Discovering B While Looking for A

Discovering B While Looking for A

Sometimes the most interesting insights or discoveries come unexpectedly. For example, consider Teflon. The magical non-stick coating for frying pans was accidentally discovered by a DuPont chemist researching refrigeration techniques. He noticed that his tank of tetrafluoroethylene gas was running out before it weighed empty. He finally cut the tank open and found a white smooth substance (later marketed as Teflon) coating the inside. As we continue to make forays into the burgeoning new field of blended learning, we are bound to make similarly exciting and unexpected discoveries.

This summer at Amistad Academy Elementary School we piloted a four-week blended learning summer school program. Our model had 20 rising 3rd and 4th grade students organized in groups of 3 to 5 students each.

The students received one hour of reading and one hour of math instruction while rotating every half hour between digital instruction (with MyOn and DreamBox) and small group instruction. Two teachers lead the small group lessons. One was a full-time AF teacher, the other was an Education Pioneers intern (me). The students also had about 15 minutes at the end of the day and 60 minutes during their bus rides when they could do self-guided digital learning activities.

Our aim with the program was to find a way to prevent summer slide. We also wanted to explore the benefits of our classroom layout, our schedule, our focus on small-group instruction, and the idea of having a non-teacher intern lead small group instruction.

As a side thought in the planning process, I decided to incorporate “big goals” into our plan (an idea I had picked up from my TFA days). We challenged each student to complete 20 units in DreamBox and make 20 points of Lexile growth in MyOn by the end of the program. We even put up trackers on the classroom bulletin boards so that students could see their progress each day.

My reading of “Teaching as Leadership” had really convinced me that setting big goals with students, when done right, could be a powerful tool for motivating them to be invested in their academic achievement. However, a week and a half into the program it seemed that our big goals just weren’t doing much for our kids. My hunch was that the goals just seemed too far off. Looking back on it now, I think the students truly wanted to meet the goals, but they had difficulty translating the goal into what they needed to do each day, each minute.

To bridge that gap between big goals and daily actions I decided to start taking advantage of the software data to set daily individual goals with the students. In the morning I would hop on the school bus and as the students got on I would talk with each of them individually about what they were going to accomplish that day. I would then challenge them to set their own goals for how many books they would read in MyOn and how many units they would complete in DreamBox. The conversation usually sounded something like this:

“Hey Gerion, how’s it going?

“Good. I got to go to my dad’s house last night and play video games with my older brother.”

“That’s sounds like you has a lot of fun. Are you excited to work hard today and sweat the small stuff so that you can really grow in your learning?”


“Do you want to see how you did in meeting your goals yesterday?”


“So yesterday your reading goal was to finish two books in MyOn. You did an awesome job on that goal! Not only did you read the two books for your goal, you also read one extra book. Way to go! (high five). What did you do yesterday that allowed you to read so many books?”

“Well … during reading time I made sure to get logged in quickly and not get distracted by other people so that I could get my books done. I also just really like the books I’ve been reading lately”

“That’s great! I noticed that it looked like you were really focused during reading time. Good work. What was your favorite book you read yesterday?”

“I really like the books about monsters. They’re kind of creepy but kind of funny at the same time.”

“Cool … Now let’s talk about your math goal. Your goal was to complete two units in Dreambox, but you didn’t finish any. Why do you think that happened?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, yesterday during math time I noticed that it took you a while to get your computer set up and to get started because you wanted to watch Raymond play his games in DreamBox. I also noticed that when we had preferred activity time you went to ST Math instead of DreamBox. Do you think part of the reason why you didn’t make your goal was because you weren’t focused during the times you had for working on math?”


“So what can you do today to make sure you are able to make your goal?”

“I’ll make sure to go straight to my computer without chatting with Raymond so that I can get my work done.”

“Good. … Also, when we have preferred activity don’t forget about your goals. ST Math has some cool learning games, but this summer we’re focused on working on the DreamBox units. You should make the games in ST Math a reward you give yourself once you’ve finished your DreamBox goals. Does that sound like a good idea?”


“Awesome! I’m really looking forward to being able to give you a shout-out in front of the whole class tomorrow for meeting your goals! So what do you want your goals to be for today?”

