Response: Blended Learning Is ‘the Next Generation of Education’

This week’s question is:

What is blended learning, is there value in it and, if so, how do I do it?

“Blended learning” is a phrase tossed around a lot in education these days, but what exactly does it mean and does it work?

This column will explore those two questions with contributions from Angel Cintron Jr., Connie Parham, Catlin Tucker, Sheri Edwards, Cheryl Costello, William J. Tolley and George Station. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Dave and Julia on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.


 

What is blended learning?

We have to start by approaching this question broadly on two levels:

  1. For some, blended learning refers to large hybrid learning platforms and experiences offered by universities and some school districts. Writ large, it’s distance learning with a face to face element.
  2. For the teacher on the street, blended learning speaks to the combination of strategies and technologies that allows for a similar split between face to face encounters and online exploration of course content, but facilitates so much more of value in our day-to-day learning with our students. 

As important as the first definition is becoming in the greater scheme of learning, definition two is the one most relevant to the classroom teacher who wants to transform her learning environment into space of choice and opportunity.

The Value of Blended Learning:

In short, the value of blended learning resides in its ability to empower teachers and students to do what excites them most in learning. There is no denying that the demands (for better or worse) on teachers and students have grown over past decades, whether they are subject to the rise of accountability measures, pressure for admission into higher education or the need to bridge gaps between the performance of their students and national or international standards. Adopting blended learning strategies frees up space and time to meet such demands, while still allowing for individualization and differentiation. Most importantly, when done right, it involves students in the shaping of their learning, reviving democracy in what so easily becomes an environment of oppression and standardization.

How to start?

Lose control. Go messy. Embrace chaos. Fall in love with flux. Or, as David Lee put it eloquently at the recent Learning2Asia conference: be comfortable being “Always In Beta.”

The blended learning environment that described my own practice last December has transmogrified–it is barely recognizable within my current practice. My commitment to empowering students in democratic space and time remains the same, but the trappings have evolved.  One of my favorite old techniques, the “mastery quest” system, has been completely replaced by assessment apps like Memrise that allow me to design purely formative retention activities with my students.

I have previously offered suggestions for creating successful blended learning classrooms, and I am sure that taken together, the responses to this edition of Q&A will offer plenty of tools you can take into class on Monday. But buyer beware: if one thing is certain, it’s that in blended learning, the old notion of developing a routine over a few years is obsolete. The true value of blended learning, done right, is not that it gives you a toolbox that will serve you until you retire, but that it prevents your workroom from becoming an anachronism by always keeping it in flux, by not only facing, but fashioning the future.

 

Why Professional Development Should Be More Like ‘MasterChef’

The alarm goes off. You roll out of bed, sidle to the kitchen, and have a glass of water while you fumble for the button on the coffee maker. Semi-alert, you suddenly remember: Today is a professional development day. Perhaps you just issued an imaginary sigh of relief, reassured by your school’s focus on staff development and eager to engage with your colleagues over meaningful professional development. Or perhaps your spirit just died and you counted in your head how many sick days you still have in your bank.

The trending apathy toward PD is ironic in that it coincides with rich developments in teaching. Maker spaces, gamification, personalized learning, standards-based grading—while not taking hold everywhere, these modern learning concepts define the current conversation on enhancing learning for students, so why not teachers? How many times do we have to hear that interactivity and inquiry are the best forms for learning from a hired expert lecturing from a text-laden PowerPoint presentation before someone does the math?

Here’s an idea. What if teacher professional development looked more like what transpires on the popular reality show “MasterChef”? What if our trainers were expert chefs, and we engaged with our peers the way they ask their amateur chefs to? What are the best practices of “MasterChef” that should be brought to our PD table?

Gamification

As the most obvious and distinct characteristic, “MasterChef” gamifies learning for its contestants. It is important here to recognize the distinction between games and gamification. On the show, proficient home cooks race around the “MasterChef” kitchen competing in “challenges” that push them to cook this, cut that, or recognize essential ingredients in a context that motivates them to meet their goals.

Of course, it is also important for the PD developer to realize that some teachers, just like people everywhere, are not as tuned into gaming as others. They should also remember that one of the key complaints teachers have about their PD is that they are often treated like children. The majority of teachers won’t mind a little competition, but no teacher likes to be treated like they don’t know what they’re doing.

