Almost a decade ago, I wrote that “the greatest challenge facing America’s schools today isn’t the budget crisis, or standardized testing, or ‘teacher quality.’ It’s the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom.”

All these years later, I still believe that’s true, and it feeds into current debates over whether teachers should meet students where they are, or aim for grade-level instruction instead, even for kids who are far behind.

Not that any of this is new. It goes all the way back to the one-room schoolhouse. As long as kids’ readiness levels are varied—in other words, forever—teachers will have to figure out how to provide the right level of instruction for each of their students that’s not too challenging as to be overwhelming, but not too easy as to be boring.

It wouldn’t be so hard if we could afford a private tutor for everyone. But that would be hugely expensive. And it would be fantastic if every student could learn on their own—whether in the old fashioned way, from books, or the modern way, from videos, online modules, and the like. But while independent learning is essential to a great education, few students have the drive and focus to do all of their learning that way without the support of teachers. Even adults struggle to finish MOOCs because they miss the human interactions and relationships of a classroom. And of course, schools do more than teach academics. They need to encourage and reinforce social and emotional skills, self-discipline, and good character, too.

So in the real world schools have to make this work with groups of students while individualizing as much as is practical.

In this article, I’ll take a look at the major approaches that schools are taking to solving this problem today—but will do so using the world of fitness to provide insights into their pros and cons. That’s because fitness studios have a similar challenge: how to provide a great experience for twenty-five or thirty students at the same time, one that meets everyone where they are, can cope with great variation in fitness levels and goals, challenge everybody (but not so much as to drive them away), and enable the participants to gauge their own progress on metrics that they trust and understand.

Group fitness works for lots of people because, as with private tutoring, one-on-one personal training is exorbitantly expensive. And while some gym rats can walk into a gym and get a great workout all by themselves, most of us need lots of support to exercise smartly enough not to hurt ourselves and intensely enough to get a real benefit. And many people find the social aspect of group classes fun and motivating.

The analogy isn’t perfect. Providing a great education to our children is much more important than providing a great workout to adults. And the intellectual challenge of teaching diverse skills and content to schoolchildren is infinitely more complex than being a fitness coach. Yet the parallels are still instructive.

Option one: Whole group instruction

This is the most traditional, but least personalized, approach to teaching a group of students: Throw everyone in the same class and aim for the middle.

That’s how it worked at the dawn of the fitness craze in the 1970s and 80s. Jane Fonda and other aerobics teachers offered one level for all participants. It was too slow for elite athletes and too hard for many newcomers.

It is also exactly what many classrooms were like for decades, and too many still are today. Take a group of kids whose only similarity is their age, put them in a room together, and do your best.

This clearly leaves a lot to be desired.

Option two: Ability grouping

Teaching children of vastly different reading or math levels, or clients of vastly different fitness levels, is inherently frustrating. There was, and is, an obvious solution: Group students by their current ability level.

In the fitness world, you see that with different levels of classes, like yoga levels one, two, and three. Newbies get intense instruction in the basics, while experienced and accomplished students can challenge themselves to find the edge of their capacities. But this has its own drawbacks. Studios worry about schedules that become overly complicated and keep clients away or classes that become too small to be financially sustainable.

That sort of ability grouping has also been common in schools forever. In elementary schools, it usually means putting students into reading or math groups for part of the day, based on their current skill levels, or providing acceleration to gifted students in or out of the regular classroom. In middle and high school, it means having different classes for advanced students—honors and AP and the like—and others for kids who are “on-level” or below.

There’s lots to be said for this approach, but one of the biggest concerns in schools is that students in the lower groups may not make enough progress to catch up, or might not ever get out of that low group due to inadequate support. We also worry about segregation, given the harsh realities of achievement gaps and what they imply for kids’ readiness levels on average.

