Embarking on Year Two: Moving Beyond Blended Learning
“My biggest struggle in last year’s blended pilot was that while my students had such varying skill levels and learning gaps, I still had to teach to one pace. I kept thinking, ‘If I could only break down the walls…’”
-Summit San Jose Math Teacher, Zack Miller
This summer, we did.
After successfully piloting our first blended program in math last year, we challenged ourselves to dive deeper into the potential of blended learning with the goal of creating a school model that could optimize every aspect of our students’ learning experience.
This past June, we took a step back to explore lessons learned from our math pilot program, and as Zack suggests above, remove any barriers that stood in the way of our students accelerating their learning.
Where We Started
When we founded our flagship school ten years ago, we established a foundational no excuses culture built on high support and high expectations for our students. These checks and balances, and intensive teacher-led support systems, have ensured no student falls through the cracks and immediately receives the intervention they need to stay on track to high school graduation and four-year college acceptance. This has yielded strong results with 96 percent of Summit graduates accepted into at least one four-year college or university.
And yet, for a percentage of our students, one of the biggest hurdles to college completion was the need for academic remediation. Despite participating in a rigorous, college-prep curriculum and taking at least six AP classes at Summit before graduation, some students still had fundamental learning gaps – or as we say, the Swiss cheese – going all the way back to elementary and middle school.
Additionally, the unintended consequence of our teacher-directed, high-support model was that many students lacked the structure and behaviors they needed to drive their own learning, and ultimately, their college success.
It begged us to ask the question:
“How does a no excuses, high-support model both intensively shepherd students through a rigorous, college-prep curriculum and give students the skills they need to be successful once they are on their own in college?”
Our 2011 Blended Learning Math Pilot
Our first step in this process was to integrate blended learning into our academic model. Our belief was that technology offered us the ability to create a more personalized learning environment for every individual student, delivering exactly what they need, when they need it and how they need it. We envisioned a model that freed our teachers to do what they do best: teach conceptually and intercede when students struggled or required further challenge. Technology could provide students with targeted practice and offer teachers and students immediate learning data.
We started small, with 200 ninth grade students in our two new San Jose schools. The pilot program was a blended learning math curriculum that integrated Algebra I and Geometry. There were three blended math teachers with 35 students in their classrooms.
During a daily two-hour math block, students rotated between classroom instruction, small group learning, peer-to-peer tutoring and individual practice using Khan Academy. Students were encouraged to work together as they moved through their online exercises.
The pilot was a success. By the end of the year, our students had achieved significant growth, filling academic gaps with a higher degree of success than we had experienced in our previous ten years of non-blended and personalized efforts. (We used both the California Standards Test (CSTs) and the Northwest Evaluation Association’s (NWEA) MAP math test)
What We Learned
Despite its success in accelerating student learning, there were four key challenges that needed to be addressed before embarking on a second year of blended learning. These included:
- A single scope and sequence curriculum (pacing guide) that did not allow students to move at their own pace – faster or slower – as they needed.
- A continued emphasis on teacher-directed learning, with our students unable to drive their own learning and develop the invaluable skills needed to be successful in college.
- Our students being regulated to age-based cohorts and grade levels, prohibiting truly personalized pathways for each student.
- The physical constraints of classroom walls, architectural structure and school design that impeded collaboration across the blended classrooms.
Ultimately, we needed to move beyond solely blending high-quality face-to-face learning experiences and online instruction to instead rethink the entire school experience – from how learning spaces are designed, to the use of time, to the role of the student and educator. Most importantly, we wanted to create a truly self-paced and self-directed learning environment.
Throughout this process, we found ourselves regularly asking questions like:
“What would an optimal learning environment look and feel like for our students?
How do our students learn best and how can we optimize those experiences to ensure their success?
Optimized became the foundation of our efforts to truly personalize learning for every individual student.
Year Two: Optimized Learning
This year, we are piloting the building blocks for an Optimized Learning Environment, where the focus is on each student and what he or she needs to be successful in college and career.
We are starting small, once again, with 400 ninth and 10th grade students in an Optimized Learning Math pilot in our two San Jose schools.
We have re-imagined the physical classroom and school environment by removing walls to create a 7000-square-foot open architecture learning facility that accommodates 200 students in individual workstations, as well as, four learning spaces dedicated to small group learning, 1:1 coaching, and larger workshops and seminars.
We have reconfigured teacher roles to move towards a team of educators who work together to provide high-quality face-to-face learning experiences and tiered support and intervention for students.
In our pilot this year, we have five math instructors and two learning coaches who work as a team to support 200 students at one time. Whereas historically teaching responsibilities were divided by content area, they are now delineated by the aspect of teaching. Our math team serves as coaches and mentors, curriculum curators, developers and intervention specialists.
We have removed the restrictions of traditional grade levels to give students the true freedom to move at their own pace. In math this year, students are not in ninth or 10th grade and are not taking a defined math course such as Algebra or Geometry. Instead, they are progressing through a competency-based curriculum dependent on their own path and pace. Students must demonstrate competency on all of the standards and skills of three learning phases, High School Ready, College Ready and Early College.
Based on pre-assessment data (we use the NWEA MAP test), each student is provided a personalized Math Guide that details for them what they already know (highlighted in green), what they should be focused on today (highlighted in yellow), and lastly, what they do not know and are not quite ready yet to tackle (highlighted in red).
We have empowered students to take charge of their own learning by shifting away from our initial teacher-directed blended rotation to students’ self-directing their own learning. Students use their personalized Math Guides to set daily and weekly goals.
Our students begin math each day at their individual workstation. They first log into their email to read a daily message from the math team, including a schedule of learning opportunities offered that day, along with available projects and seminars. Depending on their learning goal, our students can choose whether to remain at their workstation for individual, or with their peers, learning and practice using a host of online resources available to them as ‘Playlists,’ or participate in a seminar and other small-group projects taking place in the four learning spaces off of the main room. For those students who struggle with this autonomy, our math team provides mentorship and coaching to ensure students are on the right path.
What is Next?
To ensure we are able to quickly learn, iterate and implement what we are learning every day in our Optimized math pilot, we have formed a project team that meets weekly and is led by a project manager. This cross functional team includes a member from our Academics, Information, Technology, Communications and School-site Leadership teams, as well as our math teachers. We are collecting student data weekly through focus groups and surveys, as well as tracking the effectiveness of the tools, resources and technologies we are building and using in our Optimized pilot.
We are looking forward to sharing all of this with you, including what we are learning, what is working and what is not working, and much more.
Stay tuned for our next blog post to learn more!