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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!