Blended learning has affected our school community in many ways over the last three years. It’s instilled independence, confidence and a new passion for learning for many of our students. Perhaps the best way to illustrate these improvements is through the success stories of our students. Read on to find out how our blended learning model made a difference for Justin and Claire.
Justin began his prekindergarten experience in frustration, anxiety and hesitation. It was difficult for him to adapt to a new school, new friends, new rules and a new way of functioning day to day. As the year progressed, he began to feel more comfortable and was able to express some of his hidden genius.
By the start of kindergarten, he unveiled more of his capabilities and participated more often. He was facing challenges with more tenacity and began to become more flexible.
He was, however, still limited in his capacity to participate, to engage and to truly demonstrate his knowledge because he faced daily internal challenges that masked his true potential.
One day last February he first experienced a blended enrichment course. In this course, Justin tried science experiments, engineering projects, sensory exploration, reading, writing, online educational gaming and a variety of problem-solving activities, all of which were completed without adult intervention.
This was a monumental step for Justin, who had often been hindered by perfectionism and a desire for adult assistance. How would he handle experiments that had no discrete solutions, projects that he might fail and activities that were meant to be messy? While his participation was minimal at first, he soon discovered the thrill of learning how to learn.
Claire was a child who was curious and talented, but often shied away from showing her understanding of a concept for fear of showing off. She would quietly participate in class, but she would never showcase her depth of understanding or knowledge in front of her peers. She was always willing to help another child if they needed it, but she would quickly deflect any praise.
When Claire began taking her first blended learning enrichment course, her confidence soared! She participated in all aspects of the course – every discussion board, wikiproject and field trip. For the first time, Claire was proud of her academic talents and was able to believe in her abilities. This boost in confidence spilled over into the school classroom, where she was more comfortable participating in class, sharing her voice and demonstrating her capabilities.
Each child's success story is different, but the theme remains the same. Each child comes to the course unsure of his or her true potential and transforms into a passionate and motivated learner.
Blended learning for the youngest students
Our journey started with a simple question. We had seen blended learning implemented in both middle and upper schools. We knew that we could make this type of engaging learning work for younger students, but how?
At Indian Creek School in Crownsville, Maryland, we tackled this challenge head-on as we looked to enhance and enrich our students’ experience both inside and outside of the traditional school day. At first the task seemed daunting. While the list of unknowns could have deterred us, the opposite happened.
Our head of school fully supported the initiative and offered professional development and compensation to encourage teachers to develop blended learning enrichment classes for our students. Teachers were paid to create courses and facilitate them.
We knew we had an online learning management system that could handle the delivery of blended enrichment courses. We were also fortunate that our upper and middle school faculty had already piloted blended learning courses. Their course design helped us create our brand-new enrichment courses, but we still needed to figure out how to best deliver blended courses to our young students.
As a collaborative team, we identified tools our students could learn from and interact with independently, because we did not want our students to be dependent on an adult to complete the course. Here are some of the features we included:
Embedded videos. These allowed students to see teachers in order to make students feel more comfortable with the course. This format also allowed students who were nonreaders or emerging readers to access the course material without needing to read text on the page. For older students, the videos provided instant differentiation as students could either watch the video multiple times to reinforce their learning or they could quickly move onto other aspects of the course.
Collaborative documents. Whether it was creating and narrating an online dance concert featuring students’ own choreography or working together to plan and budget for a recipe for a cooking competition, interactive wikipages allowed students to collaborate on projects or assignments outside of the four walls of the school. They were able to view each other’s creations to build a shared project.
Discussion boards. Giving students a forum created excitement about the material and bolstered a sense of community within the course. For the youngest learners, discussion boards allowed families to share work their children were doing at home or to ask questions. Older elementary students used them to connect with their peers and give each other feedback. For all grades, the discussion boards fostered communication and community between the students, families and educators.
Self-paced and self-reflection are key
While the tools provided ways for students to connect with the course material, the structure of the course was equally important. We wanted participants to work at their own pace and have time for self-reflection, which helped them develop metacognition skills, so that they could learn about who they were as students in addition to mastering the course content.
We knew that one of the most important components of all of our courses was going to be our face-to-face sessions that were held after school or as a day camp in the summer. This helped our students see the relationships between different subject areas and topics and benefit from the positive impact of experiential learning.
