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Student-Centered Learning: How to Implement a Blended Learning Program

Posted in Ed Tech on May 7, 2014 by

Kaylie was the founding teacher at Acton Academy and helped develop and run their Elementary program in its first four years before leaving the classroom this fall to launch a campaign seeking entrepreneurial educators and parents interested in replicating the Acton Academy model in their communities. She is currently consulting for blended learning programs around the country, including several new Acton Academies slated to open this fall.

A successful blended learning math program with carefully curated software, a classroom culture of accountability fueled by student-set goals and student-run accountability groups, and a network of peer mentors can exist in just an hour-long block each day.

If the school structure allows, and as the students prove their ability to self-direct and their ability to accept more responsibility, a longer stretch of time can be devoted to individualized, independent work across subject areas each day. During this time, students can choose to practice math skills, read a book, use an online grammar or spelling program, write in their journal, practice typing skills, or work in any other area for which they have an independent on-or off-line tool available.

The non-cognitive skills that develop from an hour-long block of carefully implemented blended learning each day – perseverance, grit, self-reliance, empathy, time management, accountability, planning, mentoring – are even further developed when this is extended beyond one subject. A blended learning program that incorporates a variety of subjects can help students learn to prioritize their work appropriately, and learn that different activities can require different amounts of time and effort to achieve success. Allowing students to manage their own work schedules within one large block of time provides them with the opportunity to learn time management skills, explore their own learning style, and create their own schedules.

Managing time is increasingly difficult as the options for how to use that time increase. This is a great opportunity for students, but also one they need to be ready for. A school year might start out with shorter, subject-defined blocks of time and move towards longer, less structured periods of time as the year progresses. Or, there might be a series of learning levels or badges that students can earn by hitting academic milestones, setting appropriate goals, or otherwise proving they are prepared. With each successive level comes greater privileges and greater responsibilities, which should all be clearly outlined for students.

Project-based Learning

With the increased efficiency that personalized learning achieves, there should be time in the school day to apply core learning to real-world problems. Hands-on projects are a motivating, inspiring way to do this. Baking, building, starting a business, playing games, and doing experiments all involve math – measurements, estimates, calculations, probabilities. And whenever teamwork is involved, so are communicating, listening, persuading, and compromising.

Problem solving, troubleshooting, failing, adapting, innovating, and iterating should be a part of every project, regardless of the focus. Students build their grit as they work towards a solution to a complex problem requiring them to cycle through multiple hypotheses and plans of actions. They learn to be perseverant, respectful, resilient, thoughtful, empathetic.  They get frustrated and work through their frustration in order to succeed. They learn about their own strengths and what they need to be productive in a group and alone. And they may even practice some math. But good projects aren’t designed around specific math concepts; they are designed authentically around a real-world problem.

Multi-age Classrooms

The full benefits of a program where peer accountability and peer mentoring are cornerstones, where projects enhance and ignite the experience, and where students thrive working at their own pace are best seen with multi-age classrooms. A three to four year grade span will allow students ample opportunity to mentor and be mentored and help create a culture where individual accomplishments are not constantly compared to a chronological norm.

A child might be doing math that is more typical of students three years older than him, but reading books similar to students a year younger than him, and writing like a typical student his age. With a grade span of three to four years, he is not alone in any of his work and can find peers doing similar work. Additionally, being with many of the same peers and teachers for several years allows for a cohesive community to form where each student is known and celebrated as an individual.

A Kindergarten/1st grade program is a great way to establish a foundation for a successful transition into a program with a strong emphasis on independence. More off-line work, with Montessori-like manipulables for math, and extra time for a solid foundation in phonics and a fluency with the physical demands of writing prepare a student to take full advantage of a more independent culture in their next years. The goal during these years is to provide students with a solid foundation as well as an introduction to project-based learning.

The other classrooms can be divided so that they each serve three to four grade levels. Older students within each classroom can have special opportunities and training as mentors. In this sense, middle school and high school students can help decrease the student-teacher ratio in the younger classrooms. Graduating seniors, who due to the increased efficiency of blended learning will likely have fulfilled their basic high school requirements before entering their final year, could devote a significant portion of their final year to in-school service.

Experimentation is key

Experimentation is key to developing a successful student-driven blended learning environment. Even small changes can make a big impact. Whether you are starting a new program or transitioning an existing one, implementing blended learning on a school-wide basis or in an individual classroom, your students will be positively affected by the experience.