Blending the Best: Better Learning for More Kids

By Scott Nolt, First Published by Real Clear Education, February 17, 2016

Technology in education is one of the most exciting, terrifying and threatening developments for teachers today. Now into my second year as a blended-learning history teacher—meaning I have a group of students in my classroom every other day, assigning them to work online, at home, on the “off” days—I’ve found the scary parts less frightening than most fear, with far greater benefits than I expected.

My blended classroom opens the door to 21st-century learning, student-centered instruction, project-based learning, and an emphasis on learning as a lifelong experience, not just what you do for six hours at school. Rather than being another challenge for teachers or a new education fad, my class helped tie this all together.

It’s been intense but gratifying: Because I teach one class while another works from home, I reach twice as many students in that period than in a traditional setting. The challenge is to reach more students while keeping results as strong as before I extended my reach—and preferably stronger. In the first blended year, my students’ growth scores in American History I were well above the district average, with students exceeding “expected” growth; this year, my blended class averaged higher growth than my traditional class.

And this isn’t restricted to already-great or highly motivated students—I’ve seen high growth from honors, ESL, special education and average students alike.

I’ve pinpointed three big priorities educators should focus on for a great experience designing and teaching a blended class—and that parents should demand for their children’s education.

Go all in:  When designing a blended class, seize the opportunity to take risks and truly transform it. This experience can be—must be—much more than putting some lectures, worksheets, links or tests online. Blended learning opens up unlimited resources, makes daily student collaboration more practical and lets teachers respond to students instantly from across town.

Only when a teacher sincerely buys in to blended learning will students and their parents embrace the change. We’re introducing students to an entirely different notion of school. I wanted to highlight the process, experience and benefits while being honest about the challenges. In return, students and parents have given very little negative feedback.

Embrace a culture of change and instability, and adapt: Creating a digital class that changes where, when and how students learn was like again being a first-year teacher redesigning assignments, trying new strategies and rolling with the punches. Some assignments will work in a blended environment, and some won’t—and that’s OK.  Students can see that learning is a sometimes messy task that should focus on the process, not the product.

When I designed my class—with paid summer time to map it out—I thought, “How can I consolidate everything I need to do into one, in-person period, then find good independent work students can do on the days they are not in class?” I ended up doing too much in class, without the freedom and flexibility I wanted as a facilitator.

So this year, I designed my class to be completely online—all the content, all the assignments. That frees me to focus in-person time on instructing and facilitating where my students really need me—providing truly differentiated instruction. Most days include class document analysis, discussing new concepts, collaborative work, and peer and teacher feedback. Teaching essential skills, keeping discussions productive, and helping students understand and analyze—that’s what they need from me in person.

My class is evolving faster than ever. Last semester, I didn’t have my American history students take any notes in class. We discussed concepts and examples, but notes were built into the materials, available for students wherever and whenever needed.

It worked great, but I was prepared to adjust if it didn’t, since I always focus on results.

Get students active in learning: Blended learning gives students greater flexibility over the pace, location and timing of learning, and lets teachers be even more flexible with resources. Rather than relying on the infallible textbook, teachers may offer students multiple sources, and require them to find and vet their own.

This doesn’t always sit well with students. One student said he would prefer just using the textbook that he knew was reliable, rather than finding and evaluating online sources. But that is the 21st-century skill that is most important, academically and in life. A blended class can teach students to think critically and creatively, foster skepticism, and guide them to be adaptable, independent learners.

I especially like online discussions, which allow students to evaluate everyone’s ideas. Students get to show evidence of learning through essays, presentations, videos, posters and written documents, allowing them to share their ideas creatively, and often eliciting greater participation from quiet students. In a classroom discussion analyzing a political cartoon, only a few students will speak up. But if I assign an online discussion on that same cartoon, all students will respond and see their classmates’ ideas.

I have been amazed how blended learning has broken down so many barriers to designing the class I want to teach. I have leagues to go before I am happy, but I love how it has helped me create a dynamic, flexible learning environment. Blended learning is evolving so fast, and not all the results have been terrific—but teachers who are considering blending their classes shouldn’t let the challenges stop them from seizing the opportunity.

Scott Nolt is in his 15th year of teaching and second year teaching blended-learning classes. He teaches American History I and II as blended classes at Jay M. Robinson High School in the Cabarrus County, N.C., school district.

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