Mastery Learning, Differentiation, Personalization

The amateur chefs on “MasterChef” get multiple opportunities as members of teams and in individual challenges to prove their mastery of a particular skill. Those who demonstrate mastery are “safe” and removed from competition in that particular challenge. Then they are allowed to advise their peers, and may be taken away for a personalized training session with one of the hosts—advanced training they have proven themselves qualified for.

Back in the studio, the contestants who have not yet mastered the task are given further opportunities to improve and prove competence under the close supervision of the expert hosts. This is the very definition of differentiated learning—how have TV cooks gotten there before us?

Peer and Expert Evaluation (With a Nice Aussie Touch)

Teachers aren’t scared of tough-talk—they are scared of the perceived repercussions. If an experienced mentor or peer tells a young teacher to work on classroom management, counsels on how to achieve this goal, and supports regularly through direct observation, the teacher is not going to cry because he or she is a professional adult. The fear creeps in when a teacher thinks that an appraisal of an isolated aspect of the total skill set will result in an unsatisfactory yearly rating. We tell our students to not be afraid to fail, so why do we still let this fear fester among teachers? Professional development should never provide cause for permanent censure.

By contrast, the contestants on “MasterChef” work in an environment that keeps the pressure on, but in a way that motivates and inspires. When they are working hard, they get kudos. When they are slacking, they get a kick in the patookas. Even the normally sweet Australian hosts George, Gary, and Matt (“MasterChef” U.S. host Gordon Ramsay is a tad too aggressive for our purposes) will lay down the science when a dish is ill-prepared or tastes bad. But the contestants almost always get a chance to redeem themselves and try again.

This sounds like a relationship most teachers yearn for when starting their careers. Instead, far too often, without hands-on guidance, we are told to aspire to “satisfactory.” I don’t know a single professional educator who wouldn’t be willing to nurse a few bruises to their ego in exchange for truly constructive critique.

Microcredentials

The ultimate prize in “MasterChef” is the coveted golden immunity pin. Once in possession of a pin, contestants can use it to sit out any elimination contest, surviving to fight another day.

Translated into the teacher’s world, the case for microcredentials is strong and growing. Among their many benefits, just like on “MasterChef,” microcredentials prove mastery of a particular subject or skill and can relieve teachers of being forced to repeat training unnecessarily. By designating who is trained on certain issues, schools can also identify experts in these areas to lead sessions (rather than sit through them) and assign mentors to less-proficient peers.

Speaking of leading sessions, remember those hired guns lecturing at their keynotes? Let’s trade that model for this one and see what synergy we conjure up when teachers don’t passively listen to the big-name instructional experts of the world, but those luminaries throw on their aprons and dig in to help—or compete with—teachers in writing units, crafting lesson plans, and designing project-based learning experiences. I would suggest that the teacher who produces a better backwardly designed unit than Jay McTighe has earned the right to sit out the next Understanding by Design training session—or lead it!

Redemption and Empowerment

Professional development that borrows from the model of “MasterChef” will challenge teachers in a way that builds grit, instills meaning, and conveys all the benefits we attribute to competitive sports—and extol to our students. Yes, we will have to brace ourselves for the occasional critique, sometimes in the presence of our peers, but we also create opportunities for praise and commendation. When was the last time an expert watched one of your lessons and told you it was perfection?

The “MasterChef” franchise has even worked out that this environment works on escalating levels as your career advances and thus has created spin-offs like “Junior MasterChef” for children and “MasterChef Australia the Professionals” for seasoned chefs. This makes perfect sense if, like we tell our students, learning is a lifelong process.

Of course, the one difference we must maintain between our profession and the model of “MasterChef” is that as working education professionals, we are not limited to a television season’s timeframe, nor do we need to declare a final winner. We can repeat the cycle of supportive, meaningful, fun, personalized professional development as long as it takes for all of our colleagues to become proud of their work, but still keep improving with the encouragement of a community of peers.

Originally published at EdWeek Teacher on May 24, 2016.

