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February 25, 2016

Blended learning can enable teachers to focus on cognitive skills

by Thomas Arnett

Insights from the Field
Blended learning can be a powerful tool; not only for helping teachers meet students’ individual learning needs but also helping them foster stronger relationships with students. In this post, I share excerpts from a recent interview with Megan Toyama, a blended-learning teacher who teaches AP US history and 10th-grade modern world history at Summit Tahoma, a high school that is part of the Summit Public Schools charter network in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the interview, Megan explains how blended learning has allowed her to give her students more support in building their cognitive and non-cognitive skills and also improved her relationships with her students.

Thomas: How has blended learning changed your practices?

Megan: In my classes I do less of the traditional lecturing and my classroom is much more skills-focused. For example, before I got involved in blended learning, you might come into my classroom and find me lecturing on the French Revolution. And you know, I would be doing a pretty good job—I’m exciting, engaging, and the students are learning the content. But as I think about it now, those lectures were not actually the best use of my time. I enjoyed doing them, but I think my students benefit more if I take my PowerPoint slides or a recording of myself giving that lecture and put them online for students to access individually. When students can access lecture content online, they’re not struggling to keep up or working ahead because I’m going too slow.

Instead of lecturing, I now spend my class time helping students develop their skills—such as learning how to write an argumentative claim or how to select evidence. Those are skills that are a lot harder for students to grasp on their own. So I focus my class time on modeling the skills, facilitating the students practicing the skill, and giving students feedback on their skills. For me, the time I’m now able to spend helping my students develop those skills is really exciting and feels really good. In addition, because Summit has a project-based learning model, our class time is devoted to students working on projects that support deep understanding of the content and of cognitive skills.

At Summit, we talk a lot about teachers as facilitators of learning. So another big part of my role is to coach students on how to navigate the technology, direct their own learning, set goals, figure out what they need to get done that day, select the online resources that meet their needs, and then process those effectively. I also see myself as being the one to provide extra support or additional extensions as needed. For example, a student may try several times to learn a specific area of the content using the online resources and still not understand that content. With that student I may say, “You know what, you’re going to come to a workshop with me and we’re going to talk about the content and also talk about a way for you to be more effective in learning this individually.” On the other hand, there are students who work really quickly through all the online content. I then come up with extra extensions for them as needed.

Thomas: I sometimes hear teachers voice concerns about outsourcing content instruction to technology because they feel personally responsible for students’ learning. How did you become comfortable with making online learning the primary mode of content instruction for your students?

Megan: I think that because I am the one building or curating the content in our online learning platform, I felt comfortable adopting it. This is the case for all courses, where teachers have control over what students access and learn online. I still see myself as the one who is instructing my students. It’s just that my students are now accessing my instruction via technology.

I can understand it being difficult if a teacher has to hand off their students to use resources and assessments that they didn’t build. But I think that there are good resources out there, such as Khan Academy, that maybe a teacher didn’t build but that have proven to be very effective in supporting students. With all the technology, there’s so much opportunity to not re-create the wheel. In teaching, we can do that a lot—re-making the same resources instead of saving time by using technology to share resources.

Thomas: How has access to data from online learning changed your practices?

Megan: The power of technology in assessment is huge. The fact that I can give students an online assessment and know immediately how all of them did has really helped me cater the support I give my students. Data allows me to identify quickly who’s struggling and what kind of support they actually need. It helps me to know my students better.

I look at student data pretty much daily, and it informs my next steps as the facilitator of learning and the teacher/coach on how to do self-directed learning. For example, I may tell a group of students to come meet with me after school to work on material they are struggling with, and I know exactly who those students are because of the data. Another way I use data is in gearing up for upcoming projects. Before the project, I look at the data and see who has passed the content assessment related to that project. I may then come up with extension activities for students who have passed the assessment and a background lecture for students who haven’t passed the assessment so that they can still understand the project. Similarly, I have data on students cognitive skills, which also drives my instructional practice. It helps me group students and provide them with the proper intervention.

Thomas: How has blended learning changed your relationships with your students?

Megan: Blended learning really helped my relationships with students who struggled with whole class instruction, either because it was not at the right pace for them or because they would zone out and lose focus in the big group. When I first started using blended learning, these students went from “zoned out” to empowered learners because they could now go at their own pace and had all the resources they needed at their fingertips. These students started to achieve academic success and it was a real game changer for them! This led to them enjoying my class and henceforth respecting me more as a their teacher.

In addition, blended learning has helped me to deepen individual relationships with students because I now have the time to have more one-on-one conversations in class that are tailored to students’ specific needs. As students work individually on their computers, I am able to check in with every student to ensure each of them has what he or she needs to learn. This seems to make my students feel incredibly supported by me and helps my relationships with them as well.

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