Education: One size no longer has to fit all

Students in NYC's public schools are interacting with laptops – not teachers


NYC’s crusade against the “conveyor belt”

Education has traditionally been approached using a “one size fits all” model, wherein students are subjected to the same teaching styles and evaluation methods irrespective of their ability or interest.[1] Given that different students have different learning styles,[2] have different strengths and weaknesses, and receive varying amounts of parental support at home,[3] does it make sense to throw all students onto the same “conveyor belt”[4] of education and expect the same outcomes? According to the New York City Department of Education, the answer is a resounding “no.”

In 2010, New York City’s Department of Education launched iZone, a community of over 300 schools to test innovative classroom methods and technologies with the goal of “designing schools around the needs, interests, and motivations of individual students, by personalizing rather than standardizing the model of schooling and learning.”[5] One of the most well-known initiatives emerging from the iZone is the School to One program.

All eyes on the laptop screen

Under School to One, students are placed in a classroom of 80 supervised by four teachers, four graduate students, and two high school tutors. In contrast to the traditional model of listening to a teacher lecture at the front of a classroom, students receive a personalized “playlist” curriculum that they work on laptops to complete individually and in small groups. Students are given quizzes, games, and worksheets throughout the day, and end each day with a quiz that is then used to determine the following day’s “playlist.” Teachers monitor student performance in real-time and intervene and support when needed.[6]


Studies on the School to One model for mathematics found a 47 percent increase in student achievement relative to the national average in the second year of the program. Importantly, the largest gains came from the lowest performing students.[7] The results were promising enough to catapult the School of One to one of TIME Magazine’s Top Inventions of 2009 as a “learning [model] for the Xbox generation.”[8]


Despite the promising results and hype, perceptions toward the program have not all been positive. A member of the NYC Public Schools Parents group visited a School to One program in Chinatown and reported the following:

“I watched as one girl, seemingly in a trance, looked at the screen, and hit A, B, C, D keys in turn, until she got the right answer to a multiple choice question and moved onto the next one. Sadly, no adult but me seemed to be paying any attention to this student to make sure she was trying to think the problem through… what I saw was not personalized instruction and engagement, but many confused and somewhat dazed students, and much disruption.”[9]

Despite the push-back, the School of One program has since expanded to 28 schools nationwide[10] – though the subsequent media coverage has been curiously scant.

Mission accomplished?

The jury is still out on whether initiatives such as School of One can credibly replace the traditional lecture-style method of teaching, so it is clearly too early to claim victory. That said, the NYC Department of Education does deserve a great deal of credit for its willingness to partner with fledgling upstarts to test innovative ideas in a statistically rigorous way, bringing both the public and private sectors together towards a united cause.

I am, however, still wary of three potential issues:

  1. Could there be unintended consequences to growing up in front of a laptop?

Given that members of Generation Z are already digital natives, should we not focus on helping them develop better non-cognitive social skills? Computer literacy is already a given for this generation; do they really need to spend even more time hunched in front of a computer, rather than interacting with their teachers and peers?

  1. What about homework?

Studies have shown that, in environments where homework is assigned, the extent to which a student receives academic support at home is critical to the student’s success.[11] What happens after a student turns off their laptop and goes home? Will a technology-oriented academic experience lead students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to fall further behind their peers who can afford to have a laptop and Internet connectivity at home?

  1. Are we just putting lipstick on a pig?

To what extent is School to One simply a repackaging of textbook content in a more engaging way – rather than a total re-imagination of what ought to be taught in our schools? Studies are increasingly showing a shortage of critical thinking, oral communication, teamwork, and leadership, among other “soft skills” among workforce entrants.[12] Since these skills are not currently taught in schools, perhaps we should not only reconsider how we teach, but also what we teach. Introducing laptop-based exercises addresses the how, but I am not convinced it addresses the what.

Word count: 799

[1] Ohanian, S. (1999). One size fits few: The folly of educational standards. Heinemann, 361 Hanover Street, Portsmouth, NH 03801-3912.

[2] Kolb, D. A. (1976). Learning styles inventory. Boston.

[3] Jeynes, W. H. (2005). Parental involvement and student achievement: A meta-analysis. Family Involvement Research Digest.

