How to Facilitate Student-Centered Instruction: One Nonprofit Leader Shares Lessons

Frederick M. Hess
7 min readFeb 6, 2024

Rigorous, differentiated, student-centered classrooms. For many educators, that’s the ideal. The trick is actually creating such classrooms, much less doing the work well. And that challenge has never been starker, given an educational landscape marked by post-pandemic learning loss, chronic absenteeism, and massive student disengagement. That’s what makes the work of Kareem Farah, the CEO of the Modern Classrooms Project, so interesting and timely. After winning the D.C. Public Schools Award for Classroom Innovation in 2018 (for his use of blended-learning environments), Farah co-founded the nonprofit Modern Classrooms. Over the past six years, the organization has trained over 65,000 teachers in over 150 countries. I recently talked with Farah about their work, the challenges, and the lessons learned. Here’s what he had to say.

— Rick

Rick: What exactly is the Modern Classrooms Project?

Kareem: The Modern Classrooms Project, a nonprofit, is leading a movement of educators to build classrooms that are differentiated and student-centered. Most classrooms today still follow an antiquated, one-size-fits-all model of teaching that fails students and burns out teachers. We train teachers on a new method of teaching, shifting from lecture-based instruction to blended, self-paced, mastery-based instruction. The model restructures class time, putting students in the driver’s seat while educators focus on one-on-one and small-group instruction. The goal is to help educators engage students with different learning levels, minimize distractions, and encourage mastery, ultimately improving student outcomes. The model helps reduce teacher burnout, giving educators a renewed sense of commitment to the profession.

Rick: So, how does it all work in practice?

Kareem: The Modern Classrooms model is based on three core, research-based principles: blended instruction, self-paced structures, and mastery-based grading. First, teachers replace live lectures by recording instructional videos. This allows students to learn at their own pace while teachers provide targeted individual and small-group support during class. Second, teachers build systems and procedures that allow students to learn at their own pace while still meeting essential learning objectives and deadlines. This builds students’ self-regulation skills and ensures they are appropriately challenged and supported. Finally, teachers check for mastery at the end of each lesson and give students credit only once they have demonstrated understanding of the content. This prevents learning gaps from forming and builds students’ self-efficacy. The final outcome is a data-driven, student-centered, and differentiated classroom.

Rick: And with whom exactly do you work? Teachers, schools, districts . . . ?

Kareem: Our primary agents of change are educators. We know that when it comes to scaling our model in a school, district, city, or state, the spark happens with teachers. But even with the right training, teachers still need environments where they can thrive. We collaborate with instructional leaders in schools and districts and state leaders to ensure teachers get the support they need. It costs $750 for us to train one teacher, and we charge districts for this service.

Rick: Where did the idea for this come from?

Kareem: As an educator in Washington, D.C., I was frustrated by my inability to meet my students’ needs effectively. My classes were full of students at different learning levels and with diverse social-emotional needs. I was stuck at the front of the room teaching to the middle and consumed with behavior management. I decided I had two choices: I could leave the profession because I didn’t have a pathway to success or redesign my classroom. I chose the latter. In collaboration with another teacher, Rob Barnett, I created videos students could watch on their own during class instead of listening to me lecture. Students could pause the videos, rewatch sections, or move ahead when it worked for them. Replacing lectures with self-paced videos freed up my time to focus on one-on-one and small-group interactions with students. From there, Rob and I kept improving the self-paced model. We introduced mastery-based learning, which enabled students to progress from one skill or lesson to the next when they demonstrated mastery on end-of-lesson assessments. I was able to meet students’ needs more effectively — and I was happier doing it! That led to Rob and me co-founding the Modern Classrooms Project.

Rick: You started doing this with high school math. It seems like this model might work more readily for math than for subjects with a less linear scope and sequence. True or false?

