What are Learning Pods?

In a traditional public school setting (or any large classroom-type setting), very often teachers or instructors will break up the larger group into smaller groups. But why? The answer is simple: it’s about collaboration, sharing ideas, teamwork, and, well, overall engagement. The question is rhetorical as the vast majority of traditional K–12 educated people are experienced with small group learning. And while we can see the benefits, in hindsight, it does beg the question: why isn’t a small group or “pod” learning more prevalent? Why has pod learning remained a tactic in a much larger prescribed curriculum and has not become a more formal educational format? The answer to that question is firmly rooted in our archaic and largely outdated educational instruction and institutional history. But that’s changing, quickly.

For better or worse, the existing COVID-19 climate has pushed the examination of pod learning to the forefront of educational discussion, with many seeing it as a means of the meeting (and exceeding) students’ needs while keeping them away from large group settings.

What’s a Learning Pod?

Igi-global, an international academic publisher committed to facilitating the discovery of pioneering research, defines learning pods as “small geographically oriented teams working on individual learning projects as self-directed communities.” IGI notes that the theoretical underpinnings for learning pods come from best practices in the communities of practice, novice to expert, self-directed learning, relational cultural theory, and mentoring literature.

“The learning pods approach is versatile and could be adapted for many K–20 and professional practice settings and is a good example of how the combinations of technology and in-person meetings serve the needs of 21st Century learners. Learning pods provide an environment for students to develop skills such as reflection, teamwork, and networking that are vital to success in the modern workplace.”

Much like a school of fish (or “pods” of dolphins), these small teams converge to create a mutually beneficial grouping, working, and collaborating for the overall good of the pod.

Your Pod—Your Pond

A local pod is essentially a small number of families grouped together—often geographically proximate and with existing relationships (public schoolmates, neighbors, scouts, little league, show choir, church, etc.)—to share in learning support, costs, enrichment, and social experiences. The concept is relatively broad, and while that has been a catalyst for continued pod learning discussion and innovation, the fundamental focus is on providing a mechanism for people with similar ideas and “wants” to find each other and form a connection, and in doing so, bolster, augment, or replace traditional public education in the short term . . . and possibly the long term. Some pods may hire teachers, tutors, and caregivers. Some have even employed musicians to teach music, local artists to teach art, environmentalists to teach conservation, etc.

For some, the goal is about minimizing exposure risks related to COVID-19 for both their kids and their public school teachers. For others, it’s about minimizing the costs of additional education, tutoring, and/or childcare. Still, for others, it’s about getting back to and formalizing the collaborative fundamentals and benefits of small group learning. And for an increasingly large number, it’s all of the above.

The Holistic Benefits of Pod Learning

In addition to the obvious health benefits and the lessened anxiety from not sending your kid to a public school building during a global pandemic, the benefits of pod learning are great.

In an earlier article, “A Work-from-Home Dad Learns to Educate, at home, with Some Surprising Results” we explore Max’s story. In the article, Max’s dad details the stress and anxiety he felt earlier this year as he managed distance learning and quarantine, “If I’ve learned anything from the existing (and likely ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that there is no playbook for dealing with the stressors and anxiety associated with the unknown.”

Max’s dad struggled with many familiar questions when considering sending Max back to public school. “Should Max go back to public school in the Fall 2020? It wasn’t an easy decision to make. Not because I hadn’t become a believer in home-based learning and education, but because I am a product of what can only be described as ‘the way it’s always been’ thinking. I had a lot of questions, ‘Will Max have friends?’ and ‘Can my spouse and I really provide the level of education support Max needs?’”

Inherent in these questions are the true benefits of pod-based learning. For starters, the local pod is the ideal hybrid of traditional big room schooling and traditional homeschooling. It can provide both the unique, student-centric learning curriculum AND a social environment in which to collaborate, communicate, and engage. Moreover, pod learning provides a familiar and manageable group in which kids and parents are both provided the resources needed to make the pod flourish. Happy and Healthy.

For more on building a pod, read our how-to article “Pod Learning: Essential Steps to Building Your Home-Based Learning Pod.

The Conversation

Over the last few weeks, conversations around learning pods have been gaining some momentum. Following is a selection from news outlets around the states: