It is impossible to overstate the impact blended learning should be having on teaching and learning. Digital tools have the potential to do for classrooms what the Internet did for humanity; allow access to the things we need almost anywhere, at any time, accompanied by an omnipresent availability of information, collaboration, and engaging experiences. As such, digital tools can help us deliver on the promise of classrooms where differentiation, individualization, and personalization are the norm. So why aren’t they? Many of these tools have existed for a decade or more. Where is the learning transformation we were promised? In short, this learning transformation is languishing in a quagmire of perplexing buzzwords and terminologies that are causing more confusion than clarity for many classroom teachers. Most still struggle to define these terms; much less implement them in their classrooms. In that sense, they are merely buzzwords. And as educators, it is not buzzwords that will impact student achievement, but rather a concrete understanding of these terms accompanied by execution that leads to change.
Blended learning has the power to transform teaching and learning by creating rigorous and relevant opportunities for learning in the classroom; but only so far in that we are able to execute and deliver on the potential inherent in the buzzwords that permeate our field. Step one is obtaining clarity. Here are ways masterful teachers and administrators can succinctly answer questions around differentiation, individualization, and personalization.
What is Blended Learning?
Blended learning is a student-centered methodology designed to provide student control of time, place, path, and/or pace through the purposeful alignment of traditional teaching practices and technology enabled learning opportunities. Blended Learning creates opportunities for teachers to re-imagine the learning environment in support of relevant learning practices and increased engagement.
What is Differentiation?
Our first line of defense in eliminating the opportunity and achievement gaps is differentiation. In short, differentiation encompases the multitude of strategies we use for all students all the time. How can technologies equip educators with tools to plan for different learning styles and preferences and provide a multitude of experiences through which they can achieve mastery? Instead of asking why students don't learn the way we teach, we should ask ourselves how we can teach the way students learn. Let’s increasingly adapt to students, instead of expecting students to adapt to us. What different text sources can we utilize to improve engagement? How can we improve access to rich multimedia and make it a vital part of our learning experiences? What opportunities can empower staff and students to utilize social media platforms for academic collaboration? It is far more important for students to leave our classrooms more masterful at a thing they’ve never done, than it is for teachers to leave more masterful at a thing they’ve always done.
What is Individualization?
Individualization plays a critical role within the system of supports that schools must define to meet all student needs and to ensure that all students learn at high levels. In a sense, individualization is less an instructional practice, and more a system of assessing and determining what each individual student needs. It is the gateway through which teachers transition to personalized learning practices. Blended learning pedagogies include models for whole group instructional experiences that serve heterogeneous groups of students; and, individualized supports during which teams provide more time and alternative ways for students to master priorities with which they are struggling. Individualization requires evidence. But assessment, done right and collectively analyzed, takes time. Enter technology tools. Educational technology gives us the opportunity to generate in-the-moment data analytics that were previously unavailable. Kahoot, Google Forms, Poll Everywhere, Padlet, Google Docs, Socrative and dozens of other digital resources provide feedback on students’ responses to our instruction and intervention. When we collect, and more importantly, use this information to inform future teaching and learning and individualized experiences based on students’ responses to first, best instruction, we begin to realize the full potential of digital tools to create individualized learning experiences. Furthermore, individualization is the medium through which students will ultimately take ownership over their own learning goals, so that they can monitor their path to progress, as opposed to waiting from week to week for the teacher to tell them where they stand.
What is Personalization?
Personalization is a function of blended learning and individualization. Because the latter exists, the former is possible. It is an adaptive model of instruction, placing complete focus on customizing all aspects of the learning process for each student. Personalization enables students to self-select the methods for acquiring new knowledge and demonstrating competency, all while placing them at the center of the data driven decisions about their progress and needs. While differentiation leverages collaborative learning to build student mastery of essential skills and concepts; personalization targets specific student needs, passions, and learning preferences. With precision, we can utilize digital assessments and resources to provide targeted supports for individual students in ways that are efficient and effective. We have the capability to use YouTube, Khan Academy, educational apps, game based learning, OpenCourseWare, MOOCs, and an assortment of other tools along with traditional best practice to provide engaging asynchronous instruction for kids, in a way that accounts for their individual proficiency needs. This allows teachers to extend their own capacity within the walls of the classroom and beyond the time constraints of the school day. In short, we can use digital tools to personalize learning experience, so that each child receives the exact interventions they need at the exact time they need them. Technology is a force multiplier; when coupled with progressive pedagogies and practice, digital tools and resources enhance both intervention and enrichment, expanding opportunities to provide students at various times, in various spaces, at various rates, and in various ways.