Kareem: False. I can see why it’s easier to picture this model working in math classes where content is naturally more linear. But ultimately, it is meant to maximize the amount of time educators spend supporting students through the one-to-one and small-group instruction time that’s needed in every content area. In fact, we’ve seen some of the most successful applications of the model in humanities and science classes that rely heavily on project-based learning. When students build a lab and submit a final report or write a persuasive essay, they need one-on-one interaction and self-pacing. Our model thrives in those settings.

Rick: Some readers may wonder, just as I do, whether this approach could create classroom cultures that allow students to slack off or misbehave. But earlier you said that this actually helps with behavior management. Can you say more?

Kareem: One big advantage of adopting a student-centered model is that students have greater control over their own learning and less control over their peers’ learning. Distractions or disruptions that impede whole-class learning have little impact in a student-centered classroom because students are moving at their own pace. In a Modern Classroom, the self-pacing also happens in short bursts. A unit is typically designed to last one or two weeks, which minimizes the opportunity for a student to fall too far behind. If a student is disruptive or struggling with a particular concept, a teacher can more easily address the student in small-group or one-on-one interactions, which is more effective than addressing the student in front of the whole class.

Rick: How concerned are you that some teachers might find it difficult to ensure students are mastering each component? Is that a big problem?

Kareem: This is going to be a big shift for some teachers, but the bigger concern should be for students in a traditional classroom setting. When teachers lecture at the front of a room and move through content at a fixed pace, they simply don’t have time to assess student mastery and respond to the data. In one of our earliest studies, we discovered that 86 percent of Modern Classrooms-trained teachers felt they could work closely with each student in their class compared with only 19 percent of traditional teachers. If you can’t work closely with students during class, you can’t guarantee they are mastering content. We are obsessed with ensuring that students master the skills they are learning. But we feel strongly that the best way to do that is to move teachers away from a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction.

Rick: What are some of the challenges teachers encounter?

Kareem: A common challenge we see when educators are adopting our model is reaching a point of efficiency. At first, their planning time increases. Educators need to create instructional videos, set up their learning-management systems, and rearrange their physical spaces to make them more conducive to self-paced learning. We provide resources and support to guide these initial steps and remind educators that their upfront investment pays off in the long run. Another challenge is the release of control. A self-paced environment can feel uncomfortable at first. In the early stages of launching the model, it can feel messy. But once teachers and students get in a rhythm, it is magical. It is important to note that students are self-paced in bursts — usually, one to two weeks at a time — and then they collectively take an assessment and transition to the next burst.

Rick: I’d imagine some school leaders would be leery of having some teachers — but not others — adopt this model, as that might breed instructional confusion or inconsistent expectations. Does that come up?

Kareem: One of the most exciting changes I’ve seen is a cultural shift away from micromanaging educators. School leaders today seem very interested in bottom-up solutions like ours and recognize that an opt-in approach is the best way to scale transformative change. But occasionally, we do hear concerns about not imposing a mandate. Our model doesn’t change what teachers teach; it only changes the delivery mechanism. And learning and working in different environments teaches students to adapt, a skill they’ll use their entire lives.

Rick: At this point, how much do we know about the impact of your approach?

Kareem: We’re excited about the success we’ve seen anecdotally and through formal studies in collaboration with university partners. When the Modern Classrooms model is adopted at high rates within schools and districts, there are noticeable gains in student outcomes. The model also has a sizable impact on educators’ ability to build relationships with students, differentiate instruction, and cultivate self-directed learning. And it’s not just new teachers who are inspired. Among the 12,000 teachers we have trained through our Virtual Mentorship Program, there is an average of 14 years of experience. Those veteran teachers report finding the job more sustainable and enjoyable because of the model.

Rick: OK. Last question: What’s one tip for teachers or school leaders on what it takes to effectively reinvent instruction this way?

Kareem: Focus less on the “what” and more on the “how.” There are many ed-tech tools and curricula that hold promise. But without changing the ways teachers teach, we will never achieve our goals in K–12 education.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.



Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.