Leave little to chance with a discovery-driven approach to blended learning

Almost every educator I’ve asked about leading a blended-learning initiative has expressed that building a blended program is a process, not an event. That’s a big reason why the Blended Learning Universe (BLU) includes as a resource a 9-step design guide to support educators at every step in their blended journey. The design guide is based on Heather Staker and Michael Horn’s design advice in their 2013 book Blended. The journey launches with identifying a problem to solve or a goal to achieve and continues through refinement and iteration. Just as we portray it as a wheel, like most worthwhile endeavors, a strong blended program essentially involves perpetual effort and ongoing design decisions.

The final step, step 9, of the design process recommends an important discovery-driven planning process. Internally at the Christensen Institute, our team has recently engaged with this very process as we launch a new research project filled with unknowns. Starting with discovery-driven planning has helped us to pave a way forward that doesn’t leave our next year of work to chance. Rather, it lets us identify our goals upfront and think through not only what we want to see happen, but ways of testing whether those aspirations will actually hold true. If we test our assumptions as the project moves along, we aren’t taking the risk of waiting until the end to see if we are right or wrong.

There’s never any guarantee of success, but if as a team you honestly, thoughtfully lay out all of the risks involved when starting an endeavor—especially one as layered and intertwined with multiple stakeholders like blended learning in a school or district—you increase your chances of discovering a clear path forward.


6 resources for National STEAM Day

Smart is the new cool, and that’s the message behind this year’s National STEAM Day on November 8.

The impending STEAM worker shortage is no secret, and districts are working hard to ensure their students have early and frequent exposure to STEAM learning.

In fact, early exposure is key to keeping students engaged in progressively challenging material. And even if students don’t pursue a STEAM field in college, that’s OK–the skills they learn in K-12, such as collaboration and critical thinking, will serve them well in whatever career path they take.

Keeping girls engaged in STEAM seems an uphill battle at times. Once they enter middle school, STEAM becomes “uncool,” and that unfortunate social classification, coupled with tougher concepts and lower self-confidence in STEAM classes, leads many girls to opt out altogether.

You may have noticed Project Mc² products in stores; the STEAM line for girls features experiment sets and dolls that focus on skills and smarts. The products have a companion Emmy-nominated Netflix show featuring a team of girls working for a government organization called NOV8. (See what they did there? November 8 is National STEAM Day, and NOV8 sounds like “innovate.”)

And while STEAM doesn’t necessarily need a girly hook to capture girls’ attention (not all science kits need to be pink or involve makeup creation), it does show that companies and organizations are thinking more about how to snag girls’ attention and get them involved in the science behind their hobbies.


3 steps to implementing an ecosystem of phonics-based learning

When Florida State Assessment scores revealed that our third-graders were under-performing in reading, my colleagues and I analyzed the data to determine the root cause of performance. The data showed a need for an explicit, phonics-based approach to literacy for our young students. Unless they develop foundational reading skills early, students will experience literacy deficits across all subjects, and phonics instruction embedded in comprehensive reading instruction is the most effective way to teach them how to read.

In fact, last year the Florida Senate passed a bill that requires instructional materials to incorporate evidence-based strategies, including a phonics-based approach to acquiring literacy skills, with the goal of improving reading performance for all students. According to the new law, Florida districts aren’t required to provide state-approved literacy resources until 2021. However, our team had a great sense of urgency. Whether it was required by the state or not, we set out to create an ecosystem of phonics-based learning that would reduce the number of students who struggle with reading.

Setting goals to satisfy all stakeholders
Our goals in creating this ecosystem were to increase reading achievement, help students succeed on their third-grade state assessments, and, most important, inspire our students to become lifelong learners through reading.

To put these goals into action, we looked for a platform that would appeal to not only the students and educators, but also to the curriculum developers, instructional coaches, and school- and district-level administrators. We considered every perspective to get everyone behind our final decision.

Choosing the right phonics-based platform
The feedback we gathered formed the following guidelines for our ideal platform:

  1. We needed a platform that keeps students actively engaged. No worksheets! We want to teach and then have students apply what they learn to gain a well-rounded understanding of concepts.
  2. It had to not only improve student reading skills, but also provide professional development to help our teachers develop a deeper understanding of the difference between phonological awareness and phonics, and how to identify where students are struggling with phonics.
  3. The platform had to use integrated literacy units to complement our current curriculum.
  4. The student activities had to include multisensory and systemic elements that go beyond the state requirement.
  5. It needed to benefit students at a wide range of ages of abilities. All our elementary and K–8 schools are Title I and serve a significant number of ELL students, so the platform had to support a multi-tiered intervention system for educators to use small groups to hone specific skills.

5 doable digital citizenship goals for teachers

Internet safety, online privacy, cyberbullying, media balance, online relationships, news and media literacy—digital citizenship topics tackle big questions. It can feel daunting to integrate lessons on these weighty topics into your already-packed classroom agendas. But does it have to be such a heavy lift?