[4] Grinder, M. (1991). Righting the educational conveyor belt. Portland, OR: Metamorphous Press.







[11] Clark, R. M. (1993). Homework-focused parenting practices that positively affect student achievement. Families and schools in a pluralistic society, 85-105.

[12] Casner-Lotto, J., & Barrington, L. (2006). Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century US Workforce. Partnership for 21st Century Skills. 1 Massachusetts Avenue NW Suite 700, Washington, DC 20001.


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Student comments on Education: One size no longer has to fit all

  1. Gng – thank you for this enlightening article. While I definitely see the merits of utilizing technology in education (especially when it comes to personalized learning), the photo and quote in your article makes me nervous for the future of education As you noted, where is the social interaction? The students – with headphones in and staring blankly at a screen – look disconnected from the realities of the “real world”. Are the days of peer learning and in-person connections over? Reflecting back on my K-12 years, I learned the most when working with teams and engaging with my peers.

    Furthermore, study results on the benefits of technology on education are mixed. In fact, one study showed that “students who gain access to a home computer between the 5th and 8th grades tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores” (1). I think using a laptop in school promotes more laptop use and web-surfing at home. I also fear that the increased use of laptops in school will promote the use of the internet as a crutch when solving problems, rather than building a student’s critical thinking skills. One of the unintended consequences of technology is potentially creating “an expectation of easy access to information and instantaneous answers.” (2) I fear that the new generation of students will no longer learn how to think – but instead, learn how to Wikipedia and Google for responses.

    Striking the right balance of technology and education will be very difficult. Technology can especially be helpful when teaching hard skills. However, I completely agree with you that the most important and difficult skills to learn are the “soft” skills – communication, teamwork, leadership and critical thinking. I think the frequent use of technology in the classrooms is currently hurting us in our efforts to teach and learn these soft skills.


  2. Gng, great post! I am personally very interested in education and different models of education. I view the system described in your post more of a supplement to our traditional classroom models, rather than a substitute. You’re absolutely right when you express concern about not only “how” we teach children, but also “what” we teach them. I fear that such a solitary method of learning can only go so far – maybe the system can be perfected to impart bookish knowledge, but in order to truly educate children, I believe they require drastic amount of human interaction and face-to-face exchange of ideas, even more so than we see today in traditional classrooms.

  3. This is a fascinating post, Gng! The concept of personalized education is a compelling one, especially for students on the margin, either those for whom group lessons are too easy and who get bored and disengage, or for those who may have slower cognitive development than their peers and can fall behind the class. But like yourself, and the other commenters on this post, one could argue that a large part of early childhood development and education is learning social cues, how to relate and react to others, and to begin to form the basis for “EQ,” a concept which is routinely considered an important factor for a successful life.

    We increasingly live our lives through a web presence, one that often prevents us from being exposed to views and ideas outside a curated life view that self-reinforces our individual belief system. In our diverse, global world it would be a shame to create yet another barrier to exposing children to other ways of viewing the world, and the challenges therein, early on in their development.

  4. Thanks for a very interesting post, Gng!

    While the adaptive/customizable feature of the software is attractive, as you noted, this advantage comes at the cost of non-cognitive social skill development. The day-to-day engagement with teachers and other students is an often overlooked but essential component of student development. I wonder if there is a technological solution that can offer the best of both worlds – more social development via an adaptable platform.

  5. Thanks Gorick, this is a really interesting article. I’m a big fan of the idea of more personalized learning experiences. Even in the most communal of learning environments, the HBS classroom, I’d argue there’s a huge variety of learning trajectories. Each of us learn in different ways, and embracing this is a step in the right direction.

    I think the socioeconomic divide is a real issue – curriculum can’t be fully online if all kids don’t have access at home. But also, school districts with less access to funding probably can’t afford the upfront investment in laptops for each student to get a program like this off the ground.

    The anecdote of the girl pressing keys randomly doesn’t bother me so much for two reasons: One, you’d have to compare the amount of “zoning out” for the computerized system vs. the status quo classroom experience to make a meaningful statement. Second, this can be easily programmed into the education software to alert the teacher when a student is exhibiting behavior that is unlikely to be productive.

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