During the past few years, blended learning has been hailed by schools worldwide as everything from the future of education to the conduit that will finally make true differentiated instruction a reality. And it is not all hype: the best blended-learning programs truly can move away from the lecture-based instructional model many of us grew up with and free educators to completely reimagine what learning looks like from the ground up. But setting up a new program is a tall order for even the most well-provisioned districts, and the monumental change can be difficult for leaders, who may look to technology as the solution instead of one part of an overall blueprint for success.
“The temptation for a district when they say they’re going to do blended learning, or these days, personalized learning, is to buy a bunch of tools and then ask educators to try and fit those into their practice,” says Julia Freeland Fisher, the director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, which specializes in research on blended learning. “Instead, we would encourage people to ask, ‘What’s the problem with practice you’re trying to solve?’”
With a core subject such as reading, that problem might be figuring out how to use a blended model to boost test scores for a subset of students or how to give teachers more time to do small-group instruction or guided reading. Part of the difficulty with planning blended-learning models is that there is no one-size-fits-all model, and it often looks different from district to district or even among classrooms. “It can be all over the map in terms of problems of practice,” says Freeland Fisher, whose institute recently released an interactive framework for designing blended-learning programs at blendedlearning.org. “But it always comes down to using technology to scale a new instructional model, rather than cramming it into your old model.”
While technology is a critical part of any blended-learning initiative, those with experience stress that it is far from the only aspect, or even the most important one. Even as technology helps provide new layers of differentiation that were not previously available in the old paradigm, good instruction and instructors are the true heart of blended learning. In other words, according to another expert in the field, Eileen Buckley Murphy, “We cannot over-charge software—no matter how adaptive and wonderful it may be on the label—with doing the job of a thinking human.” Buckley Murphy, a former district administrator who is currently CEO of ThinkCERCA, a blended-literacy program that focuses on self-paced and collaborative learning, adds, “The teacher’s role in creating the context in which it’s meaningful for the student to learn is still essential.”
Again, take reading as an example. The advent of adaptive software, which adjusts to emerging readers and presents content on their personal levels, helps students not only to learn to read but to complete lesson content as well, says Amanda Psarovarkas, a Texas educator who recently completed a two-year thesis in successful blended-learning models as part of her master’s in education technology at Lamar University. “It helps you to hit all the students on their level, and then do a very Vygotsky stepping ladder,” she said, referring to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose work posits that students learn concepts in progressive stages, provided they are receiving the right help from someone further up the ladder than they are, like a teacher or more advanced peer.
That instructor-led support is crucial to creating a program where students are not just using technology mindlessly to check off tasks but rather in conjunction with the support they receive from their teacher, says Buckley Murphy. “Some people have a view of blended learning that is all about leveraging technology to teach the kids, instead of teachers teaching kids,” she says. “When it comes to the skills hardest to teach, a true blend is required. The technology can’t just be for the students to learn from alone in isolation. It has to be technology that teachers can use to teach and that students can use to collaborate with together.”
Perhaps the most ideal approach, according to Psarovarkas, is one in which students are given freedom to learn in ways that suit them best and teachers are given the flexibility to work more closely with students as they see best. In this model, learning is “no longer something that’s done to the student,” she says, “but rather the student and the teachers are true partners in the relationship.”
Blending in Action
So what does a good blended-learning program look like, and how do schools go about creating it? In the case of Kyla Cook and Robyn Kendrick, both second-grade teachers at Stanton County USD in Kansas, it all starts with a strong foundation.
Cook and Kendrick have been teaching with each other for more than 13 years, and in that time they have blended a lot together. There is the formal blended-learning reading program that Cook and Kendrick co-run, which has been running strong for a few years at this point, but the pair have also blended the lines of their classrooms as well as their professional development and decision making about the program. In short, they do a lot of sharing.
“We have our own separate classrooms, but some of my students come into Robyn’s class for part of the day and some of hers come into mine,” explains Cook. “I don’t feel like I’m just responsible for my students but for mine and Robyn’s, and she feels the same. It helps with our collaboration. We feel like we’re in this together as a team.”