It’s true: Educators who can teach digital citizenship as a standalone unit can really dive deep into the dilemmas students face online. But digital citizenship can also simply be part of your classroom culture.

It can be baked into your daily routines, messages home to families, informal conversations in the halls, and more. Set a goal for yourself that feels achievable—big or small. Here are a few ideas to get started:

1. Embrace teachable dig cit moments.
We’ve all encountered a situation in the classroom that required spontaneous, unplanned digital citizenship instruction: viral rumors blowing up students’ social media feeds, drama or misunderstandings in an online discussion, or an instance of oversharing online that you happen to witness. No matter what content area you teach, don’t shy away from addressing teachable moments related to digital citizenship when they arise. A little bit of guidance can go a long way in helping students think through the digital dilemmas they face.


3 ways to tell stories with robots

Though coding and robotics is new to almost all of the students coming into my workshops and classes, storytelling is something they’re familiar with. As the manager of educational programs for KID Museum in Maryland, I use narrative to help teach young students how to code and program robots. Introducing programming concepts using storylines and characters flips the mindset around robotics and technology from consuming to creating.

My programs are aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and I’ve found that learning through storytelling improves student engagement, boosts retention and memorization, and makes learning fun. I use robots as a physical representation of a narrative, which adds a rich layer of understanding to otherwise challenging concepts for my young students. Storytelling with robots helps create accessible entry points for all types of learners, especially those who may not be initially drawn to robots or technology. Here are three different ways educators can make that powerful connection among kids, robots, and narrative.

1. Start with a book that grounds the concepts of the lesson.
Absorbing concepts using narrative and symbolism allows students to talk about what they’re learning and express their understanding using characters and plot. During my KinderCoders program, my K–1 students bring stories to life using introductory programming tools like KIBO or ScratchJr.

I began a recent Kinder Coders class by reading them Night Animals by Gianna Moreno. This silly story about nocturnal animals was my introduction to how the light sensor on the KIBO robot can sense light and dark using programmed “if/then” statements. We decorated our robots as nocturnal animals and programmed them to behave differently, depending on whether the light sensor detected light or dark. One of my students decorated his robot to be a bat, and he programmed the light sensor to let his bat “sleep” when it was light out. To represent flying in the nighttime, he programmed his bat to move around when the light sensor detected darkness.


How to fight fake news

Twenty years ago, it was easier to identify fake news. There were the tabloid papers in the grocery store checkout line and the sensationalized “news” programs that promised inside looks at celebrity lives. Now, between the number of online information sites and the proliferation of social media apps, plus near constant mobile phone use, determining a story’s credibility seems to call for advanced detective skills.

In her edWebinar “Fight Fake News: Media Literacy for Students,” Tiffany Whitehead, school librarian for the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says that’s exactly what we need to teach students. While today’s youth may be aware that not everything on the internet is true, they don’t have the tools to evaluate accuracy and authenticity.

First, Whitehead says educators and students need to use the same definitions for the same terms, such as news literacy and fake news. Otherwise, any conversations could result in miscommunication. For her students, Whitehead uses definitions from the Center for News Literacy. More important than defining the words is how just discussing the definitions can engage students in reflective conversations. This is an opportunity for them to identify what they have seen and read online.

Next, Whitehead teaches her students about the different forms of logic and reasoning inauthentic sources use to appear legitimate. These tactics include:

  • Confirmation bias: only pursuing sources that confirm your own point of view
  • Echo chamber: similar to confirmation bias, discussing news or sources within a group that confirms existing views
  • Circular reasoning: when a piece of information appears to come from multiple sources, but they are really one source citing each other

In addition, she talks about filter bubbles. Whitehead wants students to understand that search engines and apps watch their online activity and filter search results and ads based on perceived preferences. Thus, before students even type in a word, online media is already funneling them the news the media thinks they want to see.

Whitehead doesn’t believe in lecturing students about news literacy. Her lessons include several activities to help them embrace the idea that they can’t just accept what they see. For instance, she has shared television news reports about bloggers profiting from fake news stories, engaged them in activities to evaluate news reports on similar topics, and had them create their own source decks. Most important, she gives them tools they can use outside of her class like fact-checking websites and checklists to determine a website’s, article’s, or author’s credibility.


7 steps for a smooth technology deployment

As the director of student learning at a pre-K-12 school district, my job is to deploy technology that will prepare students for college and career readiness. So, when my district’s 1:1 computer environment had fallen behind others in our area, it was up to me and my team to roll out something new—something better—that would position our students for future success.

Here’s how we pulled it off and steps you can take to replicate success in your schools.