Blended learning is, simply stated, technologically-enhanced differentiation. The assessment opportunities that digital tools provide allow teachers and students to quickly and efficiently determine proficiency gaps so they can collaborate and set individualized goals for achievement. Once they have done so, they can create a personalized environment whereby synchronous, asynchronous, digital, and traditional strategies support the student on the path to proficiency. When this path is executed with fidelity, these buzzwords may finally allow us deliver on the promises of equity and achievement for all.
Anyone who's lasted in teaching longer than 4 seconds has undoubtedly been the beneficiary of some sound advice. Conversely, if you hang out in the profession long enough you're also bound to hear some terrible advice. Among my least favorite is the adage, "Don't smile before Christmas." If you haven't heard this, count yourself lucky. If you have, you recognize it in the context of a conversation related to classroom management. Veteran teachers often pass this advice to new teachers as a means of offering up a solution to the omnipresence of classroom chatter and general student defiance. Believe it or not, those who peddle this phrase are trying to help. They recognize the importance of classroom management, and their goal is to help you set the stage for a classroom environment in which your voice is heard and your authority is unquestioned. Sadly, what they may fail to recognize is the importance relationships and joy have in a healthy and successful classroom culture.
It is true, you can't teach in chaos. What is also true is that students deserve teachers who value an attitude of "and" as opposed to an attitude of "or". That is to say, those first few months teachers can establish expectations for behavior AND cultivate relationships in a joyful learning environment. I mean seriously, we tell teachers "Don't smile until Christmas" and then wonder why kids hate school. That's like gargling bleach for five months and wondering why your teeth fell out. Sure...the intention is to do good, but the outcome is not. Some out there will read this, and in January point to classrooms of silent and obedient students as evidence of this saying's truth and value. But is that really the goal? Rows of silent kids whose only contributions to the class are to listen and obey? I've been in hundreds of classrooms like this. At first glance they look great, but the sound of consistent classroom silence echoes a level of discontent and student ambivalence that is almost deafening.
Instead, I encourage all teachers in this first few weeks of school to set expectations that go beyond compliance and are grounded in more than fear. Cultivate a culture of high expectations for behavior in an environment that also offers feelings of safety, support, and belonging. Here are some ways we can do that:
I was having a conversation with a friend this morning. He’s a dad; like myself. He’s a teacher; like myself. He loves his children; like myself. During the course of our conversation he mentioned his desire to “Give his kids the world.” Sounds good right? In theory, yes. But in reality, we all know those kids who were given the world, only to grow up expecting the world should continue to provide something for them. In turn, what they offer back to the world is either minimal or self-serving.
I don’t want to give my children the world. I don’t want a desire to be served by others to be my, or their, contribution to humanity. I’m a firm believer that each of us is endowed with a responsibility to give back. Ours is a responsibility not to leave a footprint on humanity. Doing so implies we tread on others to achieve our own success. Instead, I believe our responsibility is more centered on cultivating seeds of initiative, ambition, and selflessness in our kids for the betterment of mankind.
Is that so wrong? A couple of studies out of Penn State and Duke Universities tell me it’s not. In a study of more than 700 kids between the ages of 5 and 25 from across the US, researchers discovered the parents and teachers of successful kids shared these 7 characteristics:
Simply put, I don’t want to give my kids the world. I want to give them each of these 7 things. Additionally, I want to teach them to be kind, wise, strong, and good…and then give the world my kids.
What does it take to push a teacher beyond the threshold of the ordinary? What is it that turns an educator into an innovator? Hear that knock on your classroom door? It’s me. “I’m the one who knocks.” Since that first knock, I've been privileged to participate in thousands of full-length classroom observations and coaching sessions with teachers as they transform the learning landscape across the country. I've been able to co-learn with teachers as they work to masterfully integrate things like Google Apps for Education. I nurture teachers as they leverage innovative methodologies and tools so students can solve problems and cultivate new content for international consumption. I witness children who have never owned a computer, work with teachers and peers to create 3D holographic images and 3D printed materials within the confines of their school. Day after day, I marvel at the learning transformation that is underway.