Option three: Differentiating instruction

What if you could have the best of both worlds: keep students, or clients, of different levels together in one group, while also providing a personalized, “differentiated” experience, so everyone gets what they need? Sounds great, sure, but it’s really hard to pull off. Maybe careful planning and the clever use of technology can help.

Enter OrangeTheory. This fitness company has studio franchises all over the world. Every day, a new workout comes out from headquarters, which combines the use of treadmills, rowers, and weights—nothing fancy. Instructors take groups of twenty or more students through the class, rotating among stations. It’s personalized because every client chooses their own pace on the treadmills and rowers, and size of the weights on the floor. But everyone is also wearing heart rate monitors to make sure their effort is hitting a target. The right amount of intensity is key to good results.

Some new educational models are experimenting with a similar approach. Teach to One: Math, a middle and high school math program designed by New Classrooms, is arguably the best example. It is designed to personalize instruction to help all students make as much progress as possible toward college-ready standards.

Here’s how it works: At the end of each day, students take a brief assessment to gauge how well they have mastered the math they’re working on. Overnight, an algorithm designed by New Classrooms figures out the exact skill each student is ready to learn next, as well as the “modality” that would be the best fit—like whole group instruction, small group instruction, or online learning. In the morning, kids look up at “airport monitors” to find out what and where they will be learning that day, and off they go.  Most of the instruction is done with a teacher, in large or small groups, but those groups are constantly changing, bringing students together who are all ready to learn the same skill.

To bring this vision to fruition, New Classrooms had to dissect state math standards and understand precisely what students needed to know and be able to do before moving onto the next level. It also had to find the best teaching materials—whether for whole group, small group, or online instruction. None of this was easy, or really about “technology,” but about a deep understanding of math and learning. And it’s reasonable to wonder whether it would work for any subject other than math, given how non-linear many other domains of knowledge can be.

In both the fitness and school models, the role of the teacher changes in important ways. They are not expected to play curriculum developer or workout designer. That’s handled centrally. But this frees them to focus their attention on helping students, in the moment, building relationships, and giving personalized instructions and corrections. Of course, it still takes lots of sound judgment and skill to make it work.

Technology obviously plays a key role in these approaches—the heart rate monitors in the case of OrangeTheory, and the “airport monitors,” algorithms, and online modules for Teach to One. But the technology is not front and center; it plays a supportive role from the backroom.

What’s most important, both for fitness and for learning, is the effort that students put into it. Intensity is key. And that requires motivation. So both models are obsessed with keeping their students motivated—with regular reports about the progress they’re making, coupled with much encouragement from coaches and teachers.

OrangeTheory and Teach to One aren’t the only fitness studios, or educational models, trying this kind of approach. SoulCycle studios, CrossFit gyms, and others offer group classes with personalized or “scalable” experiences, and there are zillions of apps (Strava, for instance) offering stickers and rewards for meeting your fitness goals. Peloton even offers a virtual version of this approach, with real-time group spinning classes broadcast directly into people’s homes.

And other education innovators are trying to make personalized pacing work within school settings, many of them using some sort of blended learning, combining teacher-led instruction and online resources. One fascinating example is Wildflower Schools, which combines the timeless principles of Montessori education (arguably the first personalized model) with the cutting edge use of technology.

No single fitness chain or school model will work for everyone—which is another reason choice is so critical.

What’s important is that OrangeTheory isn’t just an app or a discrete exercise product you can buy. It’s a totally different fitness experience that thoughtfully integrates instructors, technology, and equipment around the needs of each gym-goer.  

Similarly, Teach to One isn’t a software product or tool for teachers to use in whichever way might make sense. It’s a fundamentally different classroom experience that integrates teachers, technology, and classroom materials into a holistic learning model to support the needs of each student.

The good news is that we’re making progress—starting to figure out workable ways to give groups of students a personalized experience, allowing them all to make progress at their own pace, and using technology in clever, effective ways.

In both fitness and in academics, we’re at the start of a journey. Let’s keep moving ahead.

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

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