What is Blended Learning?

What is Blended Learning?

When my curriculum director asked an auditorium of teachers if anyone was interested in becoming a blended learning teacher, I did not raise my hand. When my coteachers emailed me with the blended learning application link, and expressed interest in our PLC taking the plunge together, I was not excited for the idea. When, at the urging of these same coteachers, I submitted my application to be a blended learning teacher, I was still not convinced of its value. When my rocking stools arrived and my kidney table was assembled, I put up a sign that said, “This is a blended learning classroom!,” and still had no understanding of what was happening. I had questions and concerns. What was blended learning? Was I not already doing enough in my classroom? Didn’t our 1:1 laptops make all classes at my school ‘blended learning?’ Did this mean more work for me? Less? Would the kids even need me if everything was online?

It is now mid-November, and I can confidently say blended learning has been a fantastic addition to my repertoire of classroom strategies. I am sold. I have been on the blended learning train for several months now and I have two thoughts: (1) The definition of blended learning is malleable. When you become a blended learning classroom, it is not simply about integrating technology, but reevaluating your role as a teacher and considering how you treat your students’ time. (2) Chances are high that for most technologically progressive teachers, you’re probably already doing some key components of blended learning. 

In this blog post, I will detail what I have determined to be my blended learning classroom. You might be surprised by how many of my blended learning techniques you are already doing every day! Alternatively, your blended learning classroom may look significantly different from mine. From the resources I’ve gather about blended learning, it seems like differences in blended classrooms are fine, and maybe even encouraged. Let’s take this journey together and talk about what it means to be a blended learning classroom.

What is blended learning?

Before I became a blended learning instructor, I thought blended learning was yet another field of education buzzword that was more fluff than grit. My interpretation of a blended learning classroom included some cart of laptops or tablets, numerous dull screencasts, lackluster students staring at screens, and a teacher at a standing desk. Who in the world would want a standing desk? 

(Spoiler: My request for a standing desk is sitting on my admin’s desk right now.)

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Having used blended learning in my classroom for several months, I have a new vision. It includes a teacher sitting at the desks working alongside her students. It is not a stationary photograph of what a classroom is, but rather a moving picture that acknowledges that blended learning has a great deal of various shifting parts. In addition to this new vision, I have a new definition. This is based off of many wonderful articles and books on blended learning like Clifford Maxwell’s “What Blended Learning Is--And Isn’t,” Norm Friesen’s “Report: Defining Blended Learning,” The Flipped Reading Block, and the Christensen Institute “Blended Learning Definitions."

Blended learning is form of hybrid teaching; on the spectrum between using no technology in the classroom and taking an online class, it sits somewhere in the middle. It is NOT using technology as a simple replacement for traditional schooling methods, but, rather, using it to redefine your curriculum. 

What does blended learning look like?

There are numerous strategies that blended learning teachers use in their classroom. The Blended Learning Universe website does a fantastic job of highlighting seven of those strategies at this link here. I have fully integrated two of these techniques into my repertoire of teaching styles: contract days and station rotations. 

Contract Days

Let’s start with contract days. I’m not completely sold on the name of ‘contract day.’ I’ve been thinking about ‘To Do Day’ or ‘Things I Begrudgingly Do Day,’ but I appreciate its effort at mimicking the real-world reality of contracts. Yes, my lovely students, there will be a day where you will sign a paper and if you do not do the things listed on that paper, you will be failed. Wait--I mean fired. Same thing, right? A conversation for another time, perhaps. 

In a contract day, I provide students with a contract. The contract clearly lists out the various items that the student needs to complete, where they will find the materials for completing it, and when it should be completed by. I review the contract with the class, everyone signs it at the beginning and promises to have it finished by next class period, and then they’re off. Now, I’m using all of my students’ time to its potential. Students raise their hands and ask questions when they have them and I am able to help them out immediately. I don’t need to lecture on instructions, make them feel pressured by time constraints, or have them wait needlessly for the next activity to be introduced. If I have utilized screencasts for that day, I can even be multiple places in the classroom at once. I’ll help Billy write his thesis statement, while Sarah watches a video on conclusion paragraphs across the room. 

In my previously unblended (poorly mixed?) classroom a lesson plan might have looked like the following: 

  • 2-5 minutes Students will work on their daily writing assignment.
  • 10 minutes Students will complete Activity A. Students who finish first wait quietly. Students who don't finish need to finish it before the end of class.
  • 10 minutes Teacher will lecture about Activity A and lead into Activity B.
  • 15 minutes Students will complete Activity B. Students who finish first wait quietly. Students who don't finish need to finish it before the end of class.
  • 10 minutes Teacher lectures on Activity B and leads into Activity C.
  • 35 minutes Students will complete Activity C. Students who finish first wait quietly. Students who don't finish need to finish it before the end of class.

At its core, this is not a horrible structure of a lesson plan. Maybe Activity B gets kids out of their seats, or Activity C is an application of both Activity A and B. Some of the activities use technology, some are on paper, and some are discussions. It’s a fine idea and is not inherently wrong. But perhaps we can use our students’ time better. More than that, we can add some variety to our lesson plans. With blended learning, I would structure this day as a contract day. Take a look:

  • 2-5 minutes Students will work on their daily writing assignment.
  • 5-10 minutes Teacher will hand out a contract of items that need to be completed.
    • The teacher will explain briefly the expectations of the contract and describe the directions of what the students must complete.
  • 75 minutes Students complete their assigned work and ask questions as needed.

