Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools by Michael B. Horn & Heather Staker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Blended provides an excellent overview of what is being done today to blend online and face-to-face (F2F) learning in U.S. schools, both private and public. While Horn and Staker admit that their categories — Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual — are slippery and in flux, these do provide a framework for examining the choices involved in planning a blended learning school. The writing is generally clear, though at times, a tad jargony for my taste.
Not surprisingly, many of the real-world examples are charter schools. Their lack of history, established culture, state regulations, and teacher union contract restrictions provide charter schools a relatively fresh canvas on which to develop new models of schooling. As a public school teacher for the past 25 years, however, it’s disappointing to see so few examples in the public sector.
Blending learning clearly benefits from using tried and true materials, reproduced online, and accessible to students on demand. To a significant degree, this allows students to work at their own pace — rather than that of the whole class, a quandary faced by nearly all F2F teachers. The authors point to reading and math scores that indicate faster and broader growth on test results too. So the blended learning models featured certainly qualify as successful, when viewed from the viewpoint of traditional schooling.
That still leaves me wanting, however. Mentions of “no excuses” policies and room diagrams showing row upon row of computer stations brought up images of the Clone Trooper “Education Program” in Star Wars. Efficient? Yes. Humane? Not so much.
The focus on regimentation may bring good test results in a selective charter school population, but maybe not joyful, independent thinkers. Sure, these models of blended learning aren’t the “old school” factory model, but a factory model nonetheless.
True, students are not sitting in row upon row of desks, facefront, while a teacher drones on. In fact, a teacher may not even be present. But many of the models require students to sit viewing screens, and perhaps interacting within programmed lessons developed by a teacher or more likely a corporation (remember those clone children?).
Students alternate online learning with “small-group direct instruction” and “modeled and independent reading.” But the former sounds suspiciously like teacher-centered delivery of content (using “resource books”), and the latter involves reading pre-selected texts from a corporate series (such as READ 180). While this may not be “old school”, it is a 21st century factory model.
I would hope to see models that include and advocate for more engaging and meaningful F2F activity. For example, Project Based Learning and cooperative groups develop social and collaborative skills, and synergize learning in ways that we are just beginning to understand. What’s more, these types of learning activities mimic real world work and civic engagement. Students could, for example, complete a module of self-guided learning as individuals, supported by a classroom teacher, then come together to work on a group project, class discussion, or other common activity.
While this might diminish the flexibility in students working strictly at their own pace, I think the benefits of socialization are more important. As the authors suggest, it’s important to set school goals prior to establishing the model and the necessary technology. For my money, I’d like to see goals of student autonomy, socialization, problem-solving, and cooperative group skills take center stage.