At the time, we didn’t realize how these courses would inspire change and innovation throughout our school. As small pockets of teachers experienced the benefits of teaching and curating a blended learning enrichment course, other teachers became curious and began exploring what it might mean for their classrooms. Conversations spilled over into curriculum team meetings, faculty cohorts and lunch room discussions. Interest and enthusiasm organically grew as more teachers began to adopt blended instructional strategies into their teaching.
Rave reviews from students and parents
When we first ran blended learning enrichment courses for students in grades 1-5, we did not want our students to see the course as school work, but rather joyful, interdisciplinary learning. The first two courses we offered were “Cooking with Class” and “Storytelling through Dance.” These courses ran for four weeks over the summer and featured both online learning and experiential face-to-face time.
Both the students and parents said they loved the course experience. After we piloted the first two courses, we extended it to PK and kindergarten students. We wanted all of our students to engage in passionate learning and student-driven inquiry.
The first course we offered for our PK and kindergarten students was “Learning through Literacy,” which was an interdisciplinary, blended course that studied three renowned children’s authors. Every week, the students did a variety of sensory, STEAM and literacy-based activities to immerse themselves in each author’s books. The course filled to capacity within a week. We knew we had succeeded in creating courses that our families valued and wanted their children to participate in.
“Fantasy Football,” “Diggin’ Deep into Dinos,” and “Pint-Sized Programming” followed. While the topics for these courses varied, the heart of our blended enrichment program remained the same. Each course featured rigorous and robust online learning along with experiential and engaging face-to-face time.
The courses also addressed the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students in that they aimed to create empowered learners and global collaborators. The students felt they had control over the learning which in turn empowered them to dig deeper, seek more information, and collaborate more with their peers.
Course resulted in more engaged learning overall
As demand and course enrollment rose, we knew our blended learning enrichment program had enhanced the overall student experience at our school. We noticed that in early childhood, blended learning helped students and parents build a spirit of exploration and curiosity that inspired a true passion for learning.
Most importantly, the students who participated in the blended learning course developed the confidence to delve deeply into new ideas. In elementary school, the courses provided students with cross-curricular connections, individualized content, a way for students to explore their passions, and a new and engaging format for students to work collaboratively with peers and teachers.
Like their early childhood peers, we found that students who had taken blended enrichment courses carried their passion for exploration and learning into their traditional classes. Teachers have reported that students who took a blended enrichment course learn to use new educational technology at a faster pace than their peers who have not taken a blended course. Additionally, teachers report these same students show increased independence, tenacity and critical thinking skills when working with educational technology compared to their peers who have not taken a blended course.
This presented a concern for us; we could not create two types of learners at our school. We had to find a way to take the best parts of our blended-learning enrichment courses and integrate them into our traditional school day. Through our courses, we helped students develop tenacity, curiosity, passion and independence as evidenced by both teacher, student and parent feedback.
Through surveys, reflection videos and discussion boards, students voiced their passion for blended learning. Many students who have taken one blended learning class have enrolled in additional blending learning enrichment courses. We wanted all our students to develop these qualities and, most of all, we wanted all of our students, not just the students who had taken the blended courses, to experience the meaningful learning that blended learning can bring.
We decided right then and there that we had to transform our early childhood and elementary school day to a more 21st century model and bring blended learning to all students both during and outside of the traditional school day. We continue to engage our students to find out how they learn and work best. Our goal is for all students to have the self-awareness and joy for learning that Claire and Justin developed as a result of learning in a blended format. Our journey is far from over, but we look forward with passion and excitement about what lies ahead.
Sarah Allen teaches at Indian Creek School in Crownsville, Maryland, and has taught first grade for eight years in both public and independent schools. She has presented nationally on blended learning, programming and robotics. She received the 2016 Pearson CITE K-12 Excellence in Online Teaching Award and was also featured in the 2017 What's Up? Magazine Inspirational Teacher issue.
Kelly Bryant has been teaching in early childhood for over seven years. She has worked with blended, interdisciplinary learning throughout her career and created the first ever blended courses for children in PK and kindergarten for Indian Creek School. She is currently working on a team research initiative regarding best practices in early childhood and elementary involving blended, cross-curricular learning.
Megan McManus has been teaching at Indian Creek School for the last four years and has taught fifth grade for six years. She enjoys baking, hiking and being outdoors and loves to share those interests with her students.