Sadly I also witness an all too common tragedy consuming blended learning initiatives across the country. As quickly as devices arrive in classrooms, some educators abandon them almost immediately in favor of the traditional pedagogies of their past. Often, not for the sake of student achievement, but for the sake of teacher comfort. That being said, teachers shouldn't shoulder the blame for this. Devices are being distributed with little to no pedagogical training. When we roll out devices and expect technology alone to transform teaching and learning, we observe individual success in the midst of systemic failure. That is to say, early adopters and pockets of already masterful teachers will, through grit and determination, find ways to use tech to transform their own classrooms. Systemically however, little will change for the majority of students in the school or district. So what is it then? What is it that separates transformative teachers, schools, and districts from those stuck in the routines of the past? My observations and conversations with the country's best blended teachers have uncovered the following commonalities:
Professional athletes are teaching us valuable lessons about digital footprints. Are you listening? Athlete or not; you should be.
Adults have spent countless hours cautioning young people about the negative impacts a provocative web presence can have on their future. Kids are consistently warned about the perils of Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. We tell them, “Watch what you post online. It never goes away.” Some listen. Others don’t. Seems simple enough; but it’s not. Our most elite athletes are currently schooling us about the complexities of one’s online presence. That is to say, our digital footprint is not our own. It is not simply our words and the content we cultivate and put online that has the potential to negatively impact our future. Now, it also includes the words of those in our inner circle.
Take Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes. After being released by the team, his wife launched a Twitter tirade targeting the team’s quarterback, a reporter from the Miami Herald, and players around the league. As a result, at least 3 GM’s confirmed they would not sign the free agent due to concerns about his wife’s online behavior. Grimes later signed a new contract, worth undoubtedly less than he would have received had there been more competition for his services. The same day, his wife quit Twitter. I can only assume the timing is less than coincidental.
Then there’s former Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. Projected as a potential second round pick, the QB began tumbling all the way to the fourth round. His father, Chris Cook, made some comments about the plummet on Twitter. What he should have done was delete his account long before the draft. As fate would have it, the elder Cook had been rather loose lipped on the social media site; making comments many would construe to be racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Many assume the son’s fall on the draft board can only be attributed to the discomfort his potential bosses had with his father’s comments online. Chris Cook’s Twitter account has also since been deleted.
Even Hall of Famers are not immune to the sting of a family member’s Twitter account. Rockets coach Kevin McHale was fired from his NBA gig in 2015. Immediately after, his wife went into a Twitter frenzy and threw shade at the entire organization, saving her most savory burns for franchise star James Harden. McHale’s wife has since deleted her account. Her husband, at the time of this publication, does not have a coaching job.
Like it or not, your digital footprint is not always your own. Your family members, friends, and that occasional drinking buddy are all capable of influencing your online persona. There is a quote from entrepreneur Jim Rohn that states, “You are the average of the 5 people you surround yourself with most.” Well, in today’s world, your likelihood of success may just be linked to the 5 people you interact on social media with most. Something to think about. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to check my wife’s Instagram account.
Here I am again. I'm standing in front of a crowded room. Aside from the sound of my heart beating in my ears, it's quiet. This time, 700 eyes are fixed on me. Yesterday it was 70. Doesn't matter. It feels the same regardless of the number. I'm literally standing in the midst of what many (not me) would describe as their worst nightmare. I'm that guy. "The speaker". The guy in the front of the room. You stare at me, and for a brief time, I take a deep breath and stare back. In the space between silence and speech, a thought enters my stream of consciousness. It's been the same thought for the last 15 years. I had it as a classroom teacher, I have it now, I'll have it again if you see me one day standing in front of you. The thought is simple. I have 8 seconds. Exhale...go!
Anyone can stand in front of a group of people and speak. The privilege of speaking resides not in the platform, but in the notion that an audience should feel compelled to listen to anything we have to say for any length of time. Scholars tell me I have about 8 seconds to capture and hold your attention; to convince you that I can offer you something of value. 8 seconds to keep you from reaching for your phone. 8 seconds to keep you off your email. 8 seconds to to access the privilege of your attention. My platform is a gift. Your presence was never guaranteed. Offering you something of value is my responsibility.
