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Student engagement in the 21st century blended learning classroom

6 min read


This post is sponsored by Curriculum Associates.

Blended learning has gained momentum in K-12, as a growing number of schools move to adopt this model. In this Q&A, Jeff James, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Montgomery County Schools, outlines a game plan for districts implementing this approach, including the use of data to personalize instruction and engage students and how to  get teachers on board.

For teachers moving from a traditional to a blended learning approach, how should they rethink their instructional practices? How can they determine what’s best presented via web and in a live classroom to optimize student engagement as well as teaching effectiveness?

Moving to teaching using a blended learning model that is more student-centered really requires a paradigm shift in the minds of teachers and a shift in the way instruction is delivered. This is often not a comfortable process for teachers who have been teaching in a lecture format for years. To help make the process a smoother one, there are several things that need to be in place, including:

  • Technology competence: Technology helps facilitate blended learning, however, the technology provided needs to fit students’ abilities, and it is important to make sure both students and teachers are prepared to use the technology upfront before making the shift to blended learning. Our district uses technology in every subject area and in every grade, and we provide our teachers with the appropriate professional development to make sure they are comfortable with the technology they are using.
  • Data: To do blended learning right, districts need to capture what students are doing online. The programs being used need to log how long students are spending in the curriculum and provide teachers with next steps to address student gaps. We found that many of our teachers were so used to spending the first four to six weeks reteaching concepts from the prior year that getting a snapshot—through an online adaptive assessment at the beginning of the year—of where students were has helped us gain several weeks of teaching. This also improved student engagement, because teachers were able to focus and not reteach concepts students already knew. We also have students keep data notebooks, so they can take more ownership of and be more engaged in their learning. The notebooks allow them to chart why they did well and what they need to do to improve.
  • Resources: In a student-centered, interactive blended learning environment, teachers help facilitate student collaboration either one-on-one or in small groups, and at times, they may be learning on their own. With blended learning, our teachers become facilitators of results. In order for this to take place, we had to provide them with resources to address the myriad of students’ needs. We provide programs that are evidence-based as well as the professional development to go with it and have fidelity checks to ensure those programs are successful. As a result, we have seen a 50% growth in achievement, because our programs are used with fidelity. We use Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses. The program recommends next steps for instruction, including lessons within the instructional program, Ready, to help students overcome weaknesses or advance to more difficult concepts.

What tools are effective for helping foster interaction and discussion among students in a blended learning environment—both online and in the classroom?

We use wikis for everything, but because of our district’s low socio-economic status, we need to provide students with time to access the technology and work independently or in small groups during the day. While not a tool, one of the strategies we use is the Smart Lunch. Students have 30 minutes to eat and then 30 minutes to spend on an area where they are either struggling or need enrichment. Finally, for students to see success with the blended learning and flipped classroom models, they need access to the technology at home and participation using the technology must be mandatory.

What can teachers do to prevent the online learning component from becoming a passive experience for students?

Our teachers are doing a variety of things to help students be active learners. This includes offering support clubs and collaborative learning groups both in person and online, conducting peer grading which helps students be a part of the process, and providing opportunities for large- and small-group instruction in 20-minute rotations. For the instructional component, we focus on fidelity of use so that students are getting the required time in programs such as i-Ready and Ready. We also offer fun activities to engage students. For instance, when our students read a certain number of words within a specific time, one of our principals had to kiss a pig.

Teachers need to put effort into online activities and make students debate their opinions. We also find that transitioning to something new every 12 minutes or so will keep students engaged. Finally, if educators can instill in students that learning is about the process of doing the work and not about the grade, they are sure to hold students’ attention.

With a blended learning approach, how can administrators help teachers use data to personalize instruction that is engaging to each student without making it an intimidating experience?

While data can be threatening, administrators can make teachers feel more comfortable with consistent training on how to disaggregate it and use it to personalize instruction. We take a six-step approach to walking through the data to bring it down to the sub-level. Our data provides specific domains where students are struggling, and this allows teachers to change their instruction accordingly to ensure the instruction is engaging for each student.

To help facilitate this, the curriculum team is out in our classrooms working with teachers on areas of concern. We spend time with individual PLCs to help educators understand data in smaller, less threatening groups. At the district level, we talk about what educators need to work on and then we provide the resources to help them through the process. When administrators have trusting relationships with their educators, it is easier to help everyone through the process so they feel comfortable with the focus on data. At the end of the day, it is the teacher who has the biggest impact on the learning environment. It is our job as support staff to make sure they have the resources they need to accomplish one of the most important endeavors in our society, a great education for every child.

Jeff James is the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Montgomery County Schools in Troy, NC.