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Editor’s Picks 2015, No. six: Where blended meets personalized learning—and gets results

By Lucille Renwick
December 24th, 2015

A coordinated, intentional program of blended learning is changing teaching and learning in the Nation’s capital.

Ed. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). Blended and personalized learning were two topics on the rise this year. In D.C., the focus is mostly on blended instruction, but they’re not just sticking kids behind computers. The goal is to produce deeper learning.

dc-blendedFor the past two years, the Washington, D.C. Public School District (DCPS) has earned a sort of celebrity status with lawmakers, superintendents, and think tank heads filing in to see what, and especially how, students are learning. They have a good reason to visit. In a district that has been plagued with low test scores and student performance, several D.C. schools have seen student proficiency levels jump in math and reading in recent years.

Part of their success has hinged on the way teachers are using blended learning in the classroom.

“Blended learning definitely has been an important factor in the changes we’ve seen in our students, our teachers, and in our schools,” says David Rose, deputy chief in the district’s Dept. of Educational Technology and Library Programs.

In its simplest form, blended learning programs combine face-to-face instruction with personalized online learning using adaptive courseware that gives students some control over their pace and content of instruction.

D.C.’s blended learning approach grew out of a district-wide push designed to ratchet up student performance and provide a centralized way to track data from the success of some enterprising schools. That was Spring 2012.

Months of research, careful introspection, and brainstorming led to a reimagined curriculum and classroom structure, with blended learning as a central component. Administrators saw blended learning as a way to provide more personalized, self-directed learning that they could focus on the high-level cognitive skills that students need to succeed in college and beyond.

“We’re not a one-to-one district,” says Rose. “We started with academic goals and found the technology to help put those goals in place and to help teachers better reach their students.”

How it works
When done right, blended learning tailors education to each student’s needs by offering high-quality teaching with cutting-edge online learning programs. The district is using two programs, ST-Math and First in Math, for math instruction, and myON and Lexia Learning for English Language Arts and reading in most of its participating elementary schools.

“Blended learning frees up time for project-based learning, higher-order thinking teaching and learning, and Socratic discussions,” says Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. “Teacher time is now freed up to look at other aspects of teaching.”

Next page: Making personalized learning possible