Blended Learning is a Good Start, but…

A model of personalized learning?

I recently visited a school district that  had recently implemented blended learning.  Specifically, teachers were using the station rotation model of blended learning.  It was a clear and welcome departure from the teacher at front, student in rows model that had been an instructional staple.

As the superintendent welcomed us, he said, that blended learning allows us to assess and intervene in real time, which he considered key to personalization.

Hmmm.  I’m not so sure.  

Let me be clear, I’m a big fan of using technology to personalize learning.  I applaud and push all schools—K-12—to get to a 1:1 learning environment so that all students can easily and quickly use technology for a variety of things.

And, I think that the station-rotation model of instruction represents a huge and welcome instructional shift.  Done well, it allows for rich collaborative time with peers, independent time to work and struggle productively, and time in small groups with a teacher who is using all forms of data to hone in on individual students’ learning.

But that doesn’t mean it’s personalized.

For learning to be personalized, students must own their learning.  They must have a clear sense of the what, why and the how.

The What: Standards and Competencies

If learning is to be personalized, we adults must clearly articulate what mastery looks like in a given course.  We must have determined power standards, unpacked those standards and created proficiency scales so that we, students and parents have clear indicators of what it takes to get to mastery.

Even our youngest students can and should understand what is expected of them, what they will be learning and what it will look like for them when they’ve “got it”.

The Why: What Will I Do With This?

Courses of study and units within them must be tied to Essential Questions.  Those EQs  put the learning into a larger context and transferability.  Additionally, connections can and should be made to real-world applications. We adults must also understand that the goal is deeper learning. 

The How:  How Will I be able to demonstrate mastery?

Ownership, voice and choice. Station-rotation can be heavily teacher-directed.  No doubt, students are often more on-task in small groups than in the traditional teacher at the front model, but they still may not get to those higher levels of engagement in which they direct the learning.  Providing more opportunities for students to direct their learning and to truly engage with the learning, via long-term projects, for example would allow student to truly personalize.

Blended learning is a must for us in 21st century classrooms. Teachers can use a number of resources and platforms to allow students to dig deeper into content and skills, to take real-time assessments and get directed feedback, and to collaborate with peers in and out of the classroom using online tools.  It’s a necessary first step to deep, joyful and personalized learning. 

But it’s not the end.

5 Questions to Get Students Engaged

Engagement.  The magic word.  I’ve conducted countless Instructional Rounds, learning walks and other observations focused on engagement. Are kids engaged? It’s a great question.  It’s really THE question. And, unfortunately, all too often the answer is no.

Why? Part of it is the sense that stuff is happening TO them—and much of it is a surprise. Many of us advocate for greater student agency—voice and choice over their learning.  But first, we’ve need to provide a roadmap.

As educators, we often have the benefit of some curricula to guide us.  So, we know what we are teaching, how we want to teach and where we want our students to end up.

Often, though, students are left in the dark.  They show up with some vague idea of what they are learning. When asked, they answer with the subject—math- or maybe even the topic (fractions) or the text (The Great Gatsby) but not much beyond that.  And we wonder why they are not more engaged, more present, more excited.

Getting kids to be cognitively engaged depends on a lot of factors and lots of hard and great work by teachers.

To start, though, they …and we should be able to answer the following 5 questions. (Templates are at the bottom of this post)

Here are 5 questions that students should be able to answer:

  1. What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?
  2. How will I show what I’ve learned?
  3. How will we learn?
  4. What do I do when I struggle?
  5. Why am I learning this?*

These questions will be familiar to those who have relied on the work of Dufour, et al, on building professional learning communities and those who have engaged in a backwards design curriculum process like Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.

  1. What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?

Include your content standards—but not all of them.  If your district/school has identified power standards, use those.  If not, you determine what’s most important and let them know that’s the focus.

Also, include those life and learning skills that they will gain.  You might want to guarantee greater collaboration or problem-solving skills, for example.

      2. How will I show what I’ve learned?

What are some examples of formative and summative assessments? Does the teacher assess HW? Is there a lot of writing? Is there a major project at the end of the course or each quarter? Will there be an exhibition of learning?

