Last week, I began a training session on universally designing blended learning by asking teachers to reflect on and discuss the following question. “What is your biggest pet peeve about staff meetings?” This question led to a vibrant and boisterous conversation! The teachers had no shortage of gripes about staff meetings.
The group said sitting through long-winded presentations covering too much information was overwhelming and boring. They pointed out that much of the information could have been delivered via email. The information provided often felt irrelevant to their particular teaching assignment. They were frustrated that meetings were frequently derailed by questions specific to a single teacher’s experience and agreed that the same teachers seemed to talk at every meeting. They groaned when describing the tediousness of sitting through endless questions because teachers were not paying attention during the first explanations, requiring that administrators repeat themselves and the content. They wanted time to interact with colleagues, take the information provided at the meetings, and act on it. The teachers agreed that their time would have been better spent elsewhere.
After facilitating a share out of their thoughts and feelings about staff meetings, I made the point that many students have the same complaints about their experiences in classrooms. Teachers spend too much time presenting information and not enough time allowing students to interact or apply what they are learning. The information is not always specific to their needs. They point out that the same students dominate discussions, asking and answering questions while the rest of the class is quiet. They are often bored in classes because they are not actively engaged in the learning.
So, how do we avoid running our classes like a staff meeting?
#1 Be strategic about what you present in person.
When coaching teachers, I encourage them to ask themselves, “Do I plan to say the same thing, the same way to all students?” If the answer is “yes,” I encourage them to record a video explanation or model and allow students to self-pace through it. If the answer is “no,” I suggest they facilitate small group differentiated instruction in a station rotation lesson at their teacher-led station. You’ll notice there isn’t a whole group instruction option.
The whole group, teacher-led, teacher-paced approach to instruction is rife with barriers that make it challenging for all students to access the information presented. Students may have auditory processing challenges or attention deficit disorder. They may not have the background knowledge or vocabulary to understand the information. The pace at which the information is presented may be too fast or too slow. They may simply be daydreaming, distracted, or absent. Many of these barriers can be eliminated when we use other forms of media to transfer information. Can the information or instruction be delivered via a digital text, video, or podcast? If students read an online text to acquire information, they can expand the size of the text, look up unfamiliar words, or translate parts of the text if English isn’t their first language. If they are watching a video or listening to a podcast, they can pause, rewind, and rewatch or relisten to sections.
If our goal is to make learning accessible, inclusive, equitable, and engaging, we must be strategic about how we use our class time. Technology transfers information exceptionally well, so let’s leverage that to free ourselves from the front of the room and encourage learners to engage actively in learning activities.
#2 Prioritize Interaction and Application in Class
Like teachers in a staff meeting, students crave opportunities to engage with one another. Learning is, in part, a social process. Students need time to interact with each other in class. They must discuss and collaborate with diverse partners to develop a deep understanding of complex concepts. They are also more likely to successfully hone specific skills if they can access peer and teacher support as they practice and apply. The key is to design lessons that position the students, not the teacher, at the center of the experience.
#3 Differentiate the Experience
It’s tempting to tune out of a staff meeting when it feels like the information isn’t relevant. I have sent my fair share of emails and text messages during staff meetings when I was bored and disengaged. The same thing happens in classes when teachers present information or assign tasks that are not within their students’ zones of possibility. We have to collect and use formative assessment data to differentiate lessons to ensure we are meeting students where they are at in terms of their needs, skills, abilities, and language proficiencies. Without assessing prior knowledge and regularly checking for understanding, it is nearly impossible to effectively differentiate the learning experience.
From Whole Group Lessons to Blended Learning Models
Using blended learning models is an effective way to shift control over the learning experience from teachers to students. Blended learning is the combination of active, engaged learning online with active, engaged learning offline to give students more control over the time, place, pace, and path of their learning. These models allow teachers to design student-centered learning experiences that prioritize student autonomy and agency, differentiate effectively using informal and formal data, and give students more control over the pace and path of their learning to remove barriers.
All of these pillars of high-quality blended learning–student agency, differentiation, and control over pace and path–can ensure our classes do not feel like students are sitting through a staff meeting. Instead, these models encourage learners to be active agents in the classroom involved in every aspect of the lesson.
|Station Rotation Model||The station rotation model is composed of a series of learning activities that students rotate through, including a teacher-led station, an online station, and an offline station.
This model frees the teacher to work with small groups, differentiating instruction, models, and support while creating opportunities for small groups of students to work together to discuss, investigate, collaborate, practice, and create.
|Whole Group Rotation Model||The whole group rotation model rotates the entire class between online and offline learning activities. The whole group rotation encourages teachers to pair each learning activity with the best learning landscape for that activity–online or offline.
This model allows the teacher to guide whole group modeling sessions or present mini-lessons while also freeing them to work with individuals, pairs, or small groups during the online learning activities. Online learning activities can also be differentiated and personalized for learners at different levels.
Flipped Classroom Model
|The flipped classroom model inverts the traditional approach to instruction and application. Teachers record video instruction, and students self-pace through the recordings, pausing, rewinding, and rewatching as needed.
Class time is used to encourage students to practice and apply with teacher and peer support.
|Playlist or Individual Rotation Model||The playlist model is a sequence of learning activities designed to move students toward a clear objective or desired outcome. A playlist can be used to teach a concept, strategy, skill, process, or walk students through the parts of a multi-step performance task or project. Students control the pace of their progress through a playlist with periodic check-ins or conferencing sessions with the teacher.
This model encourages the teacher to focus on providing individualized support as learners progress through the playlist.
Staff meetings are a part of every educator’s life, but they are so tedious to sit through because they often fail to feel relevant, engaging, or a great use of our precious time. Students may feel the same way in classrooms where the lessons are teacher-centered and teacher-paced. They are much more likely to lean into the lesson if they have meaningful choices, the information is presented at a level they can access, and they have opportunities to interact with each other. Exploring other models designed to blend online and offline learning provide pathways to providing students with a much more dynamic, differentiated, and equitable learning experience they enjoy.