“Three books and three units!”

“Alright, three books sounds like a great goal. (Note: most books are 8-15 pages long.) Way to stretch yourself! For math I think three units might be too high of a number. Most students that work really hard usually finish one unit per day. I want to make sure we set a goal that you can achieve so that you can get a shout-out tomorrow. What do you think would be a good goal?”

“How about … one unit.”

“Alright, I think that sounds good. If you finish you first unit and you want to stretch for a second or a third that’s great! I would love to tell the class about how you went above and beyond your goal. But first let’s focus on getting that first unit done so that you can get a guaranteed shout-out tomorrow. Also, when you’re in Dreambox, I want you to find a unit that says “In Progress” and focus on finishing it up … So let’s see, I have that your goals are three books and one unit. Does that sound good to you?”


“Great! Good luck working on your goals today!”

I would then write down their goals on mailing label stickers that they would affix to their shirts to remind them throughout the day of what they were going to accomplish.

At the end of the school day I went into the teacher pages of the learning software to write down in my tracking sheet what the students had actually accomplished. Then the next morning during the bus ride I would pull out the tracker and show students their results from the previous day. I discuss with them how their goals had compared to their actual performance, and then we would set new goals for the current day. When we arrived at the school, before diving into instruction, we would have a morning meeting during which I would publicly recognize the students that had met their individual daily goals or had made significant progress towards meeting the big goals.

Before long we started to realize that individual daily goals were turning into a powerful tool for motivation. Students were staying focused and taking ownership of their learning throughout the day. As an example, consider my first goal-setting conversation with a third grader named Shakedria Jones (name has been changed). When I asked Shakedria what she wanted her goals to be she just shrugged her shoulders and looked past me. Her expressions and body language basically said, “I’m not buying this whole goal setting thing. Since you’re the teacher and I have to do things your way, you can pick a number for me and write it down on your paper. But don’t expect me to actually make it.” After some ineffective prodding I finally decided to set her goal for her at one unit and two books. I gave her the goal sticker to wear on her shirt, but later found it casually forgotten on the classroom floor. However, when I checked the numbers that afternoon, I was happy to find that by luck or by miracle she had actually met her goal. The next morning when I sat down next to her on the bus to talk about her goals, I was, again, greeted with a facial expression that read somewhere between apathy and annoyance. However, when I told her she had made her goal and reached up to give her a high-five I saw her expression melt into giddy excitement. That excitement only grew when minutes later she stood in front of the whole class to be recognized as one of two students that had met both of their goals on the first day. From that day on she was an enthusiastic goal setter. She seemed to relish the moments when she got to stand up in front of the class to be recognized for meeting her goals and she made steady progress throughout the rest of the program.

Shakedria’s experience was similar to those of most other students. For example, another student got so excited about goal setting that he would constantly try to set high goals that were completely unattainable. I would talk him down to setting goals that were reasonably achievable and he would work furiously to reach them. After we started setting goals, he started completing DreamBox units at five times the rate he had been working at before goal-setting.

The full-time classroom teachers that taught during our program also noticed the power of goal-setting. After the program ended, I asked the teachers about their experience. Below are some of their responses.

“I really liked that [we] made clear to [the students] that this is not just sit on the computer time. We told them ‘You have a job to do. You are going to pass these units.’ That’s what made the difference. … We are moving more towards really being more involved in the data on what students are doing on the computer,” (Dillon Delaney, 2nd grade Intervention Teacher).

“The biggest takeaway was ‘how do we make kids accountable for this? … The stickers were a really good way to keep students accountable for how they spend their time,” (Janel Glinsky Brown, 3rd grade Intervention Teacher).

“One of the biggest successes [was] when [we] started stickering [students]. That made it very visual and concrete to them that ‘I am going to work on this and I am going to get it done, and if I don’t get it done I’m going to keep working until I get it done.’ I think that was really important,” (Dillon Delaney, 2nd grade Intervention Teacher).

Now that our expedition in blended learning and goal setting is all wrapped up, here are some of our key insights.

