This summer, I observed six talented CityBridge Foundation Education Innovation Fellows pilot new blended learning models in their classrooms in Washington, D.C. All six Fellows designed and piloted station rotation blended learning models (customized to each classroom’s needs), which utilize three to four student learning centers that provide targeted instruction via different learning modalities. All six Fellows had at least two learning stations that were powered by technology, meaning they consisted of students working on ed tech apps or programs, such as Edmodo, TenMarks, or ST Math.
After a summer of studying these pilots, I’ve summarized four significant takeaways:
1. Small-group instruction is the best for meeting students’ needs.
Although I’m genuinely impressed with how well each Fellow’s pilot worked, particularly in terms of student accountability and engagement, I’m thoroughly convinced that the most effective station was the teacher-led small group station. It’s no coincidence that each Fellow had this as a main blended learning station.
Across schools, subjects and grades, the Fellows masterfully used the small group station to provide their students with personalized and targeted support. During each observation, I purposefully sat inconspicuously near the teacher-led station so I could listen to the Fellows engage each group of students with higher-order and rigorous questions. And since the teachers have data specific to their small groups and the students’ common gaps or misconceptions, they were equipped to address those gaps or modify accordingly.
Takeaway #2: The real magic is relationships.
As a silent spectator, the teacher-led station seemed the most effective and engaging. But don’t take my word for it. Kelley Jones said her students “really seemed to love the model, but even more, they appeared to love being able to connect with their teachers.” This point shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Although this part of the classroom experience is sometimes overlooked, any teacher worth his or her weight in gold will tell you that relationships influence a student’s desire to learn from his or her teacher. That’s why students prefer the teacher-led or small-group instruction station: It allows them to interact with their teacher and fellow classmates in a more intimate and safe learning environment.
Takeaway #3: No one missed whole-class instruction.
Whole-class instruction was missing across all Fellows’ classrooms. And after observing these talented teachers manage their blended learning environments, I couldn’t help but wonder if this traditional method is incompatible with blended or personalized learning models.
The simple answer: Of course not! It’s not structurally incompatible; teachers could carve out time for whole-class instruction if they wanted to. However, if teachers are also expected to analyze student data to differentiate lesson activities and assignments for every student, the question becomes, “How can a teacher effectively perform this task via whole-class instruction, alone?” The other simple answer: They can’t.
This where personalized learning models come in: They allow teachers to redesign time and classroom structure so they can meet each of their students where they are in a sustainable way.
Takeaway #4: It’s more than just technology-enabled activities.
During my visits this summer, I observed an interesting difference: Each Fellow used an ed tech site as a supplement to learning, not as a stand-alone assignment. (For example, each Fellow allowed students to use certain educational sites, such as TenMarks, that required students to complete a targeted skill level or lesson.) These lessons were reinforced via the small group or teacher-led station. This is an important note to mention.
The education community sometimes assumes that using technology in the classroom will automatically boost student achievement. This assumption causes us to define blended and personalized learning in terms of devices like tablets or laptops. But a classroom filled with technological devices will not magically boost learning. And more importantly, blended and personalized learning is not the same as a technology-enabled classroom.
So what is a technology-enabled classroom? A classic example is when students to use a device to complete a “digitized” worksheet—essentially the same worksheet that they might have filled out on paper, but in digital format. A personalized learning classroom, however, leverages education apps and/or programs to tailor instruction based on student data. In other words, blended and personalized learning has little to do with a specific piece of hardware or educational site; it has more to do with how the teacher leverages the learning model to maximize student understanding. Even though technology is an all but necessary classroom resource, we must not interpret ed tech itself as the holy grail of blended or personalized learning.
Thank you for joining me in examining the innovative work that’s happening in classrooms across D.C.! It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Angel Cintron Jr., Contributing Blogger and 2014 Education Innovation Fellow
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