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Educators Should Focus on 3 Blended Learning Fundamentals in 2020-21

As districts consider at-home remote learning, socially-distanced schools, or hybrid models, school leaders and educators can use this opportunity to intentionally integrate technology into their regular instruction by utilizing principles of blended learning.

Will school this year be in-person? Online? A hybrid?

Could it be all three?

With all the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-21 school year, and the likelihood that plans will have to change due to surges in COVID-19 infections, districts need to be responsive and adaptable.

What we’ve learned through our Raising Blended Learners program is there are three distinct ways districts can make transitions between in-person and remote learning more seamless, as outlined below. Our experience has shown that a focus on these blended learning elements enables teachers to offer more personalized instruction, empowers students to increase ownership and initiative in their learning, and encourages connections between teachers and students.   

This, in turn, leads to better student outcomes, including increased student motivation, engagement, and empowerment. Teachers and students accustomed to the data-driven, rigorous, and relevant learning in blended classrooms will be more equipped to apply these techniques in alternative learning environments. 

“Schools need to be ready on the first day back with a fundamentally different strategy for diagnosing lost learning and putting every student on a fast track back to grade-level—a strategy designed to accelerate their exposure to grade-appropriate work, not delay it.”

– Learning Acceleration Guide: Planning for Acceleration in the 2020-2021 School Year

Strategy 1: Data Practices

How Data Can Inform and Personalize Instruction

A blended learning classroom becomes truly personalized when the unit of data analysis deliberately shifts from the classroom level to the individual student level. With this shift, teachers and students learn to effectively utilize multiple sources of data to plan instructional units and monitor student progress toward mastering learning objectives. Student-facing data tracking tools like a goal tracker assist this process (see example PDFs below). Additionally, teachers might use assessment results to plan an in-person or virtual small group instructional session for students who have not yet mastered a learning objective. If a virtual group session is not feasible, the teacher might prepare an instructional video to share with the students and follow up with an individual or pair of students during office hours. 

Differentiation

Another strategy blended learning classrooms often use to respond effectively to student-level data is differentiation. Students in a blended classroom might complete different assignments depending on their levels of mastery as they rotate through various in-class stations or complete online lessons. Similarly, in a remote context, teachers might reference individual student data to create personalized online lessons or differentiated remote activities.  

Addressing Learning Gaps

In light of projections about COVID learning losses from school closures during spring 2020 (as well as forecasts of losses associated with potential future closures), purposeful use of proficiency-based growth assessments to identify strengths and gaps is likely to become even more crucial, regardless of whether learning happens in-person, remote, or a hybrid of these. Assessments commonly used for this purpose include: NWEA MAP, Renaissance STAR, and iStation. 

With data that measures skills encompassing multiple grade levels and illuminates specific skills and knowledge students have and have not yet mastered, teachers can take specific instructional action to personalize teaching and learning in their classrooms. This is because: 1) these assessments illuminate strengths and gaps at a level of detail, which allows teachers to take specific instructional action and, 2) the assessments typically measure skills encompassing multiple grade levels.

Strategy 2: Relationships

Blended learning practices provide increased opportunities to develop supportive relationships that acknowledge and respect the individual and the collective identity(ies) in the community. They also empower all learners to exercise their agency. Our related resource, The Teacher Perspective: Why Does Blended Learning Work?, provides strong evidence from teacher surveys about enhanced relationships in blended learning contexts. 

If intentionally designed for, increased relationships may be possible in socially-distanced in-person and remote learning environments. In blended classrooms, teachers often develop goal setting and coaching cycles to help students independently manage their schoolwork, monitor academic progress, and take action around various aspects of overall schooling. For example, a first grade teacher may review data from an online program with a student, while encouraging them regarding their progress towards their reading level goals. These opportunities for teachers to connect, reassure, motivate, and encourage self-advocacy can be deployed in socially distanced in-person classrooms and remotely through virtual meetings or telephone calls. For example, teachers might increase small group time with students while on campus and use virtual online tools for this purpose during remote learning.   

“The human relationship has the power to relieve stress, promote resilience, and restore a young person’s sense of safety. This needs to be our North Star. This is what every adult should be guided by in their actions with family members and the young people in their lives.”

– Pamela Cantor, M.D., Turnaround for Children’s Founder and Senior Science Advisor

Strategy 3: Rigor

Equipped with actionable student-level data and relationships that nurture connection, trust, and fun through learning, teachers in blended classrooms are able to accelerate exposure to grade-level content and target extension opportunities. For example, at the start of a new instructional unit, a sixth-grade math teacher might facilitate a mini-lesson targeting grade-level standards and provide scaffolded supports with online learning tools and targeted small group instruction in order to target learning gaps and extension opportunities. And, one potential benefit of the variety of offline and online modalities available next year is that students may be provided increased opportunities for ongoing practice, and receive more individualized feedback on a standard or skill until mastery is demonstrated.   

“As leaders prepare their school communities for the challenge of restarting face-to-face as well as hybrid models, a coherent pathway for learning recovery and acceleration needs to include greater reliance on high-quality materials and instruction, and completing the circle with curriculum-based assessments.”

– The Return: How Should Education Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?

We are offering a free professional learning opportunity entitled, “Building a Data Culture to Support Your COVID Learning Response” for Texas school leaders to engage with a team of their colleagues to consider how to improve campus and district data cultures.

RBL COVID-19 Resources

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The Teacher Perspective: Why Does Blended Learning Work?

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Educators Should Focus on 3 Blended Learning Fundamentals in 2020-21

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A Blended Learning Coaching Tool

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Using Strong Data Culture to Create Effective COVID-19 Instruction