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I’ve taken a long reprieve from blogging. Since my last post my wife and I had our second baby girl (Ruthie), I’ve started a new initiative at Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) for blended learning and whole school improvement, and our outreach work in Haiti continues to be incredibly successful and growing (more on that soon).  Things have been busy.

My last post was arguing for the merits of blended learning.  But the proof is in the pudding.  Last year I worked along side of an ACE graduate in Seattle, Kelly Surapaneni, to lead ACE’s first foray into blended learning.  We worked with St. Paul School in Seattle, WA, and conceptualized the project as a whole-school strengthening effort, including things like leadership development, instructional coaching, PLCs, data driven instruction, and efforts to strengthen school culture.  We thought that these best practices, combined with the personalized attention and differentiation allowed by blended learning, could result in significant gains in student learning and help renew a struggling school.

The early results are in… and it was an impressive success.  We are now working in six Catholic schools in three cities, Seattle, the Twin Cities, and Toledo, and continuing plans to expand the model for next academic year.

See below for a summary from the ACE news release.

Seattle students achieved 147% of growth targets in math and 122% in reading during the first year of the program

Students at St. Paul School in Seattle, a school that serves lower income Asian Pacific Islander and African-American students, are achieving impressive academic gains using an innovative blended learning and school improvement model developed by the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame.

As measured by the Northwest Evaluation Association Measurement of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP), students achieved 147% of growth targets in math and 122% in reading during the first year of the program, similar to a school wide average of a year and a half of growth in math and a year and a quarter in reading. The average eighth grade student achieved 233% of growth targets in math—akin to two and one-third years of growth—over the past academic year.

stpaulstudents

“The initial results are particularly promising,” Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C, the founder of the Alliance for Catholic Education, said. “St. Paul students are performing remarkably well—we are thrilled by the promise this model shows, and believe it can be a powerful tool that more schools like St. Paul can deploy to continue the Catholic school legacy of providing students with an excellent education.”

TJ D’Agostino, who directs the project at Notre Dame, said the success St. Paul students are experiencing is due to teachers more effectively meeting the needs of each child with the benefit of powerful blended learning software, and school leaders continuously strengthening teachers with targeted professional growth in high yield areas like the use of data and deepening a culture of high expectations, key areas of focus for the training and support that ACE provides.

“Blended learning can be a powerful driver for schools to provide a customized education for every child,” D’Agostino said, “though it is most impactful when paired with other best-practices, like data driven instruction, professional learning communities for teachers, and ongoing instructional coaching.  We work closely with the principal and a team of lead teachers to implement these comprehensive strategies.  The results have been transformative.”

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Now I’m eager to take a stab at the broader, substantive question that Andrew posed in this post, he wrote:

How can schools use blended learning and technology to improve curricula and enhance pedagogy in meaningful ways? In other words, how can we use technology not to “fill the pail” but to “light the fire?” One of the primary concerns with some examples of blended learning is the learning theory that undergirds some models. Instead of transferring the inadequacies of outdated pedagogies and textbooks to computer based delivery-mechanisms, why not use blended learning to get rid of rote tasks like homework, lectures, and busy-work? …Certainly some technologies liberate the teacher from homework, grading, lectures, and worksheets: Should they be liberating the students from these burdens as well?

I would be eager to have Andrew unpack the possible concerns about “the learning theory that undergirds some models.” I would also like to understand more fully what role he envisions for practice, assessment, and mastery of conceptual and procedural knowledge (i.e. lower level bloom verbs – the ability to identify, explain, summarize, and apply procedures or concepts to novel situations). If we liberate students from assessments, practice and means of acquiring the building blocks of knowledge, are we really liberating all of them?

Constructivist pedegogies are great tools to have in a teacher’s tool belt, but can they effectively ensure that all children have adequate knowledge of the basics without a mix of other methods (like practice and assessment)? Do constructivist pedegogies – used exclusively – risk leaving some students behind or with major gaps in their learning? Do they adequately scaffold?