Not every day should be a contract day. Having experiences as a classroom community is important. However, this is a great way to use the time in your class more efficiently. Consider the first proposed curriculum. Think of the logistics. How much time would certain students spend sitting with nothing to do, waiting for her peers to finish their work and the teacher to move on? How much pressure would other students feel trying to be done by the time the teacher was moving on to the next topic? Now let’s consider the second lesson plan. Students are still being held accountable, accomplishing the same work, and are catering to their own needs. If they don’t complete the work in class, it is assigned as homework before the next class period. 

Station Rotations

Station rotation is something that elementary school teachers have had figured out for a long time, and there is a definite place for it in the secondary world. During station rotations, you delineate activities with physical points in the room. Then, you must provide clear instruction at each point in the room. I like to tape the instructions to the wall on colorful paper because it catches the eye of my students. Break students into groups, have them start at each station, give them an allotted amount of time, and have them begin. After the time you have previously chosen is up, students move to the next station and so on and so forth until they have completed all required elements. 

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There are some things to consider when implementing station rotating as a lesson plan:

  • How many students do you want in each group? Larger groups will take longer to get things done.
  • How are your desks currently arranged? Can you move them to make it easier for students to access each station?
  • Have you given them enough time to complete the stations you have asked of them? It is a quick recipe for upset students if they are not given enough time to complete an important task.
  • Does your information need to be delivered in a chronological order? Does any of it need to have a teacher as the instructor for it to be the most successful? How could you change the structure of your stations to best fit those teaching needs?

This lesson plan is deceptive. Upon my first experience with blended learning, I thought this would be a stress-free day for my students. You go to the place, you do the thing, ta-da! Learning! I was wrong. My students are pushed on our station rotation days. They do not have the opportunity to lose focus, because in just a few minutes the work they are completing, their group members, and their location will change. Distracting group members can really slow down the progress of a station. Additionally, anything that is left incomplete is their own responsibility at home later that night. Keeping students going like this keeps their motivation high, but they are exhausted in the aftermath. That’s okay, but it is important to realize the ramification of any lesson you implement.

What is the role of the teacher in blended learning?

It is tempting to think that once you start implementing these student-driven strategies that they will flounder without your input. We’ve always lived in a world where the teacher instructed and the students dutifully did. When my students excelled after I gave them their own agency through blended learning, I was shocked. More than that, I was a little hurt. My students did better reading the directions off the Schoology website on their own than they did when I explained them to the class. How could that be? Did they not miss my personal touches? My jokes? My enthusiasm? Eventually, I came to the most magical revelation: They’re not listening when I’m talking. Not usually, anyways. 

I had to come to terms with this. I feel like the words that come out of my mouth are important. But when we’ve got kids who’ve spent anywhere from one to seven hours in a chair staring at the front of the classroom, can we blame them for zoning out during lectured instruction? Let’s fix the problem and give them the instruction in permanent forms like videos, web pages, and plain ol’ paper. Let’s get rid of the expectation that I’m going to tell them what to do, and instead expect them to figure it out on their own.*

This ‘sage on the stage’ idea is outdated. When every student in your classroom has access to most of the information in the entire world in their pocket, then you need to acknowledge that your role as Grand Master of Knowledge is a little ridiculous. Instead, let’s teach kids skills and coach them through their learning. Learning is impossible without teachers. But we need to shift our egos to the sideline and start guiding our kids to learning, rather than telling them what it is and where to find it. Let’s raise the expectations for these kids. I bet you’ll be surprised at how many of them meet them. 

*I use the term ‘figure it out’ lightly. It’s pretty clear from the given directions. But you get the point.

How do I become a Blended Learning teacher?

It depends. 

If your district already has blended learning implemented in other classrooms, talk to those classroom teachers. See who you need to talk to, to get it involved. If your district has not yet implemented any blended learning classrooms, I would start with your fellow teachers. Are there multiple people interested? Numbers can make your case more convincing. Then, I would move to your principal or instructional coaches. If you have a person in charge of curriculum development, they would be worth talking to, as well. There are numerous online resources and research to help display the benefits of blended learning. Have a quick meeting with your school on a PD Day about the interest in blended learning. Create some sort of visual or presentation to let them know what it is and why it's important See if they’ll be better than I was and fill out a Google Form asking about their interest for blended learning in their own classroom. 

Another resource to consider is the at blendedlearning.org. At this link here they offer suggestions on how to get blended learning at your particular establishment. I have not used their website extensively, but this looks promising! Let me know your experiences with it. 

Change is hard as a teacher. It’s only my second year, and still I am already so skeptical of people trying to tell me that there is a better way. It is my instinctive reaction to say, no, I’m doing it this way, until I get it right. The trick that is difficult to conceptualize is that there is no ‘right.’ There will be no year where every lesson plan goes perfectly because you did it the exact same way for twenty years. Blended learning, among being a better use of classroom time and energy, is a good way to shake things up. Teachers who are attempting change are teachers who are getting better at teaching. 

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at andreamarshbank@gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter at @msmarshbank, Instagram at @amarshybank, and Linked In at Andrea Marshbank

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