As former teachers in a variety of settings—charter, traditional public, and “transfer” schools—we read with great interest our colleague Daniel Buck’s recent piece, “In defense of the traditional classroom.” In the essay, Buck worries that “utopian reformers” have needlessly decried what he terms the “traditional” classroom model.
He is surely right that most schooling will continue to happen within the four walls of a physical classroom. As he says, we landed on that model for good reason and are likely to stay there. One-on-one tutoring is often cost-prohibitive, a hundred kids in a room creates chaos, and virtual learning during Covid took a devastating toll on students’ academic progress and mental health. And we couldn’t agree more that there are times and places where direct instruction is most effective. There are certainly reformers, perhaps most notoriously in California, who have been too quick to abandon this established pedagogical method. For example, research shows that early learners of math, especially those who are low-achieving, benefit from explicit instruction and memorization to build math fluency.
But that doesn’t mean everything that happens in a classroom must be strictly “traditional.” In fact, both practice and research show that there are feasible, effective alternatives to direct instruction from a single teacher. What’s more, such alternatives can and should work hand in hand with traditional lessons; they do not have to be at odds.
One such alternative is inquiry-based instruction, a pedagogical style that encourages students to take an active role in their own learning. Rather than passively receiving knowledge from an instructor, students search for evidence, construct arguments, and collaborate with their peers. This mode of learning has proven to be a powerful tool both to build investment and to improve achievement, particularly in the later grades. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that students, especially those in middle and high school, learn better with this approach.
An oft-misunderstood part of inquiry-based learning is the role of the teacher. Yes, students drive the discussion, but they do not have unrestricted freedom. Imagine an eighth-grade science classroom beginning a unit on velocity. Rather than merely stating the definition and equation of velocity as students mindlessly jot them down, the teacher has prepared a more complex and engaging activity. Students discuss in small groups where they have heard this term and what they think it might mean. Then they engage in a short lab activity where they use measuring tape and timers to try to find the velocity of a marble rolling across the table. The teacher does not sit idly while students posit false information or scramble to get started, but rather plays the crucial role of carefully guiding student thinking toward the main idea. At the end of the lesson, students have determined the velocity of a moving object in front of them and derived the equation themselves using real-world context and gentle nudges from their instructor. They end the class with the same knowledge they would have acquired from a direct teaching lesson, yet with deeper understanding and stronger investment.
This pedagogical approach is an art, and it involves immense preparation from the instructor beforehand. But it works.
Another alternative to the traditional classroom model is co-teaching or team teaching. This runs the gamut, from decidedly “traditional” structures (with one teacher giving direct instruction while another circulates to support struggling students) to alternative setups like parallel teaching, station teaching, or small group pull-outs. The model can vary day by day and even within a single class. After a whole-class lesson, for instance, the teachers might give a brief assessment and then break the students into two groups, with one teacher leading the more advanced learners in higher-skill practice and another teacher working with the students who haven’t quite mastered the material. This is hardly a “utopian” suggestion. Indeed, it was common practice across departments in the schools where both of us taught for years—not to mention aligned with flexible ability grouping practices supported by education research.
Speaking of research, there’s a growing body demonstrating that, when implemented right, co-teaching can produce academic benefits. Multiple studies of co-taught science classrooms have revealed improved achievement for students with and without disabilities. Most recently, a 2023 study on co-taught classrooms of third- through eighth-graders found that co-teaching had positive, significant effects on math scores for all students and reading scores for students with disabilities (with no significant effects on reading scores for students without disabilities). As an added benefit, surveys suggest that co-teaching may help with teacher retention even more than financial incentives. (It’s good to have a teammate.)
Having multiple teachers in a room can also allow more opportunity for students to speak up in class. That is, if thirty kids are in a room, it’s tougher for each individual to have time to speak; if the physical space allows for two groups of fifteen, then students will have more time to participate actively. And research shows that simply speaking in class can improve reading literacy for students, regardless of socioeconomic background or gender.
Inquiry-based learning and co-teaching are just two examples of the many research-backed alternatives to a “traditional” classroom structure. Education researchers and advocates have worked for decades to study and fine-tune various pedagogical models to increase achievement and the overall educational experience for students. Far from “lov[ing] to hate the classroom,” many advocates of alternative classroom structures have called attention to approaches that serve to update and strengthen the model we’ve relied on for generations.