I am not going to sit on my #%$ as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand.
– Cameron, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

In the Rise of K12 Blended Learning, we theorized blended learning could lead to more personalized, student-driven schools.  It turns out this is really hard to do.  First, the Face-to-Face and Rotation models are primarily teacher-driven environments and it’s no accident that this is where the vast majority of operators feel comfortable entering the blended waters.  Second, for those who do take on more student-driven models like the Flex model, shifting instructional practices can range from painful to agonizing for educators.  For example, how do you lesson plan for a classroom that offers both direct instruction and self-paced, online learning?  What are teachers supposed to do with real-time data?  Third, raise your hand if you think it’s a good idea to give teenagers more responsibility over their education and actually follow through on it.  I see a couple hands in the back… Oh wait, those are students.

So why the hassle? Because when educators create student-driven, personalized environments, it’s magical.

Students who “own” their learning speak and act differently about their education.  They know what they are trying to get out of every lesson, are motivated to do it and are critical thinkers about the methods used to get there.  Here are a few student quotes that are oft-repeated in schools where students own their learning.

  • Mastery: “Let’s say I get a 70%, I immediately try to understand what I got wrong so I can go back and get 100%. Bad grades are not forever.”
  • Feedback: “When I take a quiz, I like that [online program x] immediately tells me how I did.”
  • Motivation: “I didn’t use to understand math.  But between the teacher, the online program and the other students, I find that I understand stuff at the end of the [period].  It’s really cool.”
  • Time Management: “I’ve spent a lot of time on English and History this week.  I’ll probably spend four hours on math today to make sure I’m on track.”
  • Personalization: “In our classes, there is not just one lesson.  Students who are having a hard time can get help or spend more time and students who ‘get it’ can move ahead.”
  • Support: “Our school is like a family.  We are all working on different things so there is less competition.  We know that everyone can succeed if they put in the work.”

On a recent visit to a new blended learning high school run by the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles, I immediately noticed Alliance was trying to figure out how to give students more ownership of their learning.  This was somewhat unexpected for me because Alliance runs an in-class rotation model, which often manifests as teacher-driven (i.e., tech-enhanced guided instruction).  But the words Alliance students used to describe their learning environment were nearly identical to those used by their peers at Carpe Diem’s  Yuma campus who engage in a lot of independent learning.*

The delineation between Rotation and Flex models can blur very quickly.  Rather than focusing on distinctions around how students shift between online and face-to-face modalities, I now believe the real shift happens when schools hand more control of learning to students.  “Flipping the classroom” does not mean watching lectures for homework, it means flipping from teacher- to student-driven practices.

The concept of student-driven education is not new; it has largely been championed by project-based schools and free schools with mixed results.  Blended learning makes student-driven schools possible, because technology is the only way to scale the real-time feedback and differentiation necessary to create learning environments where students want to make decisions about their education.  But let’s be clear, technology is not THE answer.  Technology simply gives educators more choices on how to design great schools.

While both teacher-driven and student-driven blended models will be great alternatives for students going forward – no value judgments here – I do think a lot about two issues where I suspect greater student ownership can help:

  1. Are we seeing performance ceilings emerge in our highest-performing schools, because of inherent constraints in the teacher-driven model?
  2. To really teach 21st century skills, do we need to treat kids like 21st century students?

My hypothesis is that giving students more ownership of their education is a good starting point for addressing both of these challenges.  Excited to see new players like USC Hybrid High, Touchstone Education, Alliance BLAST, Cornerstone Schools and others fuel the next wave of innovation.*

Note: a special thanks to my colleague Jon Hanover  who contributed to this blog post.

* Charter School Growth Fund is an investor in Alliance BLAST and Touchstone Education.

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. He leads CSGF’s “next-generation” learning investments in blended learning programs and is eager to talk to social entrepreneurs who want to re-invent schools. twitter: thinkschools


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