Teaching Controversial Issues in ‘Interesting’ Times

“May you live in interesting times.” —Chinese curse (apocryphal)

Early in my career, when I was teaching at a magnet school in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City, I was baffled every year when at least one student would submit an essay making the case for Adolf Hitler as a misunderstood genius. I never refused to let a student make his or her case. Instead, I would monitor the student’s work closely, demand rigorous evidence for any argument, and play devil’s advocate. Their arguments extolling historical tyrants tended to fall apart as soon as the investigation pushed past internet imagery and memes.

Generally, if students in the United States want to work through what may seem a dubious political or ethical topic, history teachers do not flatly deny them the opportunity to do so. Regardless of the students’ motives, a flat denial of their inquiry will often be counterproductive. The history teacher’s job is not to tell students what to think; instead, we must give students opportunities to challenge conventional wisdom. We don’t want our students to become automatons regurgitating narratives, but critical thinkers who can take their place as informed citizens in an advanced democracy.

On the surface, my current experience as a teacher at an international school in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could not be more different. Here, I have not only had to shut down the research choices of my students, but my colleagues and I have been instructed to avoid certain historical topics altogether. In the PRC, the impact of communist revolutionary Mao Zedong on modern China and “The Three Ts” (Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square) are considered no-go zones for historical study. The government actually provides a guideline for understanding Mao that stems from a statement by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1981: Mao was 70 percent right in his actions, and 30 percent wrong. Full stop. Develop your curriculum from here.

Two years ago, this matter came to a head when one of my students wanted to write her extended essay (the senior thesis required to earn an International Baccalaureate, or IB, diploma) on Mao’s culpability during the Great Leap Forward, his largely failed attempt to industrialize China in 10 years through subsequent USSR-style five-year plans. After her choice of essay was denied by school representatives without an explanation, her parents petitioned me for a reason.

I referred to the school’s by-laws, which explicitly state that the school, its employees, and its students will operate in compliance with the laws and the constitution of the PRC. Studying an English translation of the PRC’s constitution, I learned that the treatment of historical subjects of sensitivity—as defined by the state—is subject to state scrutiny and possible prosecution, especially if shared or distributed online. As IB extended essays are now uploaded to the internet for submission, the school’s position in accordance with the law was clear.

To be fair, my students and their families moved to China voluntarily and no one forced them to enroll at my school. I also came of my own accord, knowing very well that I may face challenges as a history teacher working within an unfamiliar political system.

This is not my first close encounter with autocracy. Before visiting Burma (now Myanmar) in 1999, I asked my senior thesis advisor from college, an expert in Burma and decolonization, about the ethics of being a tourist in an authoritarian state. He encouraged me to go, advising, “Bill, how else are we going to learn about the truth of the situation there? And how sure are you that the government of the United States hasn’t resembled Burma’s in the past, or that it won’t in the future? Don’t throw stones until you test the walls.”

Keeping an open mind, however, is different than avoiding controversial topics, especially those of critical contemporary relevance. Our challenge as teachers in the PRC is finding a way to respect the school’s obligation to its government and community, while still helping students grapple with the big questions of their day—all without getting fired.

Here are a few solutions my colleagues and I have devised:

1. We redesigned the curriculum to focus not on East Asia, but on the Americas (one of the four choices offered by the International Baccalaureate organization). In this framework, we can still cover China’s role in international events like World War II and the Cold War, while avoiding sensitive domestic issues.

2. We reselected our core units to include decolonization, civil rights, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy. This allows us to address key human rights issues as faced by people in the United States, Latin America, and the former European colonies.

3. We made the issues of the day a primer for learning about the issues of the past. Using worldwide current events as a springboard for our discussions, we make connections between contemporary consequences and their historical causes—and always round back to discuss change and continuity over time.

The end result? We have cultivated a cohort of students who have never directly addressed the three Ts and Mao’s 30-percent culpability through their submitted work, but have been exposed to parallel case studies that give them the critical thinking tools they need to grapple with these forbidden topics. Hallway conversations about China’s expansion in the South China Sea, challenges to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and government responses to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution are not against the law, and, as Mark Twain would observe, they “rhyme” well with past events like the annexation of Tibet, the continued sensitivity over the One China policy, and the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

History rhymes right across the Pacific. My experience in China has taught me to raise controversial issues in challenging circumstances. As a teacher in the PRC, I strive to respect all members of the community while refusing to retreat from necessary conversations. This can instruct teachers’ conduct in American classrooms as well.