It is my understanding that basic chunks of knowledge (concepts, etc.) provide an important foundation for more complex and inter-related skills and competencies. For example, the complex skill of analysis requires the capacity to explain particular units and describe their relationships, which requires basic conceptual understanding. To analyze Plato’s treatment of “writing” in The Phaedrus, for example, one needs to have a broad vocabulary, be able to interpret a complex, non-narrative text, have some familiarity with logic and be able to follow complex, nuanced, reasoned arguments. There needs to be subtle attention to context and voice. In short, there are a number of discrete skills that need to be mastered and integrated to allow effective analysis of a text of this sophistication. Some students can pick this up in more organic, complex, and student-centered forms of learning, others may need more scaffolding to get to mastery. I’m all for complex, rich and rigorous content and questions that stretch students to go beyond basic conceptual skills. But if basic skills are lacking, rigorous and dynamic questions may be unrealistic for some students. There is a place for practice, repetition, and procedural and conceptual knowledge, if we intend to aid all students in reaching mastery. So that would be my first and main point, the basics aren’t bad teaching, it’s just bad of we never get beyond them. Ensuring that all have mastered the basics prevents us from leaving some children behind and with “Swiss cheese learning.”

Constructivist pedegogies are wonderful and valuable, great for motivation and fostering wonder, yet there is a place for smaller units of knowledge that can be delivered effectively, and practiced effectively, in a variety of forms. There is a place for drill work and recall! This is, after-all, the major criticism with writing in the Phaedrus! The Egyptian Pharoe claims it will kill memory, and there is some truth to his argument (think for a moment that epic Greek poems like the Iliad and Odessy were memorized and sung by an oral culture!

All this to say that I’m OK with blended learning with various pedagogical styles, ranging from project based learning, to solid reinforcement of the basics through more “drill” like methods.

It is the role of the teacher to ensure that the learning is rich and complex, that question rigor is high, and that learning tasks cultivate 21st century skills, the capacity to reason and ultimately, cultivate wisdom. That is why technology does not and cannot replace the teacher, that is why it is “blended.” Dialectic is still alive and well! Blended learning can help ensure that all have the needed foundation to participate effectively in the dialectic, and to allow the teacher to know the strengths and challenges of the student to engage them in a more personal and effective manner.

In many ways I think I can accept Andrew’s broader observation, that many blended learning technologies tend to address lower level skills, and if these are not taught elsewhere , if the technology-based curriculum is the only content provided, it would result in an impoverished form of education. But, I believe these emerging online curricula will increasingly improve their use of integrative and rich pedagogical styles. This seems to be what Andrew is hoping for. I would like to hear more about what he thinks this might look like.

I’m grateful to Andrew for clarifying some definitions, raising some questions, and stirring the pot a bit.  I’d like to get to Andrew’s question around the pedagogy implicit in blended learning models, and his desire to dig into whether they liberate students through learning or shackle children to computer screens, merely drilling them with ostensibly rote learning.

But I’ll need to wait until the next post to get to this great question, because I’d first like to respond to a few particular points:

  1. Rocketship Schools: We should be careful about interpreting the quote from the PBS interview with too much liberty. Andrew suggests that “one high-profile charter school, Rocketship, for instance, does not receive such feedback from their much-discussed learning labs.”  I hear the Rocketship principal recognizing that there are challenges with gathering and optimizing this data as fully and efficiently as they would like, not that they are failing to receive it at all.  This post by Charlie Bufalino, a former Online Learning Specialist at Rocketship, addresses this point, suggesting that the problem involves integrating multiple sources of data from different online curriculum programs, and having them aligned and synchronized for efficient teacher use.  In other words, there are inefficiencies, as with any new technology, and opportunities for improvement.  But this does not mean that teachers are not getting the information at all, nor that a blended learning environment is not far more data rich than a traditional classroom environment.
  2. In defense of Batman: Despite Andrew’s deconstruction of the Batman metaphor, I will try to defend its relevance (though I need to admit I stole it from Jeff Kerscher, an ACE grad working with Seton Partners’ on their blended learning “Phaedrus Initiative” out in Seattle, and I thought it very clever!). I assume Andrew’s zeal was, in part, for the chance to evoke an image of Donald Trump driving the bat-mobile with his hair blowing in the wind.  I’m OK with the hero language in reference to teachers and the travails of education, though I can appreciate Andrew’s points.  Yes, it is Batman’s courage, character and karate skills that make him heroic, but the technology brings his game to the next level.  The makings of a hero are already there, but the technology optimizes and leverages his skills, virtue and commitment.  That’s the point.  Blended learning can take a strong teacher’s game to the next level.

