The Myth of In-Person Learning

The political hot button question to emerge out of a year of a pandemic shutdown is when will students be able to return to in-person schooling? The source of this urgent call for returning children and adolescents to neighborhood classrooms is twofold: first, parents want to return to work; secondly, there is growing research indicating that remote learning is having damaging effects on the social, emotional, and intellectual development of children and adolescents.

Parents calling for a return to in-person schooling assume that learning is optimized when children and adolescents are placed in a single classroom with a teacher. John Goodlad’s study of instructional programs of 13 high schools remains, after 30 years, the best description of what is being defined as in-person learning.  

The teacher explaining or lecturing to the total class or a single students, occasionally asking questions requiring factual answers: the teacher, when not lecturing, observing or monitoring students working individually at their desks; students listening or appearing to listen to the teacher and occasionally responding to the teacher’s questions; students working individual at their desks on reading or writing assignments; and all with little emotion, from interpersonal warmth to expressions of hostility. (Goodlad, 1984, p. 230)

While it is true, that Goodlad’s description of the regularities of classroom instruction includes a teacher in a classroom—the person—it leaves out the following key elements of what I term, personalized learning environments:


  • Create problem-centric units of instruction that focus on meaning-making with relevant examples of how the principles and concepts taught can be applied in the real world.
  • Are interactive with students engaging in what Dewey termed the four basic human impulses: the impulse to communicate, to construct, to inquirer, and to express in finer form.
  • Allow students to self-pace their understandings of subject matter content—the ability to hit the stop, rewind, or mute button.
  • Provide students with immediate feedback on what they understand and what they need to review.
  • Provide students with frequent opportunities to interact with peers.
  • Reduce one period presentations—sixty minutes—to ten-minute modular presentations of a concept, theory, or practice.
  • Provide students with practice exercises designed for mastery of subject matter material.
  • Detect patterns of student responses that identify misconceptions and generate immediate correctives.
  • Connect students with experts throughout the world on problems they are working to solve.

No in-person teacher standing in front of a classroom of thirty students, works within an organizational structure or works with a teaching model designed to create a PERSONALIZED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT. Over three decades ago, Benjamin Bloom wrote about the 2 Sigma Problem in schooling: the search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. What we know about personalized one-to-one tutoring is a process in which 90% of the tutored students reach high levels of learning. What we know about conventional in-person classroom teaching is a process in which fewer than 20% of the students in a classroom reach high levels of learning.

Although there has been much criticism leveled at the virtual learning environments that schools hastily put together during the pandemic year, the kinds of personalized learning environments created by well crafted virtual learning units of instruction clearly are the answer to Bloom’s 2 Sigma problem.

After a year of homeschooling, with the exposure to personalized learning environments, schools are at an inflection point—do they continue to house a one-size fits all in-person classroom instruction or do they explore and experiment with a different model of teaching and learning that creates a configuration of schooling that honors the diverse interest, talents, abilities, and learning styles of our sons and daughters.

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