1. Do your research.
Most of the schools in our region use Chromebooks, but we wanted technology that would grow with us—something with staying power in math and science, especially. To make the most informed decision, we:

  • Called community colleges, four-year colleges, and Ivy League universities to get a better picture of the edtech ecosystem our students must be prepared for.
  • Used Kahoot! and email management software LISTSERV to collect perspectives from students, parents, teachers, and other tech leaders.
  • Created Venn diagrams to weigh the pros and cons of Microsoft vs. Google as learning platforms.
  • Held meetings with the Board of Education and tech leaders to identify the best devices, services, and support (at the most agreeable price points).
  • Conducted focus groups and device testing with teachers to collect authentic feedback.
  • Considered the required tools and resources that would prepare us for the state’s assessment protocol.

2. Get buy-in from key stakeholders.
Students and families need to know what they’ll be getting, how it will be used, and what constitutes responsible behavior. Engage your school community (students, families, faculty, staff, Board) in the decision-making process so they can share the excitement. Creating an authentic sense of ownership early on will strengthen user adoption/support at home, in the classroom, and on the go—all of which results in the best success.


Why our district is investing in AI, AR, VR, and MR

For most of our students, it’s hard to imagine communicating without email or text message. The number of ways our students learn, share, and communicate has grown exponentially in the last few years. Each generation has sought to make the transfer of information faster and more efficient than the generation before them, but the world today is changing at a faster and more immediate pace than at any time in our history.

New technologies like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Expeditions and Pioneer programs will be the next generation’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Voice technology allows for screen-free interactions and gives students much-needed life-skills practice in the areas of forming questions and focused listening. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) enables students to learn by doing, which increases student engagement, helps with retention, and enhances learning outcomes.

The power of Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI-powered, voice-controlled digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa have made their way into millions of living rooms but are just now being used in some classrooms. Unfortunately, a steady supply of misinformation and misunderstanding in the news media has made school leaders turn their backs on what may be the most cost-effective classroom technology of the last half-century.

A digital assistant can transform the classroom with real-time answers and built-in skills. A cohort of 31 Garnet Valley (PA) School District teachers has begun to leverage Amazon’s Alexa as a learning aid for lessons and student activities. Our district’s recent partnership with Dr. Aparna Ramanathan and her husband, Deepak Ramanathan, and their Alexa Skill called askMyClass has provided a bridge into this new educational frontier. Aparna is a medical doctor with over 11 years of international clinical experience and a passion for family health and well being. Deepak is an engineer and marketing executive in the technology industry, having worked for over 20 years at IBM, Google, and, most recently, Twitter.

Dr. Ramanathan initially developed the Amazon skill tool to help young children with emotional regulation skills but has expanded the tool to help teachers with other classroom needs. Their mission is to give teachers the convenience of voice technology to support their productivity and maximize learning for students in a new and engaging way.


The Principal of Change

The Principal of Change, a blog by George Couros, needs to be at the top of every must-read list. Couros, a former classroom teacher and principal, is pretty widely known in education circles following the publication of his best-selling book, The Innovator’s Mindset. He publishes multiple posts weekly and the content is relevant for anyone who is interested in improving education.

One of my favorite Couros quotes is in reference to when people refer to a new educational resource a “game changer.”

His response?

“The ‘game changer’ is and always will be being open to new learning opportunities, doing something with them, and making that human connection to our learners.”

Regular readers of his blog get to see countless first-hand examples of someone who shares their experience taking advantage of new learning opportunities In addition, his ability to connect with his readers is second to none. Be sure to follow and connect with Couros on Twitter as well.

[Editor’s Note: eSchool News will be highlighting a different blog every Monday. Send your favorites to eullman@eschoolnews.com.]


How I gave my students voice and increased collaboration

When I first started teaching a decade ago, I would do anything to maintain control in my classroom. Rarely were students allowed to speak without raising their hand. All of the desks in my room faced forward, and I controlled all communication. Collaboration back then looked like the occasional “turn and talk” between desk partners, and sometimes we would have problem-solving partner days where students solved word problems together.

After a decade in the classroom, this year I took a role in my district as an elementary and middle school math instructional coach. Part of my job is going into a wide variety of classrooms between multiple different schools and grade levels. Each classroom I enter is different, but one thing is consistent—the best classrooms feature students collaborating in a variety of different ways. Additionally, the teachers in these classrooms have more of a role as coach, mentor, and guide than traditional “front of the room” practitioner.

Increasing collaboration in the classroom goes way beyond having students work together once in a while. Your job as a classroom teacher should be to create a culture in which teamwork is front and center in everything that you do. There are three types of collaboration in the classroom: between students, between yourself and students, and between the students and yourself.

Fostering voice between students
Students should have the freedom to discuss ideas and learn from one another and their collective mistakes. They should be given the time to do this on a daily basis. Adults collaborate and communicate with one another on a variety of tasks every single day, and so should our students.

Start by setting strict guidelines for classroom conversation. Make sure to model good communication strategies before students collaborate. Start by allowing for partner work, and work your way up to completing group projects with specified roles for each participant in the group. Have students present their findings and answer questions from their peers.