Here’s an anecdote to make this point more concrete.  An exceptionally talented teacher in L.A. working with Alliance charter schools had been recognized on multiple occasions as teacher of the year for the city and had achieved heroic academic results for low-income children.  When Alliance switched to blended learning, she transitioned to the new approach to teaching.  When my friend Joe Womac talked to her about the transition, her eyes welled up with tears while saying: “If only I had blended learning earlier there are so many more children I could have reached.”  This woman is a hero.  She was before and regardless of any technology.  But why not give her a Bat-mobile and bulletproof body-armor and see what she can do with it!?  According to her own testimony, blended learning was a game changer for optimizing her skills and commitment.

“Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence.” (Phaedrus, Plato)

Thanks to TJ for inviting me to join The Soul of a Nation and for surfacing our conversation about blended learning here. I’m especially excited to be a part of “The Great Blended Learning Debate Dialectic,” largely because I have so many questions about blended learning and the use of technology in education. It’s a fascinating, perplexing, and burgeoning area of educational innovation, and I hope you’ll join us in discussing and considering its implications and iterations here.

To start with, what are we talking about when we talk about blended learning?

Blended learning in relation to other education practices.newThe Innosight Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank, defines blended learning as “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.” In other words, “blended” learning entails employing some combination of computer-based instruction and teacher-based instruction in a curriculum.

Now this is an exceptionally broad and flexible definition. In fact, the institute charts out eight distinct models of blended learning, which provide a sense of just how many diverse approaches fall under the umbrella of blended learning. A high school science teacher with a “flipped classroom” and a charter school that sends students to a “learning lab” for several hours a day are both using blended learning, but these are very different educational realities.

This wide definition might be a good place to begin. It provides the context for a conversation about how technology can improve instruction and increase student learning but also raises a series of questions. For instance, what kind of blended learning model best fits a Catholic school? What are our goals for implementing blended learning? Which models are the most effective in accomplishing those goals? What is it that makes blended learning so exciting in the first place?

As TJ points out in Part One of our conversation, a part of the appeal of blended learning is its efficiency and its potential to liberate teachers from the menial burdens of instruction. In a blended learning model, the computer can take care of the lectures, worksheets, homework, and grading. Depending on the details of the model, blended learning might even be able to provide individual data and feedback on student progress to help ensure mastery, allow for differentiation, and assist in remediation (though, just as an example, one high-profile charter school, Rocketship, does not receive such feedback from their much-discussed learning labs – see this video from a PBS segment on the school).

There is no doubt in my mind that blended learning can do many of the things folks claim it can. However, that does not guarantee that it will do those things in every setting if it is not used effectively (and in fact, to Catholic educators in particular, it also doesn’t mean that we should do all of these things). Blended learning – like any other educational intervention – is not a silver bullet. It does not provide a panacea for problems of learning differences, differentiation, or student motivation. But it can certainly help. So what should we do to deploy blended learning in a way that increases student learning in Catholic schools?

In pursuit of that model, I offer two early questions:

How can schools use blended learning and technology to improve curricula and enhance pedagogy in meaningful ways? In other words, how can we use technology not to “fill the pail” but to “light the fire?” One of the primary concerns with some examples of blended learning is the learning theory that undergirds some models. Instead of transferring the inadequacies of outdated pedagogies and textbooks to computer based delivery-mechanisms, why not use blended learning to get rid of rote tasks like homework, lectures, and busy-work?

Colorful, but liberating?

Rocketship again. Colorful, but liberating?

TJ rightly points out that education is fundamentally about liberation, but some folks may struggle to square the idea of “liberation” with certain models of blended learning (i.e. rows of students in computer stalls with headphones on). Certainly some technologies liberate the teacher from homework, grading, lectures, and worksheets: Should they be liberating the students from these burdens as well?

