March 2021 Coaching Tip of the Month
I recently participated in a webinar hosted by PASCD on the benefits of blended learning presented by Catlin Tucker. Although I was familiar with several reasons shared why blended learning is so effective, the one that stood out for me was the one about shifting control from the teacher to the learner. I recognize the significance of personalizing the learning through differentiated support possible with blended learning and I realize that teachers can provide more one-on-one or targeted support through a blended learning approach, but I hadn’t thought about the control factor of giving students more agency over what and how they learned through the blended approach. It helps students move from being consumers to being producers, especially when they have a voice in what they learn and how they learn best.
I am not advocating that students dictate what the curriculum should be any more than I think teachers should teach solely from tables of content; I am advocating for students to have a voice in what they want to pursue in digging deeper into texts and topics they want to pursue and how their learning styles need to be recognized in order for them to be successful.
It sounds like providing a variety of online discussions, e.g., synchronous video-based discussions; asynchronous text-based discussions; or asynchronous video-based discussions, offers opportunities for all types of student learning preferences to be acknowledged. And, with a bit of creativity and support, teachers can make that happen as they pivot from in-person learning to remote learning and back again. This differentiation is a motivator and helps engage all learners in the tasks being assigned. (This sounds reminiscent of the I-search papers so widely assigned in the 90’s 😊.) There are so many opportunities for student choice and voice in a blended approach. In fact, I think there may be more of an opportunity for that because students can take time to review each option individually and at their own pace rather than forcing every student to move through the thinking at the same rate and pace.
Catlin shared five tips for blending the learning: 1) ensure your synchronous or asynchronous discussions begin with a catch title; it is the “hook” that lures your students; 2) differentiate the intensity of questions asked with the first one being the most rigorous followed by two more that gives students opportunities to respond; 3) vary the types of questions asked so that all students have an opportunity to engage in the discussion even with different skill sets; 4) always include media into the task; our students are all visual learners so be accommodating to their learning styles; 5) Give clear directions so the students know the expectations and are not guessing what is required. And, I would offer a # 6… not only vary the types of questions but also vary the kinds of activities, tasks, and assignments so that alternate assessments are possible.
I guess the real question here is to ask, “Who is at the center of the learning” and then ensure that the answer is, “Our students.” If that’s the answer, the direction is easy to follow.
Choice boards, learning menus, response logs, tic-tac-toe boards, and a host of other fun ways to demonstrate student learning allow students the freedom to choose something about an assignment that is required, either how they will validate what they have learned or simply choose the topic to pursue. This idea of student agency is actually very liberating – for both the student and teacher. And, it really speaks to differentiated learning.
I think the key is to differentiate not just the kinds of things and ways we approach student learning but also to know the difference between assigning and instructing. Giving assignments is not the same as instructing students. We can give instructions to students but if the instructions are not clear or are not understood, any assignment given based on those instructions probably will not yield the intended outcomes.
In these days of hybrid learning, students are still sitting in front of you but maybe not where you can touch a shoulder or star a paper. Whether the environment is remote, hybrid, or in-person, teachers still need to be explicit in giving directions and expectations; they need to continuously monitor progress; feedback must be given along the way (formative assessment) and not just at the autopsy (summative assessment); adjustments in instructional delivery must be made where needed to address differences in learning styles and understanding; and recognizing that everyone, including the teacher, is a member in a community of learning and practice will ensure that no student is left behind.
At this point in time, the school community should understand that preparing students for the 21st century is not just about reading and writing; it’s about preparing students to cope with the most unexpected turn of events. I think that’s called resilience and accepting the notion that distance learning is not an alternative but rather a viable way to interact with students and grow their learning, will truly influence student outcomes. It’s not easy but with time to think, collaboration opportunities to work with colleagues, and acceptance that learning is not confined to only four classroom walls will minimize the challenges and put the focus where it belongs… on teaching and learning. It’s been said that teaching and learning shouldn’t stop at the classroom door… here’s a perfect example of how that is very true!