Creating Blended Learning Models That Work

For district leaders, finding the right blend of technology, commitment, and support can be the difference between success and failure.

GUEST COLUMN | by Eileen Murphy Buckley

CREDIT ThinkCERCA.pngNot long ago, while hosting a blended learning training for a large, high-performing district, I heard a teacher ask, “What do I do if my students finish independent reading at different times and we still want them to collaborate?” In response, we painted a picture of a classroom setup with one place for independent work, another for collaboration, and one for direct instruction. Since my colleagues support schools with various blended models every day, this was a familiar solution for us. But even though blended models have become more prevalent over the last few years, implementing them is still a challenge, and rightfully so. Because the paradigm of a teacher front-and-center in the classroom and students collaborating without technology is so ingrained within education, it can be overwhelming to change or reassemble it.

We now understand that technology can’t just push students to learn alone in isolation, but rather, it should bring teachers and students together for worthwhile collaboration.

Personalized learning models are challenging us to rethink people, processes, places, products, and time within our schools. Sometimes the simple act of rearranging desks can help maximize student learning; district and school leaders need to provide the time and space for thinking through these simple mechanics together as a team.

Asking teachers to rethink their role at the head of the classroom or the role of technology or to try something completely different is a tall order, especially in schools where classroom management and lack of available resources remain formidable issues. Tempering some of that anxiety through adequate training on innovative learning spaces is really the charge of district leaders. In fact, it’s quite possibly one of the most important things a leader can do if we really want to transition to true personalized learning in the classroom.

When District Leaders Take Charge

District and school administrators, along with teachers, are some of the busiest professionals you’re ever likely to meet. Professional development hours have never been more scarce but resources for improving learning have never been more abundant. For that reason, the best implementations, no matter what they look like structurally, are invariably the ones supported at the district level, where administrators make it clear that they are going to fully align curricular evaluation processes, professional development, time, and infrastructure resources to ensure innovation is focused on helping teachers achieve better results with their students.

Yet I’ve also seen districts that approach it from a very different angle, asking individual and small groups of teachers to pilot a new initiative to see if they like it, or to look at it when they can find the time, fitting it in if they’re able.

In those cases, teachers often don’t get a chance to truly work with the new model, or they feel so overwhelmed juggling both new and existing initiatives that they develop what some refer to as initiative fatigue.

When teachers don’t see the district’s investment in blended models or new resources, they become much less likely to make the crucial time investment needed to explore new things that can really drive innovation and have a dramatic impact on student results.

On the other hand, when many teachers across a district begin to see outcomes improve through an initiative, everyone is inspired to come to work every day, making jobs increasingly rich and motivating.

The great thing about a district administrator’s role during a blended implementation is that their bird’s-eye view allows for more time and flexibility to do some essential pattern-finding and identify opportunities to showcase practices that allow teachers to maximize their students’ learning. That might entail finding and highlighting the models that look most effective once the initiative has been implemented or setting up collaboration protocols for educators to come together, plan, and learn from each other.

If a district decides to make personalized learning a focus, and places effort into finding the best models, they will inherently provide teachers and building-level administrators with the much-needed supports to make blended and personalized learning truly scalable.

Blended learning and personalized learning, and particularly our perceptions of them as concepts, have changed so much over time. Many districts have evolved away from the view of leveraging technology to teach students outside of traditional classroom time to one that considers how technology can support teaching for learning inside the classroom.

We now understand that technology can’t just push students to learn alone in isolation, but rather, it should bring teachers and students together for worthwhile collaboration. As our understanding evolves, so too should our visions for successful implementations. In the end, a supportive and committed district coupled with a focused, supportive site-based administration, are the keys to teacher and student success.

A former teacher and district administrator, Eileen Murphy Buckley is founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, a blended literacy program built around self-paced and collaborative learning.

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