How can Catholic schools take advantage of the economic benefits and efficiencies provided by blended learning models without losing sight of the concern for the dignity of the whole person – cura personalis? A common refrain among Catholic school leaders is that mission drives budget, not the other way around. As blended learning models are introduced that can lower costs for schools, school leaders will have to consider whether these models are consonant with the mission of their school and of Catholic education before cashing in on any pecuniary advantages.

For example, consider whether blended learning looks the same for students in low SES schools and in upper SES schools. If there are discrepancies here, how do we account for them? The challenge is to look for economic solutions for our students and children that are also just and effective solutions. There are certainly equitable, effective, and promising uses of technology out there – but in a sea of offerings, how do we identify them?

Finally, a quick note on teachers and superheroes:

As much as I want to like the idea of “Bringing on Batman” as an alternative to “Waiting for Superman,” the metaphor still isn’t quite right for me . First of all, I’m wary of the current tendency to equate teachers with superheroes. It sanctions low salaries (it’s okay because they’re heroes!), obfuscates strategies for effective teaching, and places unreasonable expectations on teachers.

TrumpSecondly, the tools do not make Batman a hero. Virtue and courage (and extensive martial arts training) make him a hero. Donald Trump could probably afford a Batmobile, but would he use it to fight crime? Maybe not. If the Donald just sits in traffic, then he is not Batman: He’s a man with funny hair and an unbelievably expensive car.

In the same way, technology can and should help educators improve student learning, but teachers will ultimately accomplish this by using better strategies and harnessing creativity, patience, devotion, commitment, virtue, and skill – even when there’s expensive technology around.

It is my pleasure to introduce a new author and friend, Andrew Hoyt, to the Soul of a Nation Blog! Andrew is a former teacher and educational leader who helped start the Cristo Rey School in Houston, Texas. He and I have been talking about the implications of blended learning and what this emerging trend means and should mean, for education in general and for Catholic schools in particular. We decided, in accordance with the spirit of this blog, to “surface this conversation,” and conduct our dialogue in a virtual and public forum. I hope others will join in!

“Where do you hail from, Phaedrus, and where are you bound?” (Plato).
By way of context, we will try to introduce our perspective, the starting point from which we stand, then jump right in, and see where the dialogue takes us.

The first post is TJ’s:

Some are technology enthusiasts. I do not count myself among these ranks. I like my iPhone and wish I had an iPad, but technology doesn’t light my fire the way it does for some educators. The enthusiast covets the novelty of technology – at least in part – for the sake of novelty. Technology is seen as an end in itself. I am enamored with a different question: How to unlock human potential? To Educate: Latin root, “educare” – to ‘draw out from within’ or to ‘lead forth’. Education is liberation, freeing of the mind and human spirit, realizing the human capacity for the heights of reason, of wisdom, that which is divine in us – man in the image and likeness of God. But we are earthen vessels. We are constrained by our environments, our upbringing, by social conditions and structural evils like poverty, racism, violence, addiction, criminality, abuse, neglect and on and on. We have a problem: To liberate all young people through education in the face of desperate challenges for many. This raises many questions. Questions of quality and equality, of cost and efficiency, of politics and policy, of innovation and stagnation. How do we unlock the potential of all?

When I was younger and an idealistic liberal arts major at Notre Dame, I thought the answer was: “Socratic dialogue and classical texts for all! Liberation through Plato and rich discussion!” Then, I became a high school teacher in a real school. The fall was hard. There were tests to take and standards to master. There were challenges of motivation and comprehension, of bright and curious minds mixed in with detached and frustrated youth. It was messy and tough and wonderful. I still think there is a place for Socratic dialogue and Plato, but I hardly ever got there because I was drowning in worksheets and homework and accountability, and trying to ensure mastery for every student. My role was as much and perhaps more “enforcer of work” as it was “liberator of minds.”

So here is my fascination with blended learning. I believe it holds the potential to liberate the teacher from much of the menial labor of education, so the teacher might better liberate the student. The computer does the worksheets, the grading and helps teach the “basics” (i.e. Low-level bloom verbs). It personalizes learning by allowing children to work at their own pace. The factory model of education punishes the students who need more time, or those who master learning more quickly. It sometimes seems more about control and compliance with behavioral norms than it does about liberation. For those students that are frustrated and convinced that they are “dumb” because they’ve been left in the dust by the pace of the class, blended learning offers renewed hope. For those exceptional minds that are bored, stunted, and for whom school is a drag but life and learning are fascinating and full of wonder, this is freedom.

