Information on Pod Learning from our Director of Education Research & Outreach

With the fall fast approaching and COVID-19 cases rising, parents are left with few options for safely educating their kids. One potential solution is setting up a “pod” to help facilitate learning at home. Kris Callis-Duehl, PhD, Director of Education Research & Outreach at the Danforth Center, provides evidence-based insight and answers from research literature on online learning and homeschooling.

What is a Pod?

A pod is a group of students who are facilitated by a formal teacher or tutor and the families share the cost of the facilitator. A co-op is a group of students whose parents take turns overseeing the group. Co-ops can be academic, focused on school work, but they are often focused on supplemental instruction, such as art, music, and STEM, and socialization. Pods always include academics as part of the instruction but can also have supplemental instruction and socialization.

How to Set Up a Pod

The first step is to determine what the goals of the pod are: academic, social, or supplemental instruction. Academic pods will focus on having students learn together. This might be as simple as students doing online learning but in the same space, so they can chat with each other and work together on activities. This could become more structured by hiring a tutor who helps multiple students learn together. 

Social pods will focus on activities after learning hours – more like after school clubs or play dates. The students will be able to discuss school activities with each other, but are not specifically focused on learning together. 

Finally, supplemental instruction pods will add to the online learning through incorporating subjects art, music, and STEM. These pods will be facilitated by an expert in that field, like a music teacher.  Most of the time, pods are some combination of these factors.

Pod Dynamics

Pods are best with three-five students of the same grade, give or take a grade level. Multi-grade level pods can also work, though they do require the “one room schoolhouse” model where you assign the next oldest to teach the next youngest. Hypothetical scenario: Student A=Kindergarten; Student B= 5th grade; Student C= 8th grade, Student D= HS student. If you have even numbers, this works really well. If you have an odd number of students, use the facilitator/tutor as the fourth “student". This dynamic will work with any age range. 

Set aside time each day for paired instruction, for a total of one hour of additional instruction. Have them pick a different topic each day (math, reading, writing/ABCs, etc) to work on. It is best if they get to choose the topic. Then, Students A and B work on a topic, while Student C and D work together. After 30-45 min (adjust depending on age), the students switch, Student B works with student C, so student C becomes the lead. Student A works with Student D. 

This method of paired instruction has been shown to have great outcomes for both the older and younger students. The younger student in the pair may understand and learn a different aspect of the subject from someone who is not their direct instructor (i.e. teacher/mom. The older student in the pair is learning mentorship, leadership, patience, and communication. If they can teach and communicate a concept to a younger student, they actually KNOW it.

In terms of epidemiology, it is best to limit the pod to two-four families for keeping a bubble and preventing the spread of COVID-19. All families must agree and adhere to the same social distancing expectations. If one family deviates from the agreement and starts changing their behavior, they should be removed from the pod.

Pod Frequency

Pods can meet as many or as few times that will be beneficial to the kids, as it really depends on the structure and goals of the pod. If you want a pod where students sit together during learning time so they get the feeling of a classroom, every day is fine. If you want a pod that is more about supplemental instruction and socialization, one-two times a week would work. The same thought process can be applied for the number of hours.


Supervision depends on the age of the students. Elementary students need almost full-time supervision, where middle school students need periodic supervision and high schools students should be expected to be more self-driven (this is really good for them). For younger students, a parent or tutor should be with them during the majority of the learning time, and at least visible and available when not directly engaging with the students. Of course, this also depends on the student’s ability and personality. You know your kids best.

Finding Educational Materials

First and foremost, your online/virtual learning teacher is your number one resource. If you are doing a full homeschool instruction, then you will likely pick a curriculum that has built in educational materials. If you want to supplement the instruction with additional materials, there are so many good ones out there. The Danforth Center has worked all summer at developing programs for kids to participate in data collection and analysis of the plant science research projects going on at the center; so if your kid wants to be a scientist, they can literally contribute to scientific research from the comfort of their pod/co-op. 

Be aware of the resource – ask yourself if it is reputable. I’m a big fan of HHMI BioInteractive materials, Smithsonian educational materials, and National Geographic lesson plans. Most of the museums around the country will have lesson plans available. I also don’t shy away from materials that are slated for a higher-grade level. I regularly take lesson plans intended for high school students and break them apart so that my elementary aged children can do them. If you are struggling to find good material for supplemental instruction – ask your kids’ teacher! They know about so many more wonderful educational materials than they have time to use in class.