Achieving the Right Mindset for Blended Learning

This is the second in a four-part series exploring the power of mindset in creating positive learning experiences and changing outcomes.

Dr. David Dockterman, Ed.D.

Dr. David Dockterman, Ed.D.

The New Year is an ideal time to re-examine our strategies and techniques for turning mindset beliefs into the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that support lifelong learning. Technology has long promised to engage students in academic pursuits and prepare them for the demands of the 21st century. Indeed, technology has become an unavoidable and very welcome part of our daily lives. Blending it into our instructional lives holds great promise, but only if done correctly.

The first thing to note is that we have it wrong when we portray blended learning as a split between teacher (bricks and mortar) and technology (anywhere, anytime). That kind of framing can lead to blindly investing in tablets for everyone or measuring success by looking at how much screen time students are spending outside of school. While experiments with technology can open up new thinking about what’s possible, we need to keep our eyes fixed on what really matters: learning.

Focusing on learning means we need to define it. All too often I find educational goals either too broad (achieving each individual’s potential, preparing for the 21st century, and so on), or too narrow (mastering lists of grade level standards). But ultimately, we want something in between, descriptions of learning and outcomes that reflect both the knowledge and skills we want students to acquire and how to put that learning to work productively in a variety of contexts.

Teacher and technology aren’t separate resources that exist in different locations. Both are always available in varying ways and different levels of intensity to ultimately support all instructional goals. Here then is a more productive order of operations for blended learning in 2016 that supports a learning mindset:

  1. Define desired learning outcomes. What would be on your list? Certainly we want students (and their teachers) to have a growth mindset, a belief that they can grow their intelligence. Belief alone, though, is insufficient. We want students to know the basics. We want them to be able to articulate their thinking, defend an idea, and thoughtfully challenge others. We want them to be able to apply their learning to novel and real problems and situations, working independently and in groups. We want them to reason and think strategically. My lists would look like the standards of practice for each content domain, highlighting interdisciplinary overlaps and the skills and knowledge necessary to put those practices to work.
  2. Match outcomes with appropriate pedagogies. Your mix of goals likely includes some that require individualized practice, including building fluency for reading and math, while others require small group projects, like applying science concepts. Some might even involve group discussions, such as exploring the meaning of democracy and civic engagement. There is no one specific pedagogy that will work for all objectives. So when I think of “blended” learning, I think of this blend of pedagogies.
  3. Evaluate how technology can help. After you have defined your goals and theory of instruction, consider how technology can support students and teachers across this blend of pedagogies. Using adaptive digital environments to facilitate and report on individual student practice is only one piece of a much larger instructional system. How can technology help teachers and students manage project-based learning or small group discussions? Maybe part of what is needed is online professional learning for teachers to enhance their instructional repertoire. Sometimes the technology will dominate, while other times it will provide quiet support in the background. It can be helpful everywhere.
  4. Implement your plan. Ask yourself the following questions: What technology and systems do you need to acquire? What attitudes and beliefs do you need shift? What skills do you need to develop? How can you give yourself room for iteration, to test and revise your plan, since nothing ever works perfectly the first time? Teachers, classrooms, and schools each have unique characteristics. You need to evaluate what’s necessary to meet your goals in your situation. That effort involves developing both human and physical capital, along with the systemic and attitudinal infrastructure to support the desired changes.
  5. Keep checking against your learning outcomes and the pedagogies you’ve articulated to support them. It isn’t about counting laptops, tablets, or personal devices. And the data you collect from student software use is likely insufficient to reflect changes in teacher practice and classroom culture. Consider what success looks and sounds like for each of your outcomes. What conversations are you overhearing when students are working on a project or discussing a piece of literature?  What do you see them writing and drawing as they share different strategies for tackling a math or science problem? What kind of questions is the teacher asking, and how are teachers responding to and leveraging incomplete student thinking? What adjustments and additional supports do you need? If you set the expectation for an iterative process of change, it will be much easier to monitor progress and make midcourse corrections.

Technology can be an incredibly versatile resource when used purposefully. It’s a constant partner to the teacher and, when used appropriately, a learning tool for the student. So let’s make sure we start the year by making an upfront investment in defining our goals and the blend of pedagogies necessary to reach those goals. A thoughtful process will lead us to much richer and more successful blended learning environments and ultimately, will foster the type of learning minds we are all hoping to help build.

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David Dockterman, Ed.D., is Chief Architect, Learning Sciences, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Adjunct Lecturer on Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education.