A grading policy is helpful here as well.  (I’ve got lots of thoughts on what that can and should look like, but the important thing is that students understand the practices up front.)

If you allow retakes and redos, a clear explanation of how that’s done and the impact on grades is useful.

3.How will we learn?

What are the usual activities?  Do we take a lot of notes? Will we participate in socratic seminar? Are we expected to explore via cooperative lab work?

What skills are needed/will be developed?  Are we expected to read, speak, explain, draw, act, sing?

Here, I would give students an opportunity to reflect on their level of comfort with each of these and some strategies to ask for and receive help.  For example, the painfully shy student or one with a speech impairment might dread public speaking.  Knowing it’s expected and how they will be supported allows students and teacher to be proactive.

4. What do I do when I struggle?

This is a great time to reinforce a growth mindset.  Let them know and discuss how anything worth doing can sometimes be difficult but that we are all in this together.

This is also where kids need some specifics about their access to additional help. How and when can they meet with you one on one? Do you take email questions? Are they assigned a partner to work with first?

You can keep coming back to this by asking students to reflect regularly on where they got stumped and what they did —or continue to do—to make their way forward.  Of course, a grading system that doesn’t punish kids for not “getting it right away” or indeed a PBL system that is built on struggle is helpful here, but even in the most traditional environments, this can be useful.

5. Why am I learning this?*

Arguably, this should come first,  But I recommend that you explore this together through the school year.  Students can self-assess on this as a part of reflections after summative or formative assessments. This can be a homework assignment once a quarter or every few weeks—ask parents, grandparents, Google, etc—Why should I learn this? What can I do with this now? What will I do with this in the future? How does this tie into what I already know or what I am learning in other areas of school or life?

Come back to this often—weekly, quarterly, at the beginning and end of discrete units of study.  The more students know about the what, why and how  of the lean ringing, the more they can invest of themselves in the learning.

Templates

Here’s a course overview template teachers can use for their own course planning.

Here’s a template to use with  students and families.

Please let me know if this is useful and/or how the templates can be improved.

Wishing you a great year of deep and joyful learning!

Lori

How to personalize learning? Start with empathy.

I recently caught up with a  friend of mine, let’s call her Sheila.  We hadn’t talked in some time and I was glad to catch up on her life and, especially, to hear how her daughter, Carolyn, was doing.

A History of Illness

Carolyn, now  in high school, has lived with a severe chronic illness her whole life that has increasingly caused frequent and sometimes prolonged hospitalizations, which, of course, keep her out of school.  During her freshman year, Carolyn missed four months of school and was just transitioning back when her mom and I spoke.  Knowing that working with the school system to accommodate Carolyn has been akin to a part-time job for Sheila, I asked how it was going. 

An Empathetic School

Sheila told me the school had been great.  They have a program for students with chronic illnesses.  Not only does the team work together to provide tutoring, they also support students socially and emotionally.  An example of their accommodation, Sheila told me, was that Carolyn was allowed to show proficiency on major assignments, rather than being held accountable (I.e., graded down) for missing assignments.

I was overjoyed to hear this.  Navigating schoolwork and missed assignments has been a major source of stress for both Carolyn and Sheila, exacerbated, no doubt, by the fact that Carolyn attends one of the highest performing high schools in her state. KUDOS to this high school for creating such program and by doing so, showing empathy for students whose very real struggles would prevent them from passing their courses if not for these accommodations. Other schools offer similar alternative programs for students who, for a variety of reasons, need a more personalized approach.

Good for one or good for all?

But then, I have to wonder—are some of these accommodations just good practice that can be extended to all students?  If teachers realize that some assignments are simply not essential (and thus can be not “counted”) then it stands to reason that they’ve already done the hard work of identifying what is and is not essential—which standards must be mastered, what each student must know and be able to do to be considered proficient in a particular course of study and allowed to move forward. So why not apply this philosophy to the entire school?

This isn’t about missing assignments or not holding students accountable.  It’s about how we think about learning in general.  If we can allow flexibilities for some, let’s do the same for all.  Giving each student what she needs, when she needs it just makes sense.  If we do that, the learning will follow.