First, I need to make it abundantly clear; I wish I had longer. Lord, I wish I had longer. But as my old man used to say, "You can wish in one hand, and ..." You know how it goes. Wishing for something that is currently contrary to my reality doesn't do any of us any good. It leaves me angry with the audience, and the audience with another sense of dissatisfaction from having their time squandered. As such, I do what I ask my own children to do when they bump up against the adversities of life. I address the challenge at hand. I do my best within the confines of my current reality, and focus only on those elements that are within my control. I employ all of the knowledge that I can have, along with all that I can borrow, to be my best. My work is my signature. I can't control your attention span. But I can certainly control my efforts to capture it. And I promise you...I'm about to give it all I have.
For the teachers out there. The school administrators. The managers. The pastors and priests. For anyone who is fortunate enough to have an audience. I invite you to embrace the privilege of speaking; whether you have an audience every day, every week, or once every year. I invite you to embrace the 8 second window. To challenge yourself to be of such value and quality, that those in your presence find themselves recognizing unequivocally the need to lean in, look, and listen long past the 8 second mark.
How do we do it?
Know your audience. Moreover, know your message and its connectivity to your audience. Speak that message with passion and conviction. As the speaker, we have to speak with 110% passion if we want participants to embrace it at 90% of our own. If we play at 80%, we give participants permission to participate at 50%. Tick tock. At 50% enthusiasm, we won't make it 8 seconds Cowboys and Cowgirls.
Plan a moment early on to capture their attention. Use that moment to transition with purpose to your message. Work with participants to label important elements of learning in the message. Assist them as they synthesize this information and discern where in their own lives and experiences this information is applicable. Then, provide opportunities for them to show understanding, mastery, and ability to apply this new knowledge to a variety of situations. If this entire cycle is taking you longer than 15 to 20 minutes, you're taking too long. Say less to them, do more with them, and work to repeat this cycle, depending on the length of your presentation.
You can do this. Take a deep breath. 8 seconds. Exhale...go!
The ATLAS Model:
Attention - Presenters use purposeful strategies to immediately capture and hold an audience's attention.
Transition - Use the initial moment of attention to transition to the root of your message.
Label - Work with participants to label the key elements of learning you want them to take away. What the "phrase that pays"? What's the one thing you want everyone to walk away with? Drive it home here.
Assist - Allow participants time to engage with the content. How can they get their hands on it? How will you assist them? How will they assist each other on the path to understanding?
Show - Participants should be afforded the opportunity to show you and each other that they can take this new learning and apply it elsewhere.
We are surrounded by division. It festers in our politics, it reveals itself in our economic circumstances, it rolls off the tongue in our communication with one another.
Can I make a request? Can we shut it out of our schools? Can we nurture connectivity in our collegial relationships; regardless of where we reside on the instructional spectrum?
I spoke to a woman last week. She was a veteran teacher. We had just met. When I mentioned my passion for educational technology, she said to me:
"Oh I see. You're one of those guys. Well, you should know that I'm not convinced that just because kids use computers they don't need to learn how to write with a pencil or understand how to spell. I guess I'm just old school. We are a dying breed."
Overtly implicit in this conversation is a premise that doesn't move either of us forward. The premise is, one of us is right...and the other is wrong with respect to blending our classrooms. Oddly enough, this is actually a fairly common interchange in schools. No lie, other "techies" will attest to similar conversations, perhaps less aggressive, but in the same vein.
I'm fascinated by the misconception that many have about folks like me who encourage the use of technology in our classrooms. The assumption is that because we like tech, we think foundational skills are now somehow antiquated and/or somehow less useful than they were in the past. (I can't begin to tell you the number of comments I've heard about handwriting. As though the decline in universal penmanship is somehow my fault.) This couldn't be further from the truth. Think about it, that line of logic is akin to assuming that because I like fruit, I must consider vegetables to be superfluous, and thus favor their elimination from diets across the country. Welcome the new world order everyone! Fruit and technology are modern royalty! To hell with vegetables and foundational writing skills! Those things are "old school!" (He wrote with thick sarcasm.)
