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Deeper and Blended Learning Go Hand in Hand

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This post is by Beth Rabbitt, a partner at The Learning Accelerator.

To borrow from and paraphrase Steve Jobs, human beings are relatively slow, lumbering creatures. We're far from the most efficient movers, but put us on a bicycle, and we blow away every other animal on the planet. It's amazing what we can do and overcome with our brains, dreams, and willingness to try something new.

As a human who both works in education and also rides a bicycle, I'm often struck by how often the technology and deeper learning movements are often placed at odds. The characterization is machine (cold, rote, impersonal, confusing) versus human (warm, messy, boutique, also confusing), and the conflict is fierce. It's also false.

As we think about how to offer students more authentic and richer engagements with content and each other, we've got to be smarter and more willing to experiment. I work in blended learning because it's what I think of as the human-on-a-bicycle approach. Blended is a means to a pedagogical end; strategically integrating (not replacing) technology with in-person learning is powerful way to address, and hopefully blow past, natural hurdles innate in current systems, and to make deeper learning a reality for more kids.

So what are the ways that blended learning can be, and is being, used to enable the goals of deeper learning? Here are just a few:

Truly differentiating content and interventions to address gaps more quickly. Students come into school with a wide range of needs, many of which can prevent deeper engagement with material and full expression of ideas. In traditional classrooms, a teacher must assess these gaps and then develop highly differentiated, individualized supports to address them. This is an incredibly time intensive, difficult task. Blended programs help teachers, and ideally also students, diagnose and then address needs directly through a mix of assigned and adaptive digital content. Where a higher level of support is needed, teachers can dig in and spend more time. Then students and teachers can make the most of face-to-face time doing what computers do less well--rigorous, open ended engagement with concepts, ideas, and other humans.  

Spending less time on skills instruction and more time on meaty stuff. Building off the first point, blended approaches take advantage of some efficiencies gained to spend more time on deeper work. At Acton Academy, students spend a few hours a morning engaged in blended learning to tackle core skills in reading, writing, and math, and then spend the remainder of their time engaging in project-based "quests" and apprenticeships outside of school.  At Summit Public Schools, students get to engage in eight weeks of expeditionary learning outside of school throughout the year.

Creating choice, voice, and an orientation towards mastery. In many blended models, students get some form of choice over how, when, and where to engage. These choices help them think metacognitively about what works for them as learners and find different pathways to mastery. At one blended school, I asked a group of ninth graders about how they were learning to graph functions to create a piece of art. While one student preferred Khan Academy, another chimed in that video didn't work well for her--she became distracted and needed to read tutorials, step-by-step. Another said he liked to dive in and tinker based on the problem, and then find a tutor if he needed help. Not only had every student thought through their preferred approach, they all were able to express opinions about it. And when they hit a roadblock, they felt empowered to find a different way to learn, rather than assuming the learning was out of reach.

Encouraging collaboration and co-teaching. Great blended models capitalize on technologies that connect students to help them learn with as well as teach each other. Tools like Google Docs encourage group writing as well as engage with students in multiple cycles of feedback and revision. Zeal encourages students to record mini-lessons once they've mastered a skill, so that students can look for help from each other when they encounter a new challenge on the learning platform.

So, can blended learning support deeper learning? Yes, absolutely. It's all a matter of design and intention, plus a little bit of bicycle thinking.


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