Both teachers’ classrooms are 1:1 with Chromebooks, and for about 90 minutes each day, students work in a highly structured reading program using a station-rotation model. Each day’s reading block begins with a review designed to make sure students have mastered previous skills before moving on to new ones. Then, there are about 15 minutes dedicated to whole-group instruction, during which a new skill—say, phonetic awareness or phonics—is introduced via a software program called Reading Horizons, which provides much of the structure during computer time. After the new skill has been introduced, students take their places at the large dry-erase boards around the classroom and write words as their teacher dictates to them. The dictation helps reinforce the new skill, but it also serves as baked-in formative assessment.
“What I like about the dictation is being able to see all the students at one time,” Kendrick says. “It’s the immediate feedback of being able to evaluate them and let them know immediately what their mistake is, and to give them a chance to give reasons for why they made the mistake.”
After a quick five-minute transfer, where the new skill is projected onto the board and discussed as a group one last time, students splinter off into small groups for their station-rotation time. Typically, Cook and Kendrick separate students into three groups based on comparative reading level; stronger readers are grouped together, as are emerging readers. One group stays with the teacher, who conducts a small-group lesson based on what those particular students need the most help with. Another will be on the Chromebooks working on a lesson based on the new skill introduced at the beginning of the block. Students in that group read independently, periodically taking short quizzes to measure their understanding. A third group works either as a group or with a paraprofessional, getting extra attention on developing their vocabulary and fluency skills. Every 20 minutes, groups switch.
“Since students are spending about 20 minutes by themselves at the computer, we spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year training the students on our expectations,” Kendrick says. “We teach them how to self-monitor through the computer program, and we show them what we expect out of them during our blended-learning model.”
Part of self-monitoring, she says, includes knowing exactly what lessons they should be working on for the day. “That is something that didn’t work well in the beginning: the kids just progressed at their own pace,” Kendrick says. “So some kids were struggling, and some were several lessons ahead of what we were teaching. And then we realized that to have the most impact, we needed the computer lessons to match what we were instructing in class.”
With older kids, both teachers agree, it might be a different story. But with second graders—kids as young as seven and eight—Kendrick and Cook want to be sure that the introduction of new skills is coming directly from them. “We want to be the ones that are providing that primary instruction, rather than the computer,” Kendrick says. “And then the computer is a supplementary or supportive piece for that.”
While computer time might be supportive, it is still a fundamental part of the program, both in getting students to improve their skills independently and in improving instruction for the teachers. Since every keystroke and assessment question is carefully logged in the Reading Horizons platform, Cook and Kendrick have a trove of data to fall back on, telling them how students are faring with new skills and where they might need additional supports.
“For those kids that know the skill, it differentiates within the computer program for them,” Kendrick says. When the software realizes the student is applying the skill readily and without much error, it moves him or her along at a faster pace. “They don’t have to go through every step that a struggling student does,” she says. “I love that it differentiates based on how they score on activities and whether or not it has to give them more practice.”
Later, the teachers go in and pore over that data, checking where students are struggling and readjusting their groups and teaching methods accordingly. “We’re looking at that data regularly so we know students aren’t over there for 20 minutes just playing around on the computer,” Cook says. When students become well acquainted with the routine after a few months, the teachers can begin to give students a little more freedom, and trust, during the day.
“Now that we’re halfway through the year, students are getting a lot more proficient at asking questions, and that’s a higher-level skill itself,” Cook says. Both teachers regularly use their data and observations to shift groups around, pairing strong readers with those who need extra attention on a skill.
“We teach them at the beginning: do not tell them the answers or their mistakes,” Cook says. “Ask them questions, so that they have to figure out where their error occurred and how they’re going to fix that. We tell the kids, ‘Now both of your brains are working.’”
For Cook and Kendrick, every year is different, bringing new students, new resources, and new challenges. Part of the success of their model, as they see it, is the inherent support that comes with co-planning and co-teaching. But they’ve also worked hard to keep their program flexible, while remaining intricately structured and timed almost to the minute during the reading block. “A lot of it was trial and error, but we definitely do not do the same thing every year,” Cook explains. “We as teachers have to look at it like this: each year, the students’ needs are different, so we need to be very flexible. We don’t change the whole model from year to year; we do minor tweaks. It’s constantly changing dynamics in our classrooms.”
Stephen Noonoo is a freelance writer and consultant covering the intersection of education and technology. He is based in Los Angeles.