at the district office to make sure they’re positioned for success, to understand what the barriers are that might be in the way of their success. But ultimately I want to manage those providers toward outcomes that I want to see as a district leader.

It just can’t be true that live teacher-led instruction for every kid, every hour of the day, by any teacher, is the best way to do anything.

There have to be ways of integrating multiple modalities to support personalized learning across every subject that’s out there. And that may not mean that there’s a daily exit slip in literature, but that’s what the design process is about. So what we hope to see over time are organizations that really take this design part seriously and begin to ask questions like: given all that we know now about how kids learning writing best, or how kids learn English best, or science, and all of the tools and resources that we have in this day and time, how do we completely reimagine the science classroom or the reading classroom to completely support the needs of each and every student?

Eric Westendorf is the CEO and Co-Founder at LearnZillion.

Curriculum Future of Curriculum