Q&A With Weston: The Benefits of Blended Professional Learning

Photo: Weston Kieschnick takes the stage for his keynote speech at Model Schools Conference 2018.

Technology is changing the face of education. Just as teachers are incorporating digital tools into their curricula, coaches are embedding technology into professional learning opportunities for educators. But what does this look like, and what impacts can this have on teachers' careers and student achievement? 

Here are answers to some common questions about blended professional learning.

How is professional learning changing?

We’ve long thought quality professional learning means pulling educators out of class—where they’re needed most. How do we minimize that? With blended professional learning, we maximize fewer face-to-face seminars and implement more robust job-embedded and online coaching.  This keeps the kids with their teachers and offers the teacher an increased number of relevant learning opportunities that link specifically to their work.

Also, the power of video-based reflection is real, but I imagine more high school football players have watched themselves play football than teachers have watched themselves teach. Are we worried about the wrong things instead of focusing on the way we teach? We need to develop a learning culture that values video. We know how powerful video can be to improve our practice immediately, in almost any field.

“I specifically benefited from watching videos posted by other teachers so that I could see how they were conducting lessons and activities, and how the students were engaging with the material."

—Claire Caldwell, Third-Grade Teacher 

What’s one thing that excites you about blended and online coaching?

Microteaching, which is underutilized. Not many educators know about it, but with an effect size of .88, it should be a focus. I’m thrilled to be an evangelist for the power of microteaching and technology in every school or district I visit.

“Microteaching is organized practice teaching. The goal is to give instructors confidence, support, and feedback by letting them try out among friends and colleagues a short slice of what they plan to do with their students. Ideally, microteaching sessions . . . are videotaped for review individually with an experienced teaching consultant.”

—Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard

What are the advantages of online coaching collaboration tools?

Online coaching can have huge benefits, especially when combined with in-person coaching. We can create experiences that are highly reflective and interactive for the teacher. It’s about more than listening to coaching. It’s about taking ownership of the process of developing new skills. Online coaching supports sustained learning, acting as the glue between in-person engagements. It also promotes collaborative learning and provides a place to share and reflect with peers. Finally, we can maximize the expertise of coaches on our roster. Our coaches can engage with a dozen teachers in a day as opposed to four or five.

And there are cost benefits—you don’t have to fly out a highly qualified coach anytime you want a touch point.

“If I had a question, I could address it right away through the [online] coaching studio.”

—Claire Caldwell, Third-Grade Teacher

What are some ways to start implementing blended coaching?

Video! Begin with self-reflection. Ask teachers to understand microteaching, film themselves, and reflect on how their practices are aligned to their learning goals. Where was I successful? Where can I improve? Also, build professional learning networks. Extend the walls of your school and district to connect with other educators. Social media is a powerful way to make that happen.

Why do you encourage teacher self-reflection?

It is powerful beyond measure. It’s part of our practice at nearly every school of education in the country—even Harvard! Then, when we become teachers we stop doing it. Why? That’s the time when it has the greatest value.

How do you scale a blended professional learning model?

Start by finding a balance. Every district, school, and teacher is different. What mix of in-person seminars, job-embedding coaching, online coaching, and asynchronous learning is right? Finding that balance will ensure that the goals are met in a meaningful and efficient manner. This doesn’t happen overnight—it takes time to create change. When we get all of those elements included over a three year period of time, we have proven we can create districts that are recognized amongst the top in the nation. 

What are key success factors you’re seeing at schools that implement with a blended learning professional model?

The first is consistency. A one-and-done or spray-and-pray approach will never work. The consistent presence of expert coaches in person, virtually, and asynchronously are all needed. Another success factor is clarity of vision. We all have to speak the same language about what we believe blended learning—or any initiative, for that matter—really is. How can we create systemic improvement without systemic clarity? The last one is patience. We are turning a cruise ship here, not a canoe. Any initiative that we want to become part of a school or district’s culture takes time to come to fruition. You won’t master anything in a year. Those who invest the time and effort are the ones who see longitudinal results.

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Learn more about blended learning from blog contributor Weston Kieschnick, ICLE Senior Fellow, and hear from other thought leaders and speakers at the Leadership Academy 2018 conference in Atlanta from Nov. 2–4, 2018. 

You can also watch or read a recap of his recent webinar on blended professional learning and download his "Interactive Framework for Strategic Blended Learning."