Schools are locking in their technology plans for the 2014-15 school year and many are venturing into blended learning, or expanding a blended program already in place. Which blended-learning model should they choose? Are Station Rotations the ideal, or Flex studios? Is Carpe Diem’s Individual Rotation the gold standard, FirstLine’s Lab Rotation, Summit’s Flex model, or Woodland Park’s Flipped Classroom?

Commit to sustaining models
The lens of disruptive innovation theory helps answer this question. Our observation is that some blended models are sustaining to the traditional classroom. Sustaining innovations bring improvements to the existing system. America’s classrooms have long benefitted from sustaining innovations, as schools have figured out how to improve curriculum and instruction to serve students better over time. We’ve observed that three models of blended learning have the features of sustaining innovations:

  1. Station Rotations
  2. Lab Rotations, and
  3. Flipped Classrooms

These combine the traditional classroom with online learning and promise a best-of-both-worlds “hybrid.” (For more detail, read how hybrid theory applies to schools here.)

There is enough reason to use these sustaining models to personalize learning that I don’t see why every single classroom in America is not aggressively making plans to transition to a Rotation design as soon as possible. The days of factory-style classrooms where every student is tethered to an average pace and single pathway are behind us. Rotations are emerging as the logical way to personalize learning, allow teachers to work with smaller groups of students, and make differentiated instruction vastly more efficient and affordable. I agree with Arne Duncan: “The fact that we are still teaching with a 19th century model makes no sense whatsoever. Twenty-five or thirty kids sitting in rows learning the same thing at the same time at the same pace makes no sense.”

Don’t overlook disruptive models
Too often schools latch onto sustaining innovation and neglect the second vital piece of every robust blended-learning strategy: investing in disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovations typically get started by serving people who otherwise do not have access to the market (“nonconsumers”) or who are over-served by the existing system. They have transformed countless industries by making them more accessible, convenient, and affordable. Four blended models are following the disruptive pattern:

  1. Individual Rotation
  2. Flex
  3. A La Carte, and
  4. Enriched Virtual

Over time, successful disruptions get better and better until eventually they displace established competitors. We predict that at the high school level, as well as middle school to some extent, disruptive models of blended learning will one day replace the traditional classroom altogether. Already many schools are finding that by knocking down walls and setting up flexible, open-architecture learning studios—where students use the Internet to progress at their own pace, engage with face-to-face faculty in more effective ways, and altogether abandon the traditional classroom construct—they can teach foreign languages quicker, recover more dropout students, help more students pass Advanced Placement exams, and offer more electives. This list of areas where disruptive models trump traditional models will expand over time. School leaders are overlooking a big opportunity if they fail to take advantage of disruptive models to address areas of nonconsumption.

Develop a two-part strategy
The best blended-learning strategies seize two types of opportunities. On the one hand, they leverage sustaining models of blended learning to update the traditional classroom with a more efficient, effective way to personalize and differentiate instruction. At the same time, they recognize that disruptive models are emerging that make it much more affordable and convenient to serve areas of nonconsumption, including offering a breadth of foreign language, Advanced Placement, dropout recovery, credit recovery, and other solutions. Technology plans are missing half the picture if they only focus on one of these successful strategies for making learning and schooling more effective.


  • 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.