About the author: Casey Lynch is a K-12 education research intern with the Christensen Institute focused on interviewing and profiling schools in the Blended Learning Universe Directory, and a rising 8th grade English teacher in The School District of Philadelphia.

Many teachers interested in implementing blended learning may be deterred by challenges in their school contexts. Perhaps each classroom only receives a few computers, or perhaps blended learning is not a priority for school administration. So how might a teacher blend their classroom without the support of a school- or district-wide initiative? Innovation theory and the Blended Learning Universe Directory stand to offer implementable solutions.

Sustaining vs. disruptive innovation

Two basic types of innovation—sustaining and disruptive—follow different trajectories and lead to different results. Sustaining innovations help leading or incumbent organizations make better products. They serve existing customers better according to the original definition of performance. Disruptive innovations, in contrast, do not try to bring better products to existing customers in established markets. Instead, they offer a new definition of what’s good. Typically, they facilitate the production of simpler, more convenient, and less expensive goods or services that appeal to new or less demanding customers. Over time, disruptive innovations improve enough to meet the needs of more demanding customers, thereby transforming a sector.

How teachers apply sustaining innovations

A teacher looking to blend a single classroom might opt for a sustaining rather than a disruptive innovation vis-à-vis blended learning. There is a common misconception that disruptive innovation is good and sustaining innovation is bad. However, sustaining innovations are vital to any robust sector, and, in the education sector, they may fulfill the needs of teachers looking to innovate within traditional school contexts. In going blended, many teachers aim to serve students better according to the original definition of performance embraced by their schools. To teachers looking to do this work, we would recommend the Flipped Classroom and Station Rotation models of blended learning, both of which constitute sustaining innovations.*

Nkateko Machumele, a teacher at Diepsloot Combined School in Diepsloot, Gauteng, South Africa, piloted a Flipped Classroom in the 2017 school year. Though students do not have consistent access to digital technology at the school, Machumele realized that nearly all students have access to mobile applications on their smartphones. Machumele uses the gamified learning application Everything Maths as math and science curriculum and as a learning-management tool for tracking student goals and progress. Students complete gamified learning exercises on Siyavula’s Everything Maths at home. In Machumele’s class, students engage in practice and ask questions related to the digital curriculum, and they additionally participate in whole-group and small-group learning. The model is designed to increase student achievement according to Diepsloot’s extant modes of measurement, rendering it a sustaining innovation.

Many teachers blend their classrooms using a Station Rotation model, in which students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion among classroom-based learning modalities. The rotation includes at least one station for online learning, and every student rotates through all stations. For decades, teachers have used stations or learning centers as a means of managing crowded classrooms and facilitating multimodal learning. However, as Jon Cooney of Bella Romero Academy cautions in our paper exploring implementations and iterations of the Station Rotation, “For a teacher who is used to stations, going to a Station Rotation can be an impediment because they introduce it with the scheme of ‘this is what I have always done.’” Cooney explains that teachers should build student choice over pace, place, and/or path of learning into any Station Rotation.

Disruptive teaching innovations that redefine student success

While sustaining innovations meet the needs of many teachers, others hope to measure student success differently and may opt for a disruptive blended model. At the Institute, we believe in the potential of blended learning to disrupt the longstanding factory model of education, whereby all students receive the same educational “product” in the spirit of Fordist efficiency. Disruptive models of blended learning may unlock customized learning, competency-based learning, and anytime, anywhere learning. For educators who aim to truly personalize learning and who consider this possible (if not scalable) within their school infrastructure, we would recommend the Flex and Individual Rotation models of blended learning.**

In 2014, Peter Carzoli chose to implement a Flex program in his Algebra I course at Fenton High School in Illinois, which he describes as a traditional, “calendar-driven” school. Carzoli embraces a non-traditional definition of performance, which marks his model as disruptive: “The goal was not to have students ask teachers ‘What are we doing today?’ but for teachers to ask students ‘What are you doing today?’” In this Flex model, students work through digital curriculum on Khan Academy at their own pace and engage in whole-group, small-group, and individual instruction according to their learning needs. In addition to assuming greater agency over their learning, students in Carzoli’s class have made demonstrable gains on traditional assessments. In the second year of the model, average per-student growth on the NWEA MAP assessment more-than-tripled. Carzoli says of his transition to Flex, “It is ridiculously simple to administer. The teacher is liberated to use class time to maximize high-quality interaction with individual students.”

In Rhode Island, Jason Appel and Sam Schachter of Barrington High School describe their own Flex model as similarly rewarding but far from simple to design. The pair piloted Flex in their Algebra I and Geometry classes in 2014. Appel and Schachter create digital playlists that include short videos, skill practice, critical-thinking questions, and extension tasks. Students work through these at their own pace on Chromebooks, either individually or in groups that they choose. The teachers monitor students’ progress and provide just-in-time support, checking in with each student at least once per period. Appel says of the model, “Creating and embedding videos, finding or creating high-quality auto-graded content, and converting content into a digital format is a slow process. I haven’t really overcome this challenge. I just find teaching this way to be so much better for my students that I push myself to the limit of what is healthy.” While disruptive blended models often yield exciting results, teachers should consider challenges—acquiring and applying specialist knowledge, among others—that accompany a change in the definition of performance.

Though blending a classroom in a traditional school may seem daunting, we’ve observed that teachers can do it to both sustaining and disruptive ends. We invite teachers considering this work to explore our design process tool, participate on the Q&A Forum, and cull ideas from the BLU directory, filtering by blended model, school type, location, and other criteria. We remind teacher-innovators: even, and especially, if your blended successes do not inspire a school- or district-wide change, they have the potential be transformative for your students.

*A third sustaining model of blended learning is the Lab Rotation. However, teachers implementing blended learning in a single classroom would likely not have consistent access to such a space. For examples of the Lab Rotation in action, see the BLU.

**Additional disruptive models of blended learning are Enriched Virtual and A La Carte. A teacher implementing blended learning in a single classroom, though, likely may not have access to fully online courses, nor the ability to enact the daily schedule changes central to an Enriched Virtual model. For examples of the Enriched Virtual and A La Carte models in action, search the BLU Directory.


  • Christensen Institute
    Christensen Institute