I may never have stood up on top of my desk while teaching or told my students, “Carpe diem,” but short of that I’m willing to do just about anything if it helps my students to get engaged in their learning. So, when an opportunity came up to try a blended model in my Math class, I figured, “Why not? Let’s give this a shot.” I thought using a blended model might increase engagement; what I didn’t expect was that it would build bridges between the students in ways that a traditional lecture model never could have.
I had been working with StudyForge on new online Math courses. While we were waiting for the courses to be approved by our province, I asked for permission to use this new online course in my face-to-face classroom. I had gone to seminars about all the different models of blended learning and had pretty much tried them all, but bringing a course that was designed for online learning into a classroom was a new frontier. I decided to use my class as guinea pigs, though, and see if we could make it work.
We began by using a flipped model, where students watched the videos at home, then worked on their practice questions when they got to class. We were open to other ways of approaching this, though, so I told the students that if they really hated it, we would just drop it and move to a different thing until we found something that actually worked.
After about three chapters, we finally found an approach that worked for this group of students, and it required me to swallow my pride and get out of the way. The approach was almost like an online class within a physical classroom. The students would come in, log on, and just work on their Math course. Before long, it became an asynchronous class, because students were at very different places in the material. I set up a minimum pace that they had to keep up with, and most students followed this pace, but there were other students who were confident with math and would work ahead. Once they got to the end of the content, I was able to give them enrichment material.
So we had stumbled upon a differentiated approach to learning that simply couldn’t have worked in a traditional model. Giving five different lectures in a single block to match everyone’s pace would never have worked. Instead, the online videos did the teaching, and I got to circulate and help students who needed my assistance.
A side benefit — and I swear this was not my motive — I didn’t have to prepare lectures anymore.
In the old model, there were 20 to 30 minutes of teaching during a lesson, and then the students would work on problems for the rest of the class. Now, they were given the entire class to work on problems. This led to a much more student-centered approach to learning. I had become the guide on the side.
The students really enjoyed it. One student told me, “I would miss material while you were lecturing because my mind would sometimes wander. My mind still wanders during the online videos, but I can just rewind and pick up where I lost focus.“
Before long, they naturally formed groups based on where they were within the course, and a classroom culture of collaboration began to form. They seemed to love learning from their peers, working with their classmates to figure things out together.
They had built bridges to each other, and all I needed to do was get out of the way.
Research shows that just about anybody can learn math, but it takes some people longer than others. In a traditional math class, this differentiated pacing can lead to some real challenges. The “aha!” moment came for me when I surveyed my students about how much they enjoyed the blended model we had used. One of my most successful students wrote this: “I don’t care how we learn math, because I can learn no matter what we do, whether you’re teaching or we’re watching videos. I can learn math no matter what.”
This was an eye-opening statement for me. The confident math students want to learn math. They’re capable of learning it, and it doesn’t matter if they are learning it from a video or I’m teaching it. They also want to move forward without having to wait for students who need that extra time. So in the blended model we were using, students who were excelling could move at their own pace, knowing that they had the guidance of an online course to keep them on track. I could then spend more of my time with the students who needed my one-on-one support.
The gifted and the struggling students could both find their sweet spot.
My entire block was now spent coaching the students who needed support rather than taking half of my time teaching the material. Not only this, but in my old way of teaching, a lot of the students were already “done” and checked out by the end of my lecture. The video content was saving them from that. The lectures may not have been a waste of time, but I’m convinced it was not the most efficient use of time.
This differentiated pacing, though, was only possible because the online course made it possible.
Unfortunately, sometimes education can get very competitive. Students are ranked according to achievement or encouraged to work alone so they are not “cheating” or “giving each other the answers.” The blended model helped eliminate that because of the way the online course was structured. Practice questions were exactly that — practice — while individual assessments came later. This allowed for the collaborative process to thrive.
Students worked together on practice questions without worrying that they were stealing someone else’s answers. They knew that they still needed to learn the material, but the online course helped them to build collaborative bridges rather than competitive walls while they were learning.
Not only this, but we used to talk about how working collaboratively was going to help them to be sure they have learned the material well. I would say, “Learning on your own is one thing, but if you can actually teach it to someone else, this shows a greater understanding of the material.” A few of them really took this to heart and would challenge themselves to find someone they could help others.
Coincidentally, the first year we tried this blended model had me up for a teacher evaluation, so my principal decided to come in and check out what we were doing. He heard we were using an online course, and he was kind of skeptical that using an online course in a face-to-face class could work.
At one point he heard a bunch of the students talking and thought they were off task. He walked over, thinking they were goofing off, but when he started listening to what they were saying, they were talking about math. He wrote in my evaluation that he could not believe that those students, some of whom he had taught before and knew were easily distracted, were so engaged.
What got them engaged? I think it was the bridges they had built with each other. Math was fun again because they were learning it together.
Who knew an online course, designed for individualized learning, could do that?