Blended Learning

Moving Beyond Tech-Rich Classrooms

Imagine being tasked with teaching a class of restless adolescents, all of whom have different learning styles, strengths, interests, and needs. Or perhaps this daunting scenario is not so farfetched at all.

A team of innovative teachers at Middletown Middle School (MMS) in Frederick County, Maryland, decided to try something vastly different in an attempt to increase student success in their classrooms: blended learning.

Blended learning is a personalized, competency-based learning experience including increased student control over the time, path, or place of learning. When combined with devices in a one-to-one classroom, this model can increase student achievement, empower students to take more ownership of their learning, and create efficiencies that allow teachers to reinvest time saved in their students.

These dedicated MMS teachers muddled through the reading, research, and planning necessary to make the shift, not simply to technology-rich classrooms, which they do in fact have, but they’ve made the full instructional shift necessary for authentic blended learning. They have read Blended by Michael Horn, Moonshots in Education by Esther Wojcicki, and Blended Learning in Action by Catlin Tucker. They have turned to the Internet, relying heavily on materials provided by the Christensen Institute. They have spent countless hours after school, late nights at home, and weekend afternoons next to the pool discussing how to leverage technology and personalize instruction to increase student achievement and close the achievement gap. They have sacrificed blood, toil, tears, and sweat as they were brutally reminded of the dreaded “implementation dip” common when one encounters an innovation that requires new skills and understandings. But these teachers persevered, knowing they were on the verge of a revolution. Before long, their efforts paid off. The positive impact on students is impossible to miss.

Two sixth grade language arts classes that meet simultaneously at MMS, populated with a high percentage of students with IEPs and 504s, are supported by two content teachers, Cindy Cregar and Sarah Harrison, and a special education teacher, Amy Newkirk. Two sixth grade mathematics classes that meet simultaneously, populated with many of the same students with IEPs and 504s, are supported by two content teachers, Meagan Byrd and Amy Clipp, and the same special educator, Amy Newkirk. These two teams of teachers work together to plan and facilitate a station rotation model of blended learning. Each week, they pre-assess their students and use the results to create personalized playlists that support each student’s learning as he or she rotates among various student-led, teacher-led, high-tech, and low-tech stations across two classrooms.

Initially, students moved through four stations, which these teachers coined Personalized Learning Time, Tech Time, Guided Instruction, and Collaboration. Sometimes the Personalized Learning Time was independent, but at times, it was collaborative. At times it involved technology, but at other times, it was more paper/pencil-based. Tech Time always involved technology, but these teachers felt strongly that the technology should always support new learning, not just reinforce past learning. Guided Instruction was always small group instruction with the teacher, in which she was better able to learn each student’s unique interests and needs because of the small group setting. The Collaboration station always involved students working together to complete a task, sometimes using high-tech, while other times using low-tech strategies. Initially, these stations were very rigid in terms of expectations and pacing, but students struggled. So, their teachers adapted. As Newkirk reflects, “When implementing blended learning, you have to follow the kids, not the model. Flexibility is key when responding to kids’ needs.” Now, particularly because so much of the complex reading and writing that must occur in language arts classes requires sustained, uninterrupted time, the stations have become more fluid. Sometimes they are 20 minutes each; sometimes, depending on the tasks, they are 40 minutes. The key is to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs.

When asked what they think of blended learning, these sixth graders report:

  • “It gives us a chance to move around.”
  • “It lets us collaborate on our ideas.”
  • “I’m more in charge of my own learning.”
  • “It allows us to learn in different ways.”
  • “We’re doing something new every day.”
  • “It’s more challenging.”

Lesson planning is complex, as most stations have three levels of difficulty and digital resources to support the various needs and interests of students. At first, these five teachers spent hours scouring the Internet to find digital content and videos to support their curriculum. They would become frustrated when they would find a near-perfect video, only to find that it interchanged a key vocabulary term. So, rather than being at the mercy of what they could find on the Internet, Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, Clipp, and Newkirk began creating their own differentiated videos using free online video recording tools.

By incorporating and creating so much digital content, students have 24/7 access to learning materials. When students are stuck, instead of turning to their teachers for the answers, they have learned to use the resources at their fingertips to solve problems. As a result, the types of questions students are asking teachers has changed drastically. Instead of asking recall or surface level questions, students ask deeper, analytical questions, and they work alongside their teachers to solve complex problems and tasks.

It’s no secret that planning for blended learning is more time consuming and complex than traditional lesson planning. But the juice is worth the squeeze! Cregar explains how much more meaningful data analysis is. For the past few years, teachers at MMS, and many schools across America, have been asked to set Student Learning Objectives and use data to monitor students’ progress toward that goal. With more traditional, or linear, lesson planning, very little differentiation happens as a result of the data analysis. Teachers may create a differentiated lesson that offers two texts, one more complex than another, or they may offer extension activities for students who demonstrate mastery earlier. But in a traditional classroom, it is nearly impossible to differentiate to a level that meets every student’s needs. In a blended learning classroom, every station is differentiated. Personalized playlists are created to meet the needs of each student. Students have access to learning 24/7, and all of their learning resources are constantly at their fingertips. Technology is leveraged in a way that frees up the teacher to offer more small group and one-on-one instruction and opportunities for real-time feedback. In a blended learning classroom, data analysis becomes a natural part of the planning process, and the findings are used to personalize learning for every student in the room.

So, are there any other critical components for blended learning success? A supportive administration. Everett Warren, principal at MMS, has been a key player in their blended learning success. He purchased books so these teachers could participate in book studies about blended learning. He moved teachers’ classrooms so Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, and Clipp were physically near each other in the building, allowing them to easily “share” students. He arranged to have their electronic gradebooks merged, so all three teachers in each content area were the official teachers of record. He worked with central office staff to provide devices to every student. But most importantly, Warren approached these blended learning pioneers early to say that they had “the freedom to fail.” He knew that these teachers were dedicated, passionate professionals who would do everything in their power to increase student success, but he knew that the shift in instruction would be unconventional. He knew that these teachers needed the space, the freedom, and the permission to think outside of the box and learn what worked best both by extensive research and trial and error. Warren created the environment for success, and then stepped back, confident that these teachers would not settle for anything less than success.

This semester has been a journey of an educator’s lifetime, but Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, Clipp, and Newkirk now find themselves with more opportunities for small group instruction, one-on-one support, student choice, and development of 21st-century skills. The sixth graders at MMS, who often come to middle school with significant gaps in understanding and a heavy dependency on the teacher, are notably more engaged, autonomous, and successful.