How are the walls in your classroom these days? Do they stand solidly against the challenge of ‘alternative facts’; threats to defund programs critical to historical literacy, like the National Endowment for the Humanities; and movements to ban seminal revisionist history texts, like A People’s History of the United States?

There is no 70/30 rule in the United States, so be creative. Respect your community and stay in the classroom, but hold the powerful accountable for their actions. Remember, it’s our duty as American educators—and as citizens—to ensure that our nation’s “Ts” are not shielded from history, but face scrutiny in both the present and the future.

 

Originally published at EdWeek Teacher, April 18, 2017.

Semester Without Grades: An Early Report from the Field

 

This past August I seized the opportunity be an early adopter (read: guinea pig) by requesting that my principal let me pilot a transitional gradeless classroom (our goal is to be a fully standards-based high school within 3-5 years). Six months later, I am emerging from the initial messiness of the process (that stage of cleaning your room when you’ve got your junk in piles all over the place, and can now start folding and filling drawers) so I thought I might share a few reflections in the moment.

 

Contextual Compromises

As a large, urban, Asian international school with a highly motivated student body, andvery high family expectations, my school offers a clear set of social obstacles to grading reform. Many families are suspicious of anything that might jeopardize what they perceive to be a mathematical formula for admission to the best universities. With these reservations in mind, I was given the go ahead to implement standards-based evaluation for all assignments but I still had to produce a letter grade at the end of the semester.

Within these parameters, I deployed a grading system inspired by the work of Alfie Kohnand Thomas Guskey, patching together a list of the most relevant C3, Common Core ELA, IB History and IB Approaches To Learning standards which I applied to relevant assignments. I then produced a semester rubric for each letter grade, reflecting each of the chosen sets of standards, which was distributed to and explained to all parents and students on “back to school” night. After some initial hesitation, I was encouraged by the trust they expressed in me. Trust is key whenever change is involved, so for all of us together—parents, students, teacher and admin—moving forward with eyes open was a critical element leading toward the early successes I am beginning to catalogue.

 

Early Observations

This is an anecdotal analysis of a learning method still in the prototyping stage—I don’t claim any data-based conclusions here. The following are my early takeaways, gathered to serve as a starting point for inviting conversations with anyone else in any stage of the process.

  1. Grades become more than a number. My students seem no longer baffled or mystified by their grades. –They still have questions about rubric statements, but not about numbers, percentiles, class averages or other students’ scores. No one asks me for one point here or there to get that bump from a B+ to an A-. I will confess this wasn’t a natural transition for everyone. While I was introducing the concept to a class in August, one of my more ambitious and anxious seniors took out her calculator and began furiously punching buttons. To this day, I have no idea what she was attempting to calculate, but I do know, six months in, she is far less anxious about her grade.
  2. Assessing learning becomes a conversation. Our conversations always center on a rubric (often the semester rubric) and begin most often with the question, “Based on the evidence provided by your work products and performance, which of these statements do you think best reflects your current level of learning?” So far, all of these conversations have ended either with the student and I in sync, or with the student opting for a lower descriptor on the rubric than I do. (This underestimation or humility is a challenge of its own). Assessment as an ongoing conversation allows us to act positively in response, and to consider learning holistically the way a number tag doesn’t.
  3. You learn how many students who earn Ds and Fs do so because they don’t do their work. This is still controversial ground: many teachers still believe there should be grading consequences for not submitting work, or not submitting it on time. I agree there should be consequences, I just don’t believe it should taint focused assessment of a students’ knowledge and skills. Make a place for evaluating work, and make another place for evaluating work habits and watch how much you learn about your students’ actual abilities. Also watch how fewer of your students end up in mathematical quicksand, succumbing to the sinking when they decide (correctly) that they’ll never be able to climb out.
  4. Ds and Fs are replaced by appropriate action. Because I only grade work that is submitted, when learners face challenges, before any student reaches D or F descriptors of performance, one of two things generally happens:
    • If the student is challenged by the content and skills demands, we communicate about the challenges via the related standards immediately, assignment by assignment, and we develop a plan involving further practice, peer tutoring or learning support.
    • If the student is not completing his work for some reason, we immediately discuss the matter, and bring in peer, parental or learning support immediately. There is no symbolic middle-step represented by a letter derived from a percentile, we skip the formalities and take direct action toward improvement.
  5. It’s worth the extra effort, and because the effort is meaningful, it is less of a burden. If you’re like me, you see a list where pros outnumber cons. Yes, grading via statements and interventions takes more time. Yes, schools should recognize and compensate for the added effort of a gradeless approach to learning. And yes, the value added to evaluation as a function of learning makes the time cost to teacher and school worth it.

