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6 lessons our district learned from our move to blended learning

Follow this district's example and your students will be empowered to take ownership of their learning

Temple Independent School District (ISD), which is located north of Austin and south of Waco, Texas, has a very diverse student population. More than 75 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged and our ethnicity is comprised of roughly equal distribution of African-American, Hispanic, and Caucasian. Like other similar districts, we meet our students’ needs through enhancing instruction, building strong relationships between students and their teachers, and creating opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning. Despite our success, this wasn’t something that happened overnight.

For years, we’ve been working toward blended learning because we felt it would be the answer to meeting the needs of our students. In 2015, Temple High School was chosen to be a Raising Blended Learners pilot site through Raise Your Hand Texas. For the next two years, we had 13 teachers experiment with innovative instructional models and new ways to leverage technology to enhance instruction. After the pilot, we saw how blended learning could help meet our students’ needs. Our teachers in the pilot learned to differentiate instruction, had more time to develop meaningful relationships with students, and helped students take ownership of their learning.

Blended learning for everyone

We’re now in our first year of a district-wide blended-learning initiative. We are proud of the progress we’re seeing already and we have learned a few things along the way.

Lesson 1: Find an expert to help.

If you’re new to blended learning, find an expert who will lead you down the right path. We knew this instructional shift would be challenging for teachers, administrators, students, and parents, and we’ve read plenty of horror stories about new instructional initiatives not working as intended.

We wanted to avoid the instructional “swinging pendulum”–swinging back to old instructional practices after something new doesn’t work, then trying something else new. That’s why we began working with Education Elements in 2016. Their team shared their vast expertise and resources with us, walked us through the blended- learning design process, helped us understand what blended learning would look like in action, and how to sustain it.

Related: 4 myths about blended learning

Lesson 2: Support your principals.

When we announced our districtwide blended-learning initiative last spring, some of our teachers were afraid to try something new because they thought they would be to blame if it didn’t work. Many teachers were focused on end-of-year assessment scores and how they would be evaluated based on those scores. Teachers and principals wanted to know what it would look like to teach using blended learning, and they asked for an exact calendar of when things would take place. This told us that people were afraid to take risks.

Our first step in addressing this issue was to support our principals in creating a culture of innovation among their teachers. Our principals needed to understand the design-thinking process—trying something new, reflecting on how it went, making tweaks, and trying it again—in order to make their teachers feel comfortable with the implementation process. This led to more risk taking and improvements throughout the year.

Lesson 3: Make time for collaboration.

When we picked teachers for our pilot, we took anyone willing to participate. This led to a diverse group of teachers including an art teacher, a French teacher, some English teachers, science teachers, and math teachers. While this sounds ideal, we quickly learned it wasn’t.

Collaboration is a key element to the design-thinking process, but our pilot teachers couldn’t collaborate because their subject areas were too different. This year, we adopted a grade-level cohort model. Every school principal was responsible for creating their cohorts and ensuring those teachers had a common planning time during the day to collaborate. As a district, we also created opportunities for teachers and administrators to collaborate across campuses. Blended learning can require a large time commitment for teachers; the cohort model allows them to share ideas, test instructional models, and reflect on their findings.

Lesson 4: Teachers want feedback sooner than you think.

After training teachers this fall, we encouraged them to implement the models they learned and assured them that the district office was there to support and help them if they needed it. We didn’t want them to feel pressured like they were being evaluated, so while the campuses conducted their own observations, we did only one set of learning walks.

In December, we conducted a survey to gather teacher feedback on the implementation. We were surprised to read that educators wanted more face time with my team. They wanted to see us often and they wanted us in the classroom to help them problem-solve. While I thought we would be pressuring them by coming around too often, they wanted assurance that they were on the right path much earlier than we thought.

Lesson 5: Build capacity in your support staff and other campus team members.

We focused on blended learning with core teachers first and wanted to incorporate our directors of special programs—like the director of bilingual ELLs and director of special education—at a later date. However, we realized they needed to come along on this journey. To help them come on board, we created a “learning series.” This is a mixture of different PD methods, including onsite sessions led by experts who excel in a particular blended-learning practice and collaboration sessions to allow our administrators to learn from each other. The learning series was opened to all our leaders (specialists, central office administrators, principals, and assistant principals) because when people learn together, they come together to support the overarching goal.

We also invited everyone to participate in what Education Elements calls “learning walks” where participants go on-site to observe the blended-learning methods and technology working together. We hosted reflection sessions to discuss how the implementation was going, what we were struggling with, and to outline our next steps. Next year, we plan on implementing a facilitator boot camp to further build capacity for our leaders.

Lesson 6: Open your doors and share your journey.

When we first launched this initiative, families were confused because their children were having a different learning experience than they had had as children. To bridge the gap between their perceptions of education and how it’s been changed and adjusted, we hosted showcases for parents and for our school board so the entire community could see blended learning in action.

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

To share our process with neighboring districts who could benefit from starting similar initiatives, we partnered with Education Elements and Google for Education Texas to host a one-day PD event in December called The National Academy for Personalized Learning. About 60 education professionals representing 17 different entities, including school districts, charter schools, and education service centers attended the event. Google led a session on design thinking and Education Elements demonstrated a “station rotation” blended-learning model and discussed how to foster innovation. I participated in a panel that included our superintendent, our technology director, one of our pilot teachers, and one of his students. Attendees had the opportunity to ask questions about the challenges of blended learning and the strategies we used to overcome them.

Our blended learning journey has been underway for several years and we’re happy with the growth we’ve seen to-date, and look forward to learning more as we continue with our blended learning initiative.

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