All Teachers are New Teachers in Blended Learning

When Alliance College-Ready Public Schools launched Blended Learning for Alliance School Transformation (BLAST) at three high schools in 2011 and 2012, we were confident that the integration of technology into our college preparatory curriculum would help us individualize instruction for all students. What we didn’t fully appreciate was the impact of this powerful model on teachers at every level of experience.

Once the year began, we quickly discovered that the demands of blended learning essentially transformed all teachers into novices. We saw that teachers with more experience often faced steep learning curves as they struggled to unlearn certain ingrained habits and practices, and that true first year teachers were just as likely to develop effective blended learning practices as those with more years in the classroom.

What must teachers “relearn” in a blended learning model?

In our blended learning classrooms, students spend roughly two-thirds of their time working independently or in small groups with other students. The one-third of the time students work directly with the teacher is focused on reinforcing what they learn independently, filling in gaps where needed and participating in deeper, teacher-led discussions about the subject matter.  In other words, BLAST fundamentally changed the relationship of the teacher to students. BLAST teachers’ roles morphed from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” When each child is able to learn at his or her own pace, teachers have little choice but to let go of the idea that all students must be doing the same thing at the same time.

And while that may sound like a less demanding role than that of omniscient lecturer, teachers quickly discovered otherwise. With students in the same class working on different projects and progressing at their own pace, teachers had to plan out multiple lessons in advance, at a minimum one week and often further ahead, so that those students capable of moving faster through the material were able to do so.

What new skills are required by blended learning?

These “flipped” classrooms place a variety of new demands on teachers, ranging from classroom management skills to facility with digital content tools – with a particular focus on analyzing and using the real-time data about what students are and aren’t learning each day.

The challenge BLAST teachers faced in learning how to use this real-time data to inform their lesson plans and instructional approaches is far from unique. As a recent study from the National Council or Quality Teaching (NCTQ) found, most university schools of education do a poor job of training educators in the use of data-driven assessment and instruction. And although the NCTQ report focused only on traditional assessment tools of classroom exams and standardized tests, it nevertheless underscores the increased importance of training teachers who work in blended learning environments about  the use of daily data to assess and differentiate instruction for all students.

What’s the school leader’s role in a blended learning environment?

School leaders play a critical role in creating a culture of collaboration, shared learning and an atmosphere of openness and willingness to make and learn from mistakes.  At weekly professional development sessions, the principal facilitates discussion that draws out and highlights what teaching practices are working in the classroom. Perhaps more importantly, the principal solicits ongoing feedback about what is not working, explores why not, and facilitates group discussion on new approaches to improve or change the practices to achieve the desired results. At one BLAST school, English and Social Studies teachers felt comfortable enough to recommend a fundamental change in their classroom structure and requested that the principal to help them find better software to support expository writing skills.

What are the staffing and professional development implications of blended learning?

These challenges inevitably have implications for how we recruit, orient and provide ongoing professional development for teachers.

  • In hiring teachers for a blended learning classroom, we seek those who are willing to innovate and take risks.
  • Before sending teachers into BLAST classrooms, we provide orientation training that goes above and beyond that of teachers in our more traditional classroom. We address the use of digital content, classroom  management and planning in the BLAST model, and techniques for using data to differentiate instruction.
  • Throughout the year, teachers also participate in ongoing professional development in weekly two hour sessions on campus as well as quarterly, day-long trainings with BLAST faculty from all BLAST schools.

How are students affected?

Early in the year, this particular teacher had seen the power of real-time data. In the fall, she had two students, both of whom came to her having failed Algebra 1 the previous year. After only a few classes, careful review of each student’s data, revealed two very different sets of needs, which required her to adopt two very-different, student-specific approaches to teaching.

In one case, the student had serious gaps in fundamentals of mathematics and pre-Algebra skills.  In the other, the student moved through and mastered the material at a pace that outstripped almost every single classmate. It was a tale of two extremes: Both students had failed and been failed by the traditional classroom. One was lost and continued to get further behind. The other was bored and disengaged.

In response, the teacher created intervention programs and one-to-one tutoring to support the student to fill in the gaps in his learning and developed a plan to move the other quickly through material. The result? By year’s end, both students mastered the content and received “A’s” in Algebra.

What’s the upside for teachers?

With blended learning still early in its development, there’s no teacher handbook.  All teachers are equally new. The teachers of today are creating best practices and developing techniques for the teachers and education schools of tomorrow.  And that’s both very rewarding and very difficult work. It takes both discipline and agility to monitor and incorporate real-time data into instructional practice. But as one teacher told me, “I am such a better teacher now.  I used to think I was a good teacher and people told me I was a good teacher.  Now I realize how many kids I missed in the traditional classroom.”

Judy Burton is the President and CEO of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a charter management organization which operates 21 middle and high schools in the Los Angeles area.