Thursday, October 15, 2015

ReadReflect: Blended by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker

As part of a team vying for a part of the $2.5 million dollar Raising Blended Learners grant initiative, I recently spent two very intense days in a San Antonio ballroom fleshing out what blended learning could look like in our district.

These grant workshops (this was one of four) were coordinated by Raise Your Hand Texas with the goal of taking a focused, immersive approach to planning our district strategy. We huddled, whole-grouped, blended, small-grouped, discussed, imagined, broke-out and strategized about the needs our students have that could be better served by blending our approach to instructional design.

And while the workshop organizers worked hard to address everything we need to know about blended learning, it was challenging to find time for reflection. This made it doubly hard for me, because I know this about myself: I need a quiet, uninterrupted space to make sense of information, and I couldn't find one anywhere.

With that in mind, the best part of the workshop actually happened over the last three days (a week after getting back from the Alamo City) when I sat down with Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker's book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. Staker led our workshop, and the material she presented has its origins in the book. But it took having time to just sit down and read with my precious yellow highlighter in hand for me to think deeply about what we want to do with blended learning, as well as what problems it could solve for our students.

Here are my abridged reflections on the book. I highly recommend it for anyone planning blended learning at any level, you'll definitely find something in the book that's useful to you.

  1. Blended learning is not, by itself, "disruptive innovation." It depends on the model of blended learning you use as to whether or not you are sustaining an innovation or truly disrupting the incumbent educational system. (Good article from Horn and Staker on that here)

  2. "Time-in-seat" is really a ridiculous way to measure student mastery, but that's what most of us are doing. On the other hand, though, how do we start to integrate a competency-based model in our psychotically test-driven educational universe? This is a problem I don't think we have an answer for (yet), but that doesn't mean we should shy away from trying to solve it.

  3. Disruptive models are best suited to address areas of non-consumption: in other words, areas where "schools cannot provide a learning experience" and "they have no easy option other than to do without it" (p. 105). This could be credit recovery, advanced courses, or dropout prevention. Sustaining models are best suited for core problems, where the traditional classroom services students, but that service could be improved by being personalized.

  4. The discussion about types of teams in chapter 4 was completely eye-opening to me. We all know from experience that institutions need different types of teams to affect different levels of change. What I didn't know was the continuum: functional, lightweight, heavyweight and autonomous.

  5. The "jobs-to-be-done" theory and how it relates to students' view of school. Since students essentially have two "jobs" they want to accomplish, when we redesign the learning environment we should start with those jobs in mind. If students want to (1) feel successful and (2) have fun with friends, we should be leveraging this natural motivation to make school a place they want to come every day. Does our current educational system address these jobs well? I think you know the answer to that.

  6. From my own experience teaching in a blended setting, it's clear that the role of the teacher changes dramatically. Going to from lecturer to facilitator is no easy task, but once you start to understand how well you can get to know students and start talking with them instead of at them, you start to understand the power of blending. In chapter 6, the authors offer a vision of what the teacher's role can become in a blended setting, and I think it has great potential for creating mentors and guides for the students we serve in my district.

  7. An online content strategy is, of course, a massive decision to make about blended implementation. The spectrum ranges from building your own content to using a facilitated network where user-generated content can be developed, shared and curated in "modular bites." I lean towards the latter, but I'm still looking to find the ideal platform to do this. How can we guarantee high-quality content in an open-source, open-API type platform? Who is the gatekeeper? I like the theoretical appeal of a meritocratic, crowd-sourced, "may-the-best-content-win" platform, but is it actually possible in real-life? Not sure yet, but for blended to work, the content has to be excellent and rigorous, not mediocre.

  8. Finally, the discussion of culture in chapter 8 makes me realize how intentional schools and districts must be about communicating the priorities of the organization as well as the processes used to execute them. I don't think institutions give as much attention to this as they should, and if we are working to transform the very essence of what the role of school is, we would do well to consider our culture carefully.
With these thoughts in mind, now we get down to the nitty-gritty of writing this grant. I'm excited for the opportunity and for the potential it has to positively impact our students for years to come. The deadline is November 20th, and we'll know if we're on to the round of 10 in early 2016. Here we go...


  1. Hello, I appreciate your well thought comments. You make many valid points and even concerns about guaranteeing high quality rigorous content and transforming to content mastery model with our current test driven requirements. The wheels are turning as we find ways to challenge current practices to usher in this new theory of learning. I think measurable results will prove to be our most powerful force for sure.

    1. I agree that we need data on the effectiveness of blended learning for the movement to really gain a foothold. The question I'm seeing in so many places centers around metrics. Should we measure student engagement? Growth? Test scores? Once we start to develop a common language of measurement, I think that will go a long way toward convincing skeptics.