Blended Learning from the Ground Up

Call me cautiously optimistic.  Emphasize “cautious.”  I hesitate to express all-out enthusiasm for what’s called “blended learning” because right now the term is so often conflated with the term “cost-effective,” a euphemism for “eliminating human jobs and leaving a single teacher in charge of 45-60 high-needs, at-risk students.”   As I mentioned in an earlier post, the original vision—still in circulation, as far as I can tell—was that technology would make enormous class sizes possible, in order to offset the initial outlay of money for computers, software and internet access.  All I can say about this notion is that it’s clearly a marketing move by tech companies, which they are fully entitled to try, but we are not fully entitled to buy into. 

On the other hand, some of what I’m seeing looks very interesting—when it’s done thoughtfully, not from some corporation’s top-down cost-saving idea, and when it’s done with the idea of enhancing close human relationships, not replacing them.  A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to visit Lou Dantzler Middle School, an ICEF charter in South Los Angeles, where they’re now using the blended learning model schoolwide.

What impressed me about the program here was that ICEF is proceeding slowly.  Peter Watts, ICEF’s Director of Blended Learning, told me that the system they’re using began with a group of 25 teachers who volunteered to use laptops and iReady software in their classrooms for a year as an experiment.  “The way that we rolled out blended learning from the start was driven by teacher interest,” he told me in an email. “In order to have a successful program, teachers must be a part of that process in helping to think through and develop your model. Too many times mandates come down from the top in large organizations.”

The teachers who tried blended learning were enthusiastic at the end of the year.  Test scores were high across the board; one teacher’s students had a stunning 88% proficiency in English Language Arts and 100% in Math. This year, ICEF decided to try it in all of its middle schools.  Peter brought me to the 8th grade classroom of Stephanie Lam, a second-year teacher trying blended learning this year for the first time, to see the program in action.

First of all, a major factor here is that her class is small—only 25 students.  As any teacher knows, this number is far more manageable than the 37 students I saw earlier this year in a blended learning classroom where the exhausted teacher was struggling to keep her eye on 19 students while leading a discussion with another 18.

Here, Stephanie was leading a really small class discussion with only twelve kids, each of them paired with a partner to discuss whether people are by nature good or evil—ironically, the same question I’d seen discussed in Catherine Stine’s amazing 12th grade class.  Here, obviously, the discussion was simpler because the kids were younger, but what was interesting to me was that the very small class size really did give her a chance to pay attention to each student.

The rest of the class was in back using an iReady program on laptops that seemed to be reading comprehension drills differentiated to each student’s level, a type of program called “adaptive” because it matches the questions to the student’s skill level.  I didn’t get a chance to try out the program (iReady’s sample software available online only gives a 6th grade lesson), but I have to say that even when I walked around the classroom multiple times, really sneaking up on kids, I didn’t see a single kid off-task.  Every one of them was absorbed in the program and working—unusual in a class of 13 year olds, I’d guess.

I’m ambivalent about packaged software, but again, I must say that if it’s good, it would definitely alleviate one of the major headaches of lesson planning, which is differentiating instruction so that every student is challenged appropriately.  I’d love to get my hands on some high school ELA software, if anybody has any to send me.

Stephanie is unequivocally enthusiastic about blended learning.  “In a traditional classroom, the ratio between teachers and students has allowed several students to slip through the cracks. The use of blended learning has allowed me to ensure that ALL my students are never left behind,” she tells me later in an email.  Most impressive of all to me is that she seems to feel that the small class discussions make it possible for her to reach every student personally.  Blended learning, she says, “gives me the time to answer individual questions and scaffold a smaller group of students.”  She says the kids like the online individual lessons, which are targeted to each student’s level. “Students really enjoy earning tokens (given to students when they complete a specific amount of lessons) so they can earn to purchase different things in a virtual store,” she says.  Pavlovian?  Hell, yeah—but if you’ve ever sat in a classroom full of disengaged students who were doing no work, I’d say, if it gets kids to focus on grammar and vocab, why not?

One interesting side note is that here, as at the other school where I observed blended learning, the small-group discussion part of the program was not yet in place.  I know that at least one tech-oriented school has decided that it’s just not possible for students to stay on task in groups without any supervision; I don’t know if there are other teachers somewhere who can make it work. Right now, what I’m seeing is teachers—including Stephanie–leading half-class discussions, with the rest of the class working individually on laptops. Even in the two-station model, Stephanie acknowledges that the system takes practice and really solid classroom management.  “Teachers should always be monitoring the students in the other station,” she says, which to me is another argument for smaller class size.

Still, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m intrigued by the model.  When it’s driven by teachers, rolled out slowly and used in conjunction with small class size to enable close student-teacher relationships, I have to say I’d be interested in trying it myself.  Those are big “if’s,” though.  Can other, larger school systems have the patience, resources and faith in the process to let teachers lead the way?

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