My good friend, Alex Hernandez, at Charter School Growth Fund, speaks regularly about the potential for blended learning to improve upon a widely-accepted instructional practice in many elementary school classrooms: guided instruction (which includes guided reading). In that model, a teacher provides direct instruction to a small group of students while her remaining students work independently, with another adult (e.g. a paraprofessional) or in small, self-directed groups. The groups rotate, typically every 20-30 minutes, such that every student experiences small-group instruction with his teacher daily.
The obvious benefit relative to whole-group instruction is that guided instruction allows a teacher to target instruction to fewer students at a time. The challenge for a teachers is ensuring that students outside her immediate purview remain on task and receive on-demand support. For example, if a student has a question during independent practice, the teacher cannot offer immediate assistance because she is focused intently on the students directly in front of her.
To mitigate some of these challenges, schools such as KIPP Empower Academy in Los Angeles have turned to digital content with promising early results. They have taken the basic in-classroom guided instruction model and replaced much of the analog independent practice with digital content. The idea is that the adaptive digital products can provide personalized instruction and embedded support, allowing a student to work autonomously for a block of time. Michael Horn at the Innosight Institute, the author of The Rise of K12 Blended Learning, refers to these as a “rotational” blended learning models for obvious reasons.
This week, I was on a school visit to KIPP Chicago where they are also implementing this rotational approach in their kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. During that visit (which was great thanks to Executive Director April Goble and technology guru Anirban Bhattacharyya), I had an epiphany that now seems obvious to me but had not been until then. My prediction: the in-classroom rotation model will scale dramatically within existing elementary classrooms in the next few years. Here is why:
- The classroom rotation structure is already in place in many elementary schools, so this change does not require any fundamental changes to classroom design or teacher roles.
- Budget pressures have and will continue to force many schools to increase class sizes. Teachers will demand solutions that help them to differentiate instruction to larger numbers of students.
- Engaging digital content should make a teacher’s job easier: any activity that engages students and allows them to work autonomously lets her focus on other students; also, using digital content in place of paper-based assignments may reduce the amount of lesson planning, content curating, grading and printing that she has to do.
- A number of digital products that meet schools’ needs, particularly in math, exist already and more are emerging rapidly. Popular products include DreamBox, ST Math, Compass Learning, and iStation, to name a few. See EdSurge.com for a reviews of these products and others.
- Hardware requirements are relatively modest because not every student needs a computer at once; many schools already have some equipment and those that do not can enter it with a relatively limited investment in inexpensive laptops.
While I believe this transition of existing classrooms to blended learning holds tremendous promise, both in terms of student learning and teacher support, I also have concerns about this prediction:
- Data on the effectiveness of digital content and blended learning in general is limited. Without data on the efficacy of various products and approaches, teachers and schools cannot make informed purchasing decisions.
- The easiest blended model to implement may not be the most effective. Other approaches, such as Rocketship and New Classrooms (which current serves only grades 6-8 but could conceivably port its model to K-5), have design elements that would make it more challenging for existing schools to implement but may ultimately be more effective. Time and data will tell.
- Potential for data overload for teachers; making sense of all of the data that these programs generate and adapting instruction accordingly is an inevitable challenge.
- Implementing multiple products is often a logistical challenge; integrating them into existing systems is still more expensive than it should be. Schools must decide whether to pay extra for an emerging 3rd party solution or deal with complexity such as a lack of single sign on and disparate data sources.
In closing, I am convinced now more than ever that some form of blended learning – good, bad and otherwise – will rapidly become the norm rather than the exception in elementary schools within the next five years. My hypothesis is that this rapid proliferation will occur largely within the in-classroom rotational model because it fits neatly into their current structure and it alleviates acute pain points within it. Putting my cautious optimism hat on, I would advocate for a measured approach to adopting in-classroom blended learning: pilot new programs, measure results, consistently tweak the model and expand based on results. Separately, we should also inspire and support a wave of innovators with bolder approaches to personalized, mastery-based learning in elementary schools, even if these new approaches do not fit neatly into traditional classroom structures. Ultimately, my hope is that the most effective (not the easiest to implement) approaches win.