 

Originally published at the Center for Teaching Quality on 2/13/16

Teaching Center 2025: What Key and Peele Know, and Don’t Know, About the Classroom

 

 

In a video widely shared on social media recently, Comedy Central’s Key and Peele envision a world in which teachers are treated like professional athletes, earning multi-million dollar salaries, with successful teachers placed in failing schools via the draft system and the most elite educators sought after by BMW to endorse the latest luxury sedans. “The Ruhf is on FIRE!!” the duo holler after star AP Lit teacher Ruby Ruhf is lured from Ohio’s public schools to PS 431 in New York City by an $80 Million contract, with the potential for up to an additional $40 Million in incentives based off test scores.

I and my teacher friends—and yours too, probably—shared, liked and retweeted the video enthusiastically over the past few weeks. Who wouldn’t like to see a world where, if the roles and rewards of athletes and teachers weren’t totally reversed, they at least were in the same ball park? The wit and schadenfreude of the sketch had me in stitches right up to the point that the Schaden overtook the Freude and I slowly curled into the fetal position, crying myself to sleep. It’s funny, and it hurts, because it’s true.

As a history teacher, however, another message embedded in the video struck me. It starts with the depiction of Ashely Ferguson’s “Highlight of the Week” history classroom. While pop-ups on the top and bottom of the screen track “facts taught” and note that Ferguson is “8 for 10 calling on unraised hands,” she, dressed impeccably in a business suit, moves deliberately in front of and around neatly arranged rows quizzing students on Civil War names and dates. This traditional image of the “sage on the stage” classroom is reinforced by the news ticker at the bottom of the screen that provides updates of average SAT scores at schools around the nation.

I in no way want to seem ungrateful to Key and Peele for shining a spotlight on the conditions suffered by America’s teachers, but I do have to wonder what the duo would think if they saw my history classroom on an average day: students engaged in several different tasks at once, some climbing across tables to finish projects, some sitting in small groups on the floor with their laptops open, some arguing freely with me about the depiction of colonialism in Avatar. I think about my friends and peers and the amazing, progressive things that they do in their classrooms as well. Would Key and Peele even recognize what goes on in our classrooms as teaching? Would we warrant those salaries and get those ad offers?

I like to think Key and Peele would. They are on our side. And even if our classrooms don’t resemble what the comedians experienced at school, they look like what they would have wanted to experience, and how they want their children to learn. But their American audience wouldn’t recognize our learning environments as classrooms, and if Key and Peele had chosen my classroom for their “Highlight of the Week,” the larger message would have been lost as viewers tried to piece together how 17 year-olds use chalk, raisins and Legos to learn about the early modern world economy.

This reinforces the importance of the work that education bloggers do, and the continued need for us to recruit more teachers to our ranks and to convince them to show their communities through image, video and first-hand experience what goes on in the modern learning classroom. We need to broadcast the realities of our learning environments so that the public can reimagine schools and spaces they way we do every day.

I like to envision a Teaching Center sketch ten years from now that depicts me standing off to the side, doing nothing to the untrained eye, while my students re-enact the Cuban Missile Crisis seemingly without guidance. The crawler notes items like, “Independent learning levels at 90%!” and “Peer to peer engagement creates organic differentiation!” while Key and Peele howl about how slick I am at disappearing into the shadowy corner, ticking off standards and making holistic observations while my students take ownership of their learning and barely notice I am still in the room.

Originally published at the Center for Teaching Quality on 8/13/205

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