LIVE @ ISTE 2024: Exclusive Coverage

blended learning

7 must-knows from blended learning’s early adopters

Blended learning mavericks reveal what works and what doesn’t for K-12 blended and personalized learning implementations.

Earlier this year, the Highlander Institute, The Learning Accelerator and The Christensen Institute teamed up to bring together a conference on blended and personalized learning in Providence, R.I. The goal of the event was to focus on the practical elements of blended learning and personalized learning by surfacing the tactics that teachers and leaders from around the country were deploying on the ground.

These tactics are highlighted in the report, From maverick to mainstream: Takeaways from the 2017 Blended and Personalized Learning Conference, out this week. Seven key tips surfaced from innovators at the convening:

#1 Modify Models to Expand Relationships and Collaboration

For teachers and school leaders with sound processes for a blended-learning program in place, they are looking for ways to double down on teacher-student relationships. For example, Jonathan Hanover of Roots Elementary in Colorado described how his school has wrestled with balancing personalization with the communal experience of school. The school’s original instructional model included four academic content experts and a Habits of Success coach to maximize its ability to customize every student’s learning experiences across various subjects. “Out of the gate, we optimized too much for personalization and have since iterated on the model to find a better balance between the individual and the community,” Hanover said.

#2 Go Slow to Go Fast When Implementing Competency-Based Models

When pushing the needle toward competency-based learning approaches, leaders stressed the importance of earning community buy-in. “We epically failed in our first year by rolling out a competency-based report card without talking to parents, and they were incredibly angry and vocal about it,” Erin Mote of Brooklyn LAB Charter School said. “We called an all-school town hall the next week to both explain and to provide a traditional report card alongside a more competency-based one.” Mote advised schools to think of a competency-based learning approach as a multi-year plan. “Find a way to work within the existing [student] schedule in year one…You have to hold some things constant in order to have license to innovate.”

#3 Make Students Agents of Their Learning

Although blended and personalized models may begin to better customize to students’ needs and strengths, not all such models provide students with voice and choice. Leaders in the field are taking deliberate steps to increase student agency.

For example, in Mineola Public Schools in New York, leaders reframed their assessment system to focus on agency. “We don’t want to just grade students. We want to recognize students when they exhibit ‘habits of mind’ behavior,” said Michael Nagler. When students demonstrate success in a new standard, they earn badges, which incentivize learning and also ensure that each step of student learning is accompanied by meaningful feedback.

(Next page: 4 more must-knows from blended learning experts)

#4 Expand the Conversation about Cultural Relevance

More and more “mavericks” are focusing on determining best practices for weaving cultural relevance into personalized and blended learning environments. As one educator from District of Columbia Public Schools put it, this should be grounded in conversation. “It shouldn’t just be a class or a book. Ask students, where do you see your identity represented and supported in your school?”

Greg Callaham described that cultural identity is a critical part of student voice at of Alpha Public Schools in California. “Many teachers want to have this conversation [on culture] but don’t know how. Start the conversation outside the classroom first—in staff meetings and in advisory meetings with individual students.” The Alpha team also took steps to make sure that students felt represented in the curriculum—they invited students to share personal stories and experiences and turned those into case studies that could be used as instructional material.

#5 Frame Tech as One Tool in the Toolbox

Central to expanding blended-learning efforts is this message: technology is an essential tool, but strong pedagogy will always be the backbone of a great blended program. For example, Julie Coiro from the University of Rhode Island talked about a summer professional development institute that she runs on digital literacy. “We have teachers, librarians, and other educators coming and expecting the week to be about technology,” Coiro said. “But we don’t frame it in technology. We focus on collaboration, flexibility, the power of personal relationships, and creativity. It’s an institute to learn about the culture in which, and from which, digital texts and tools can foster learning and engagement.”

#6 Reinvent PD for the 21st Century

Teacher professional development must mirror the kind of classroom we want to create for students. As Kimberly Ramos of North Kingstown School Department in Rhode Island said, “If we want teachers to help grow students’ individual interests, strengths, and goals, we need to foster that learning environment for teachers, too,” she said.

Kristen Watkins of Dallas Independent School District in Texas echoed this sentiment. Her district has started to personalize professional development supported by the tool BetterLesson. “We’ve developed an adult learner profile,” Watkins said. “We pulled together 16 teacher and student actions into a rubric and started providing personalized learning coaching. That’s where we align all our coaching and support at the teacher and leader level.”

#7 Seek Out Smart Approaches to Scale

When encouraging the scaling of models, there is a clear tension between being flexible and personalized enough in response to varied local conditions, and ensuring the fidelity of certain model components. Andrew Frishman of Big Picture Learning suggested that scaling is best done with a generous frame of mind. “We think of it as spread instead of scale,” Frishman said. “Our goal is not to be imperial nor colonial but rather to leverage existing local assets to spread our proven approach and practices.”

Want to learn more? Read the full report here.

Take action: Are you a teacher or leader spearheading blended and personalized learning in your school system? Join next year’s conference in Providence.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

New Resource Center
Explore the latest information we’ve curated to help educators understand and embrace the ever-evolving science of reading.
Get Free Access Today!

"*" indicates required fields

Email Newsletters:

By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.