Teaching and Teachers in Blended Learning Models
As education makes a move toward technological innovation, forgone are the once common sights and sounds of the classroom. The heavy textbook and the sound of its pages turning has given way to the clicking of keyboards with collaborative analysis of a virtual text. These once staples of American education systems are giving way to the new normal- technology and technology based instructional design. As we look at this development, not only have the physical landscapes of the classroom changed but so too has instructional pedagogy. Whether you are flipping the classroom, accessing virtual learning environments or taking part in the the unique combination of instructional approaches known as blended learning, the feeling and focus has shifted from the teacher to the student. So where does that leave our idolized icon of the classroom, the “imparter”of knowledge the vessel filler? This new role is much harder to define and yet I will try….
What defines a blended learning teacher?
When discussing an effective educator within the blended learning environment there are factors beyond that of the traditional school setting. We must begin the investigation of these unique educators through the identification of both their skills and knowledge base. As we transition to technology based learning, the interaction between content knowledge, instructional pedagogy and technology based skills development becomes paramount to the success of the individual learner within the blended model. Each component now bringing equal weight to the fight for educational successes.
Schools For the Future Detroit: A Case Study
As we delve into this investigation of blended instruction, content knowledge and its impact on lesson development is pushed to the forefront. Teachers must not only understand the content that is to be taught within the classroom but they must now have a depth of understanding that allows the content to be morphed into the a delivery system allowing the student to take ownership in their learning process. As we began the content investigation process we did as many do, building backwards from the content standards to develop the scaffold instructional scope and sequence. This process would allow for the teachers to not only identify the component focused process but also become familiar with the resources added to the learning management system for the student to utilize in the learning process. But was this curriculum complete? Far from it…The whole idea behind foundational content development is that is allows for the teacher, schools and districts to tailor curriculum and instructional progression the the student population they serve. In Detroit we could not yet pin point the specific needs of the students in their learning so flexibility of content progression was introduced.
Now we have located and addressed the first component of effective blended learning educators: content knowledge. Next, equally important is the process by instruction is given and received in the learning model. I am purposeful in my verbiage, not identifying learning to be contained within the walls of the classroom. At SFF Detroit one of our core values is that instruction and learning can take place 24/7. So…how do we reach these ends? It is through a combination of effective pedagogy and technology based instructional innovations. For now lets focus on the former. How do we as educators take into account the needs of the wide scope of learning needs within a single class? Traditionally the teacher acts to differentiate the lesson so as to increase the access of the learning objective to a wider number of students. I believe that we have developed a methodology by which the student can access the growth in their learning by any means that fits their individualized understanding of the given objective. What does this look like? If a student is tasked to learn the concept of civic responsibility, they are first taught the skills to explore the concept. This lesson break down, which I will explore in greater depth later, allows the student to self pace learning. First working with the teacher to develop a skill, then applying the skill through guided/suggested investigations and finally, applying their learning in the performance of learning. The individual lesson is developed in three “phases” acting to increase learning while reducing teachers role in the learning process. This acts to alter the direction of the lesson progression while forcing the learning to higher order skills and processes.
The final component of the success that we are seeing in our model school in Detroit is a three fold application of technology integration. First in this process was the selection and application of a learning management system (LMS). This system is the heart beat of the learning process, allowing for virtual delivery of the content (notice I did not say instruction). The LMS is an online depository of lessons, resources and virtual tools where content can be accessed and collaboration can be experienced. This interaction between teacher and student, student and student and student and content, through the LMS is paced as a reflection of individual student learning needs. While many LMSs exist the vital aspects for our program were the intuitive nature, allowing teachers to alter the content thus applying their depth of content understanding, the accessibility of the platform (24/7) and the interaction that could be fostered through the learning process to enrich and deepen learning outcomes. Second, we find the application of Web 2.0 tools as a supplemental component of the curriculum development process. There currently are and will continue to be amazing learning tools for free on the web. The questions with these tools is, how is it acting to aid instruction? This brings us back to both the depth of content understanding and introduces us to the necessary depth of technology tools with applications to learning. Just as with any technology, if not used properly it becomes a distraction from the learning that you strive to enhance. Finally, the hardware components, for us it was the introduction of Google Chromebooks as a learning and teaching resource. This hardware solution allows for the elimination of site based servers and introduces the process of cloud based computing in the learning environment. Through this cloud each student is able to access their work from anywhere, and the interaction between all stakeholders in enhanced through real time computing and program applications. Each student in our model has a chrome in each classroom. This unifies instruction and allows for the growth of the individual to become a data point that can be shared with the learner. For the first time for our students, they have been given a voice in their education, learning process and program development. Learning is no longer a by product of the few rather it is a reality for all of our students through effective use of blended instructional processes.
How do you find effective blended learning educators?
So…the question now becomes where does one locate these “new” educators, the teachers of tomorrow, the barons of blended learning? This is not a question of where are they, rather whom can we develop into the instructional leaders and the blended teachers that we seek for our schools. The process of locating effective educators is much the same as it always has been- seek those with passion, drive and a depth of content understanding. This is much as it has been with one dramatic shift- are they, as professionals, ready to embark on a paradigm shift from the role of teacher to the role of educational “cheerleader.” I use the verbiage of cheerleader with a bit of tongue and cheek, as the role in the blended learning environment looks to the teacher to support student led learning rather then delivery of the content. This new form of educator allows the learning to take place in wide sweeping scope of methodologies and is tasked with a supporting role in the classroom learning environment.
What about training?