For teachers, blended learning stops the guessing and provides them with real-time data about how their students are learning, struggling, or failing, in the moment. Diagnosing learning gaps and challenges can now become a science, with real-time interventions, instead of a postmortem after the year-end test results come in. Blended learning also increases efficiency. It takes certain tasks off the teachers’ plate and enhances their role to that of guide, facilitator, and orchestrator. With good planning and effective remediation far more student mastery is possible. But perhaps most importantly, this efficiency frees up time for the truest and deepest forms of learning. Socratic dialogue can finally have its day! As can project based learning and inquiry based learning, rich meta-cognitive discussion and one-to-one tutoring and coaching. In a traditional model, to do these things, you needed to be Superman. Can blended learning make every teacher a super-hero? Has the long-awaited Superman finally arrived? Maybe not Superman, but perhaps Batman, a normal person of virtue and courage with tools that make a hero.

I have been reading some great books in the past few months that are shaping the way I think about education reform and renewal. I’d like to share the hit list and offer some brief comments for each.  Some of you may have already read many, but if you haven’t read all, I’d jump on it.  They are worth your time.

Topping the list is the much acclaimed Paul Tough book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. A wonderful read in the tradition of the Malcolm Gladwell books – integrating research in a lively nonfiction narrative – Tough weaves together stories and examples that depict the importance of non-cognitive skills on student outcomes. Drawing heavily upon work in psychology, neuroscience and innovative school leadership, Tough makes a compelling case for the importance of cultivating character strengths to allow students to flourish. I found the idea of the KIPP Character Report Card to be particularly fascinating. The concept involves providing students and parents with regular feedback on students’ character strengths and areas requiring improvement, focusing on observable indicators, to facilitate student improvement.

The next at the top of my list is Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, a leader of Uncommon Schools, a charter school network on the East Coast. This book is a treasure trove and detailed guidebook for what high-performing schools do and what school leaders must do to achieve superior results. The videos, sample documents, and planning tools make the book an outstanding resource for creating professional development and enacting school change. The chapter on data-driven instruction was awesome, peaking my interest in Bambrick’s other book, Driven by Data, which goes further into this area.

Third on the list is Sal Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse. Sal Khan is the founder of the now ubiquitous Khan Academy, an online library of 10 minute instructional YouTube videos and practice programs, especially strong in Math and Science. A thoughtful and quick read, One World Schoolhouse is a clear and thoughtful articulation of a lot of new thinking at the front lines of re-envisioning k-12 education.  Though neither the first nor only person to express these ideas, Schoolhouse is a good and fun read that captures  a lot of the thinking within this explosive area in k-12 and higher education.  With a particular focus on the role of technology in allowing mastery learning, anytime learning, self-paced learning, and adaptive instruction, Schoolhouse also explores basic assumptions around the role of homework, summer vacation, and the role of internships.  I am convinced that certain approaches to technology, particularly blended learning, will become predominant within the next 5 to 10 years. This book is a pleasant way to enter into that dialogue, and begin thinking about how education will be transformed with the emergence of new technologies. Read this book and visit The Khan Academy website, it will be worth your while.

Next on the list is a wonderful book about change management called Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. Also in the Malcolm Gladwell style, Switch offers a simple, clear and compelling formula – with numerous examples and interweaving research – on how to effect change.  The book uses memorable metaphors and stories to explain certain principles and rules of effective change management, such as “scripting the critical moves,” a less is more mentality to change that recognizes that simple and clear direction is of paramount importance, complexity is the enemy of effective change, and confusion and being overwhelmed or exhausted by change is often the source of people’s resistance.   For any leader attempting to facilitate the change process or implement a new vision, this is a must read. Catholic schools in the U.S. are woefully in need of change. Therefore, this should be on all of our reading lists.  I’ll be bringing it as a gift to some leaders in the Haitian Ministry of Education on my next trip down there.  They’ve got a massive change agenda and could use some tricks from this play-book.

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, is next on my list.

If anyone else has recommendations, please share!