Cross-posted at

“Day by day, nothing seems to change. But pretty soon, everything’s different.”
Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes

Hard to believe it has been two years since we published The rise of K12 blended learning. Since then, roughly a gazillion people have made pilgrimages to Rocketship and Carpe Diem, the feds plunked down $400 million for personalized learning in districts and charter networks, and 99.999% of America’s schools are still waiting for the revolution.

I often get annoyed looks when I say educators are still figuring out what personalization looks like. I think it is a decade long play, maybe two. Farb Nivi at Grockit puts the over-under at fifty years before traditional education institutions transform themselves. Either way, the education sector has started marching towards the unknown and there is no turning back. Unfortunately, the journey looks less like the Star Trek Enterprise flying across galaxies at warp speed, and more like the Pilgrims battling their way across the Atlantic Ocean in a leaky Mayflower.

Here are a few things I think I’ve learned over the last two years.

At this stage, most blended learning schools seem to be testing one of three hypotheses.

Hypothesis #1: Guided instruction is better if we replace worksheets with online content. In guided instruction, teachers work with small groups of students while the rest of the class works independently at different stations. I’d guess the majority of new blended learning implementations look similar to the guided instruction class we see in the picture below (a KIPP Empower class in Los Angeles, CA). There are good reasons for this, guided instruction is a commonly accepted instructional practice in many of our best schools and, at the end of the day, no one feels that strongly about protecting worksheets. If video killed the radio star, online content is lurking in the alley waiting for worksheets to walk by.

There is little downside to shifting to a “rotation” model from an achievement standpoint, because guided instruction worked before online content and students seem to learn the same or more when swapping paper for edtech. Some operators like Aspire Public Schools report anecdotal evidence of increased student engagement during independent work and better differentiation during face-to-face, small-group instruction.

Hypothesis #2: Students can be more successful if they learn at their own pace in student-driven, competency-based models. Instead of organizing students by age and giving them all the same lesson, students in competency-based models initiate their own learning, may follow different paths, and seek varied resources to help them meet their goals. You can read about the Summit Public Schools experience with student-directed learning here and here (seriously, take the time to read it). Summit’s secondary students choose a standard(s) to master and then are directed to resources to support their learning. These resources can take the form of text, video, teacher-led seminars, peer support, a tutoring bar – anything that might help. Students can show evidence of their learning at any time.

Student-driven models can feel like radical departures from what we traditionally consider school and we are in the early innings of figuring out what good competency-based learning even looks like. Intrepid schools are attracted to competency-based learning as a means to boost student engagement, build executive function, and help students stay in their learning “sweet spots.” Secondary schools seem to be most attracted to student-driven learning, but a few operators will create elementary level programs.

Summit is manually curating content and building systems to support its new approach and the organization intends to shift its entire secondary program to student-driven learning. Mastery Charter Schools is piloting a nascent effort in Philadelphia, PA and districts like Adams 50 (Colorado) and states like New Hampshire are also getting in on the action. Quality of implementation completely depends on the quality of the school operator and their ability to architect new learning environments from scratch.

Hypothesis #3: We can successfully “compress” basic skills instruction and free up time for rich learning experiences. The standards-based movement has devoted most of its energy and resources to ensuring that every student, regardless of demographics, can exit K12 with a strong set of basic academic skills. Sure this all sounds good. But for families, basic skills are the absolute minimum. Families want to know, “how else will you help our children grow and develop?”

Can educators use personalized learning to accelerate mastery of basic skills and “compress” the amount of time spent on them? If this is possible, we can open up huge blocks of time at school for educational experiences that we all say we value but don’t always find the time or money for.

Basic skills and higher-order thinking are not an either-or proposition even though we frequently frame them this way in education discussions. Instead of extending basic skills instruction out to 7-9 hours per day, schools will increasingly try to thread-the-needle between core academic skills and amazing educational experiences that families and students value.

The Acton Academy, a small private school in Austin, uses personalized learning in its core academic program and compresses it into a 2 ½ hour period each day. This allows the school to offer three two-hour project blocks a week, a socratic seminar each day, game play on Fridays, etc. If Acton and others can fine-tune this approach, I predict families will stampede to these personalized, enriched programs. Venture Academy, a charter school scheduled to open in Minneapolis in Fall 2013, is signaling its intent to pursue a variation of this strategy. Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound programs and others with similar instincts around rich educational experiences will also find this path appealing.

While there are other entry points into blended learning (e.g., learning lab, flipped classroom, etc.), I suspect most schools will eventually converge on one or more of the three hypotheses above – they are not mutually exclusive. The funny thing about personalization is that the more you get, the more you want.

Note: my non-profit, the Charter School Growth Fund, is a philanthropic investor in Summit Public Schools and Mastery Charter Schools.

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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