About the training now, this process is as I have already identified a foundational component of the success of not only the individual teacher but more over the greater educational program. The training needs to be at its core founded in best practices- what does the research say about our students, what does the data identify as the needs and how can we provide extensions to the learning beyond the walls of the school? These questions and many more along the same lines can be addressed through effective professional development programming. Much like the breakdown of the effective educator we must look to the 3 core components of the teacher to reverse engineer the professional development needs of the staff.
First, through a depth of content interaction the teacher becomes adept with curriculum, building a understanding not only of the scope and sequence, the objectives and outcomes but also an ability to modify and alter the content to meet the individual needs of the learning population. If a student does not understand a given objective the teacher must be able to quickly modify and readdress the needs of the learner in a individualized way. The buzz word is differentiation of content, but effective content training allows for the development of fully scaffold curriculum design around the learning needs of the individual. No longer is the same assignment given in different ways, now a wide scope of learning opportunities are presented to meet the one or more objectives of the lesson. This process can only be done with a depth of content understanding beyond the common place.
Next pedagogy- How do you train a teacher, new or veteran, a completely new way of conducting instruction? Modeling. Give a staff an assignment, to investigate a given topic via online video or by any other means as homework. When the staff arrives at the professional development, they are now ready to delve into the learning supported by their own understanding of the content from their own exploration of the topic. This process induces rich discussion, debate and questioning that could not be reached if your time was spent explaining the topic and ensuring they all understood what you as the teacher wanted them to retain. This to is a shift in training and thinking…teachers are taught in college to teach through modeling, yet we all were mostly taught through lecture. Was this effective in making you a more complete and independent student or teacher? No… Training must reflect the instruction that we are expecting our teachers to produce. Support the learning process, remove yourself from the center..it is not about you and that is ok.
Finally, technology skills, how do we train a group of adults to become the digital natives that our students are? The short answer is play…play with the tech, you will not break it and it does not bruise that easily. Depending on the application of technology in your setting if it is not utilized in training effectively it becomes a toy, a bright and shinny distraction or worse yet a paper weight. Is technology an effective instructional tool…yes…if it is used and the teachers have a high level of comfort with the tool.
How does the role of the teacher change in the blended learning environment?
Through blended learning models the role of the teacher has shifted…as with the role of the learner. Content can be accessed independently, investigation and depth of understanding can be found divergent of the teachers influence. So, where does that learn the role of the teacher and why would I refer to the profession that I love and have devoted my life to as cheerleading? The simple answer is that if I can focus on working with the student to develop the foundational skills to seek, identify and analyze content without my help haven’t I provided a life long resource to each learner? This is not a overnight process by any means. Both teachers and students must begin to understand how they play these new roles in learning prior to it becoming effective in the learning environment. The best way to expedite this transition is the development of process focused learning. As a concrete example, within Schools for the Future Detroit we utilize a learning management system as a depository for all core content lessons. To develop the independence and define the new roles of the teacher and student we have developed a instructional process flow chart. This allows the teacher to focus their attention of the micro groupings of students within the classroom to build and refine the skills that will be used throughout the lessons development. As the student gains the skills they can then proceed to the next stage of the lesson development, the investigation. At this point we begin to see the new role of the teacher take hold, allowing the students independence in the investigation and ensuring the time and resources to work with those that have not yet gained the level of understanding to move on. Through the investigation stage students are able to utilize the teacher as a learning resource and the teacher is able to process check the students understanding. Finally the student has developed an understanding of the concept and progresses to the performance or the assessment phase of the lesson. This is the time at which the new role of the teacher becomes most transparent. The teacher, rather than the giver of knowledge has shifted to become the learner, being taught not only the objective of the lesson but also the meta-cognitive component of the individualized learning process the student went through to reach the outcomes that they present. The student has been pushed to the highest order of thinking skills and has developed a true depth of understanding in the learning process, all as the teacher has played the role of educational support- the cheerleader of learning for each individual student.
How are our teachers adapting?
As we continue to think about the teachers in this new blended model, we ask ourselves how are the teachers adapting, what are they doing and how are they using their time to support the development of greater success. Within our program at SFF Detroit, while far from perfect, the teachers have hit the ground running. How… through the development of and implementation of effective proactive professional development. Each of the PD sessions that we have utilized in the opening of this school have shifted focus from the research to the practical- how will this look in my classroom with my students was the objective questions training would continuously circle and explore. Data, the life blood of best practices in education, allowed us to honestly assess the ability of each individual learner and as such the necessity of a proactive data collection strategy had to be developed. Through this process teachers began to look at the students not only as a group of learners but the leaders in their own educational performance. To ensure the value of this developmental training and shift of focus all student data had to be demystified and returned not only to the teachers but also to the students to develop effective next steps in the learning process. This is not to say that training is the silver bullet to high performing blended learning educators, rather much as with technology skill development the most can be taught and learned through individual exploration…much like what we are now asking our students to do.
And in conclusion … how can we utilize other adults in the classroom most effectively?
Adults in the classroom… these are the foundation individuals that can be either the foundation of learning or the road block to educational development. Through the blended model teacher and others in the classroom must view the lesson as primarily a skill development process. This focus allows the attention of adults to be shifted toward the beginning of the lessons development and to act as the fail safe in the learning process. If adults can be viewed as one of many (web, resource text, peers) resources not only can they become a more effective part of the lesson but it also acts to improve the interaction and community of the learning environment. Adults become a resource rather than THE resource in the classroom. Blended learning, as I have now said in a variety of ways, is all about shifting the focus off the teacher and to the student. This simple shift has and will continue to have dramatic outcomes in the learning process and depth of understanding in our student populations.