Digital leaders can do a better job of communicating our message to the masses. We see immense value in digitally progressive classrooms. We believe they serve to support the building of both traditional and 21st Century academic competencies. In communicating this message with purpose, and executing blended strategies with fidelity, my hope is that traditional learning advocates view each of us as partners in progress. We are allies in the quest to provide the most comprehensive learning experiences possible for our kids. The world of education needs all of us working together for the benefit of children. What it does not need are competitors jockeying for position and trying to prove ourselves "right" at the expense of our colleagues and our kids. Neither skill set is more or less important than the other. They are complimentary, and result in the development of robust competencies for students.
Masterful educators build a willingness to adopt new resources (blended teaching, research, digital tools, etc) atop a strong foundation of traditional academic competencies? Why on earth would we insist on one or the other?
If phones are banned in your classroom, school, or district, I need to tell you something. Lean in close and take a deep breath. This is going to be hard to hear. Here goes...ahem...You are losing.
Now take it easy! Take it easy. Get your hand off the "back" button and hear me for a moment. I didn't say you're a loser. I simply stated an undeniable fact. The fact is that you are losing. "Losing what?" you might ask.
The Battle & The War
The Battle: Management and Control
Let's call a spade a spade. The movement to ban cell phones in classrooms is almost entirely about managing students and controlling their behaviors. We fear the lack of control we have over these pocket and purse protagonists. As such, we do what we often do in the face of potential threats to our classroom dominance. We make a rule! Yes I said "we". I said it because I am you. I am a teacher who at one time banned phones in my room. Gasp!
My question for those of you who, like me, banned the use of cell phones in the classroom is this; How's it going? I think if you're honest with yourselves you are willing to admit what I ultimately did. It's not going well. Kids still bring them. They still cause the occasional disruption. And our subsequent consequences for violating these bans do little to nothing to stem the tide of tech that flows into our schools day after day.
What's worse? I came to the realization that a cell phone ban entrapped even my most well behaved students into breaking the rules. They weren't going to leave them at home. Hell, neither was I! I would argue most of you don't leave yours at home either. Why not? Because phones have become part of the social fabric. They connect us with our families, they keep us informed, they offer us comfort as a lifeline in the face of emergency. For better or for worse, this is our reality, and it's the same reality for our students. Your attempt to control and manipulate this reality will yield frustration and failure, and likely drive a wedge between you and your students despite your desire for the ban to draw them nearer to you.
The War: Nurture the Development of 21st Century Citizens
Saying you want your school to prepare kids for the future while banning cell phones is like saying you want to fight lung cancer while smoking a cigarette. The two are fundamentally incompatible. Our kids will continue to live and work in a society where cell phones are omnipresent. We need to teach them how to use these devices to move beyond social connectivity and transition to professional responsibility, and communal courtesy. We can only do that in learning environments where devices are not only allowed, but welcomed and utilized with purpose. Access to nearly all of the knowledge of the human experience is in your pocket right now. Use it. Don't ban it.
With that said, how many times have you been in a social setting (you know, a real live one, with other real live people) and seen a group of kids sitting together while enthralled independently with their phones? It's a common sight, and as adults we frequently comment on the upsetting nature of these interactions, or lack thereof. But dig deeper. Why is this happening? It's because these kids do not have established norms, customs, or considerations relative to appropriate or respectful tech use in public settings. Why not? Because they've never lived in a world where they've had to develop them. We remember what it was like pre-technology. As such, we lean on those memories for what we consider to be acceptable interactions. Students possess no such memories. As such, they need to be taught what purposeful engagement with tech looks like, sounds like, and feels like in a variety of settings. Only then will they be able to embody the vision of the prepared, polite, and productive citizens we endeavor to create in our classrooms.
Look...cell phones can be dangerous distractions in schools. I'll concede that. The same can be said for scissors. But we don't ban scissors in school. We teach kids how to use them responsibly. So teach kids not to run with scissors, or cell phones for that matter. Cultivate healthy and productive behaviors that bring students to an understanding of how we should use our phones in ways that are safe, useful, and sensible. Banning them won't bring us closer to winning the battle or the war, it will only push victory, both academic and social, further toward the horizon.