Many schools are curious about blended learning, but not ready for a whole-school transformation. One option is to consider piloting a Blended Learning Power Hour, where students step away from the traditional classroom structure for only an hour each day and target high priority learning needs using online learning, individual tutoring, and small-group instruction. While the approach is not perfect (my biggest complaint is the lack of connection between what students learn during the blended hour and back in their traditional classroom), the upside is that it’s a relatively easy starting point for stimulating innovation toward student-centric and competency based instructional approaches and learning how to deploy devices, online content, LMSs, and so forth to improve student learning.

In 2010, Pamela Barrier helped an independent school in Austin, TX implement a Power Hour program called “Extensions” among first and second graders. Today the popular program serves kindergarten through 6th grade and continues to inspire instructional innovation across the school. I sat down with Pamela recently to learn how she did it. Here’s a summary:

Q:  What is Extensions?

A: It’s a daily instructional block during which we assign students to targeted learning groups based on their priority learning needs. Instructors teach each group using various curricula, including online software to optimize student learning.

Q: Why did the school decide to implement Extensions?

A: The impetus was the school’s awareness of the importance of better addressing significant variation in student capabilities, rates of learning, and learning styles. The school was also interested in experimenting with online instruction.

Q: What happens during a typical Extensions block?

A: Students in a grade level leave their primary classrooms to join a small targeted learning group. The teacher-led groups include six to eight students, whereas the online-learning groups are significantly bigger. We use grade-level teachers, teaching assistants, and instructional support personnel from across the school to lead the small groups. In some cases the small-group instruction focuses on reinforcing previously taught general classroom reading, writing or math instruction (Response to Intervention Tier 2 instruction). Other groups may work online to enhance reading fluency or math concepts, or to engage in a curriculum developed for gifted and talented students.

Q: How do you identify the priority learning needs of the students participating?

A: The program is built on a foundation of in-depth, rigorous, but quick assessment of each student at regular intervals. We use DIBELS and Teacher’s College Reading Assessments for reading, and mClass and M-CAP (AIMSweb) for math. Performance data from the online content itself also provides important information about student progress. Using these two sources (third-party assessment and data dashboards from the content providers), the faculty holds periodic meetings to collectively analyze student progress and agree to a priority learning need for each student. After it completes initial learning group assignments, the faculty meets weekly to reassign students according to their evolving needs. Learning groups remain highly flexible; students migrate to new groups as they master academic goals.

Q: How did you get teachers on board?

A: Of course, teacher buy-in was essential to success. As expected, this was a challenge because data-informed teaching, competency-based differentiated instruction, and blended learning are emerging educational strategies. In many respects, these approaches challenge the traditional classroom model, especially at the elementary school level. We built teacher acceptance by: (1) creating a culture of innovation, starting with school leadership; (2) demonstrating success and potential in a pilot program for first and second grades; and (3) faculty training. In addition, prior to implementing the program, the school already had a regular practice of conducting day-long data assessment meetings with faculty to review student data and formulate instructional responses.

Q: What training did teachers need?

A: Specific training was necessary because most elementary teachers had little experience with online learning software. We created various in-house professional training opportunities to develop proficiency with new curricula.

Q: What’s the hardest part of implementing a program like this?

A: Organizational change! Implementing a program that defies the traditional school landscape of age-based, grade-level groupings demands that faculty shifts from a closed classroom approach to collaborative teaching. Making this transformation requires strong school leadership, a culture committed to innovation, and a deliberate, student-centered focus on maximizing individual student achievement.

Q: Is it frustrating for students to return to their traditional classrooms after a power hour and not have the blended-learning work inform where they are with their other work?

A: The lack of integration between a power hour concept and classroom instruction does not seem to cause frustration for students, but it is less than ideal for ensuring students attain the highest level of achievement. The program does allow teachers more latitude during general instruction to focus on higher order skills.

Q: If you could expand a power hour program to the next level, what would you do?

The program provides operators with an opportunity to introduce blended learning and kick start innovation toward a student-centered paradigm. The next level involves: (1) integrating the program concepts into regular classroom instruction; (2) improving the assessment process, including more user-friendly presentation tools such as dashboards; (3) optimizing the use of the rapidly evolving online offerings; (4) expanding faculty expertise in specialized instruction and blended learning; and (5) moving to mixed-age learning groups.

Thank you Pamela! I enjoyed hearing about your Power Hour concept and believe it is a helpful option for schools that want to take a beginning step with a sustaining blended learning innovation.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.