For teachers:
  • Computer time is much more purposeful when there is an objective to accomplish. Addictive video games have this purposefulness built into them (i.e. bosses to beat, levels to unlock, badges to earn). Teachers can drive objective-oriented learning with learning software when they work with students to set individual learning goals.
  • Setting daily goals helps students see how to eat the elephant one bite at a time. Focusing students on the individual, daily effort that it takes to reach a big goal helps them stay motivated while working toward that distant objective.
  • Letting students set their own goals increases their investment in reaching those goals.
  • Teachers guidance is critical for helping students set goals that are specific, measurable, challenging, and attainable.
  • When helping students set goals it is important to also talk about the specific behaviors that will enable them to reach their goals. Even when students are highly motivated, goals become futile if students don’t understand what they must do to achieve them.
  • Goals should vary across students so that they can be adapted to individual students’ learning needs. Each student’s specific goals should be challenging, yet attainable for that student.
  • Goal attainment can be its own reward. When students know that their goals are challenging yet attainable, they get a lot of satisfaction from being publicly recognized for meeting their goals.


For designers of blended learning models:
  • Learning software lends itself well to goal setting because it gives students clear, objective, quantitative measures of what they are accomplishing.
  • Learning software is also good for goal setting because it can give students instant feedback on the results of their efforts. Immediate feedback helps students quickly troubleshoot through challenges and find satisfaction in their successes.
  • Individualized goals give every student the opportunity to feel successful. Individual goals allow students to compete against themselves rather than against the class.
  • Goals need to be based on metrics that students feel they can control. The software metrics that you choose for goal setting should be prominently displayed on student-facing side of the software. Also, the software should show students how their efforts translate into changes in their metrics.
  • Goal setting with learning software can encourage students to be self-guided in their learning. When teachers are able to effectively motivate students with goals, they can also safely give students some freedom in determining when and how they will meet their goals. As long a students have access to a device, the on-demand availability of software allows them to set their own pace, time and place for learning.

These insights led us to a few wish-list suggestions for educational software developers. Although we found that setting software-based learning goals with students was a powerful motivator, the software was not designed for this type of use. For example, we initially considered setting goals with students that were based on the coins or badges they earn in DreamBox. However, the DreamBox teacher site does not provide data on the coins and badges that students have earned. While the teacher site does provide good data on the units that student have completed, the student site is focusing more on coins and badges than on unit completion. In MyOn we set some goals based on Lexile growth, but we found that students had a hard time understanding what made their Lexile scores change because Lexile scores were not very well featured on the student-facing site. Also, for both DreamBox and MyOn the teacher data reports do not provide information on daily growth. We had to manually collect the data each day in order to see growth patterns.

In conclusion, we think our use of software data for goal setting represents a paradigm shift in the potential use of instructional software in the blended learning model. From a teacher’s perspective, learning software is often used in rotational models as a way to keep some students occupied so that teachers can give more devoted attention to other activities. However, when teachers set goals with students regarding their progress in the learning software, the time spent on the software becomes much more purposeful. Students work on the software in a self-directed manner to accomplish objectives that are meaningful within the context of their real-world classroom, rather than merely playing with educational software because it is fun. At the same time, teachers become more engaged in the work that students are doing within the software and are thereby better able to connect it to the work that students do in the live classroom. We can also imagine teachers using the software as a platform for gathering ongoing formative assessment data that they can then use to guide their instruction. All in all, we see a lot of potential for using conversations around goal setting to really focus teachers and students on being purposeful in the ways they use learning software.

Download Blended Learning Summer Academy powerpoint.

Written by Tom Arnett

Tom Arnett

MBA candidate at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. During the summer of 2012 Tom was an Education Pioneers Fellow at Achievement First’s Amistad Academy Elementary School where he helped to pilot a blended learning summer school program.

One comment

  1. Thanks Tom for this insight. I found your post by Googling “student Dreambox tracker,” and this, in addition to the understanding of Dreambox I’ve gained over the past year of using it in K/1/2/3 at our Aspire school, has given me some ideas on how to leverage the “purpose” angle to empower students’ self-monitoring and data tracking.

    It’s true that more small groups can be a cornerstone of blended, but I think we have to scaffold the independent work that comes hand-in-hand with that, especially in schools that aren’t so lucky to have 3 adults in the room.


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