As I talk to people who want to blend online learning into students’ curriculum, the most frequent question I get is what online content is best? I respect that question, and others that sound really good too, like what does a student-centric classroom look like? Or what should be the teacher’s role?

But I am convinced that the infinitely most important question to ask first is what will motivate students to love this? My observation is that once a student’s heart is in it, the learning happens naturally, elegantly, and quickly. Imagine a classroom filled with students who want to be there, are focused, engaged, even clamoring to learn. But getting students into that righteous flow*, where they learn something because they genuinely love learning it—that’s where 90 percent of the battle is won or lost.

So the first principle of blended learning, I believe, is to design around maximizing student motivation. That means resisting the stubborn urge (exacerbated by the proliferation of new edu-vendors) to think about iPads, platforms, and “station rotations” until way further down the design road. Seriously—ignore those at first. They will only get in the way of truly designing around student success.

Let me tell you what this looks like at one stand-out elementary school.

Acton Academy in Austin, Texas is one of America’s more out-of-the-box blended-learning schools. The disclaimer is that it’s an independent school and we enrolled two of our children there this year because we so love its model, but I don’t think that changes the story. The first classroom is scaling to 36 students, grades 1-5 combined, and Acton will replicate this with several more classroom pods of the same size, plus middle and high school pods.

Acton’s founders designed the school one subject at a time, always beginning with the question of what approach would help students get into that zone where they are motivated, self-directed learners. They decided that for math, the best bet was online learning. Often math is not intrinsically motivating when it’s still at the elementary stage of learning the basics—the concepts associated with drill and kill. So Acton turned to programs like Dreambox, Khan Academy, Mangahigh, and ST Math because software brings the game-like quality to math. Plus, it helps students hover right in that sweet-spot zone of proximal development, where the next task is neither too hard nor too easy. Online learning seemed like the obvious starting point for math.

They then decided to implement the math with a flex blended-learning model. Guides are on-site to provide immediate help, but they let the software be the starting place for content and instruction. Why interrupt students right in the middle of their flow to force them into a station rotation if the students are focused, engaged, and evidencing strong progress?

A less thoughtful group of designers might have then begun scouring the market for the right online program for other core subjects. Acton’s founders resisted. They began with their first principle—student motivation. For reading, they hypothesized that nothing develops a love of reading more than, well, reading!—plopping down on a soft beanbag for enough time to get really into a great book. So they took a gamble. They decided to let students choose absolutely any (appropriate) reading material they wanted—novels, nonfiction, comic books, Wikipedia, the back of cereal boxes for all they cared—and allowed reading time to be entirely a free-read session. No book reports, no teacher lectures, no plot diagraming. But those things are important, you might protest! Remember that Acton believes the battle is lost or won in student motivation. Take these early readers, teach them to absolutely crave books, and the rest (such as important literary criticism skills) will come so much more joyfully later.

How do guides know if the students are reading and making progress? “It’s easy when you’re actually there,” the lead guide Kaylie Dienelt Reed told me. “Anyone can tell if another person is absorbed in a book or just flipping pages and not engaged.” Sometimes Acton uses resources like TuneIn to Reading to offer targeted help, but rarely have they been as successful as the free-read. Another concern is the younger children who start Acton without great reading skills. But the mixed-age classroom helps with that, because Acton uses its older students as reading buddies to sit with the younger students until they are ready to free read alone.

What’s most motivating for science? So far, Acton has found hands-on, group-based (not teacher-led) tinkering projects to build the most love for science. Spelling? Self-directed study to earn an Excellence badge in spelling. Keyboarding? 10FastFingers and other online programs.

Acton delivers all these subjects with a flex-model mentality, even if all do not involve the online modality. Guides support, troubleshoot, and provide context, but they never lecture or impose a standardized pace.

The most amazing outcome at Acton is that students there are genuinely enthralled with learning. Simply said, they LOVE school. This week, 100 percent of the parents and students gave Acton a 5 out of 5—the highest score—on the weekly survey. After reading time, guides have to beg students to put down their books. For math, students keep winning Mangahigh contests—against high school kids in other schools. The number one complaint in the student surveys is that they wish they had more time for history.

Not to mention other results, such as students on average jumping more than two grade levels on the SAT 10 test in a year.

The authors of Disrupting Class say that motivation is the catalyzing ingredient for learning. I wish we could all take a collective breath from the frenzy of finding the right blended-learning platforms and tablet devices. Begin with timeless wisdom about how to help students learn and love learning, and then build the blended-learning implementation from there.


* Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow here as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”


  • 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.