Almost every educator I’ve asked about leading a blended-learning initiative has expressed that building a blended program is a process, not an event. That’s a big reason why the Blended Learning Universe (BLU) includes as a resource a 9-step design guide to support educators at every step in their blended journey. The design guide is based on Heather Staker and Michael Horn’s design advice in their 2013 book Blended. The journey launches with identifying a problem to solve or a goal to achieve, and continues through refinement and iteration. Just as we portray it as a wheel, like most worthwhile endeavors, a strong blended program essentially involves perpetual effort and ongoing design decisions.

The final step, step 9, of the design process recommends an important discovery-driven planning process. Internally at the Christensen Institute, our team has recently engaged with this very process as we launch a new research project filled with unknowns. Starting with discovery-driven planning has helped us to pave a way forward that doesn’t leave our next year of work to chance. Rather, it lets us identify our goals upfront and think through not only what we want to see happen, but ways of testing whether those aspirations will actually hold true. If we test our assumptions as the project moves along, we aren’t taking the risk of waiting until the end to see if we are right or wrong.

There’s never any guarantee of success, but if as a team you honestly, thoughtfully lay out all of the risks involved when starting an endeavor—especially one as layered and intertwined with multiple stakeholders like blended learning in a school or district—you increase your chances of discovering a clear path forward.

Discover the way to achieving your goals

Here are a few steps to leading a discovery-driven planning process in the context of a blended-learning initiative, whether it’s in pilot mode or years into implementation.

1. Bring a diverse group together and consider what assumptions you are making when going blended.

At their outset, blended learning programs can carry many assumptions, some of which may not prove viable. Assumptions may be “the devices will work” or “teachers will be on board” or “students will enjoy self-directed time”, and so forth. Have people at the table in this brainstorming exercise who represent a variety of departments and perspectives, so that the assumptions will be exhaustive.

2. Rank your assumptions in order of how important they are to student success.

Dig deep and really consider what needs to be true for your blended learning design to work. In early-stage blended-learning design, the number of assumptions can be as high as 100 or more. Once you’ve built out an assumptions list, rank them in order of how confident you are that the assumptions are true, weighting assumptions that are especially critical to the success of the whole initiative. If you believe that “Blended PD once per month will sufficiently support pilot teachers” will prove true, move that assumption to the bottom of your list. If you’re not confident in the statement’s accuracy, however, keep that assumption at the top of your list. All of your stakeholders should contribute to the ranking process to understand which assumptions are priorities for the team to test.

3. Start by testing assumptions that are most important to student success and that you are least confident are true.

By testing critical assumptions that have the least amount of confidence, critical aspects of the blended-learning program’s success can be improved upon immediately. This step helps you avoid realizing at the 11th hour that foundational components must be redesigned. Once these low-confidence, high-stakes assumptions have been tested, the next step is to work your way toward assumptions that are least critical to student success and which you are most confident are true. Keep tests simple and cheap, like talking to experts, visiting schools or doing a small after-school pilot.

4. Determine if the assumptions are holding true at predetermined checkpoints.

If they are, keep the innovation. For example, if teachers are on board with launching blended learning, proceed with the roll-out. If they aren’t yet, consider making changes to your approach or discard your current process altogether. If you’ve tried one expert’s tactic for cultivating teacher buy-in but it didn’t hit home with your colleagues, consult another expert or school leader and borrow their recommended strategy. Ultimately, as your team makes adjustments and iterates the process, you may start heading down a path with assumptions that are proving true.

Are you leading a blended-learning initiative in your classroom, school, or district? Share your journey by creating a profile alongside hundreds of others in the BLU Directory.


  • Jenny White
    Jenny White