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on Leading the Next Generation


What Makes Education Work? (Part Two)

One of our values at Growing Leaders is to play a role in enabling administrators and faculty to lead their schools and classes well. As John Maxwell has said for years: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Yesterday, I posted Part One of a blog series that looked at what’s hindering Education from working well. Today, I’d like to look at a major solution by discussing the realistic shift teachers can immediately make to improve student engagement and learning.

Authentic Maturity

The solution has everything to do with combining on-line and in-class pedagogy. The shift, however, has everything to do with the idea of “control.”

When she introduced Khan Academy videos and quizzes to her sixth-grade math students, Suney Park had to “give up control.” At a Blended Learning in K-12 conference at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, she admitted, “That’s hard.”

But the software lets her students work at their own level and their own pace, moving on only when they’ve mastered a lesson. More are reaching proficiency, says Park, who teaches at Eastside College Prep, a tuition-free private school in all-minority, low-income East Palo Alto, California.

“I’ll never go back,” Park said.

Before she tried blended learning, she struggled to “differentiate” instruction for students at different levels. “You can try it, but you can’t sustain it,” she said. “Teaching to the middle is the only way to survive.” Now, her advanced students aren’t working on a task devised to “keep them out of the way.” They’re moving ahead. In fact, every student is working at his/her own pace.

Blended learning is taking off, said Michael Horn, co-founder of the Christensen Institute. It has the potential to “disrupt” the “factory model” of education. If students are practicing skills on their tablets, the teacher can be a small group discussion leader, coach, project organizer, counselor, curriculum planner, or . . . who knows? If students are learning at their own pace, should they be organized into “grades” based on age?

To be clear, just because a school is doing blended learning doesn’t mean it’s any good, especially if it’s managed poorly. If Implemented well, however, it does provide the opportunity for students to “own” their education, which is a major challenge in K-12 education. Schools must move from a “push the content down to the student” model to an “invite the student to pace their own learning” model. And blended learning seems to help.

If you’re an educator, let me ask you a few questions:

  • Are you a control freak?  Are you open to trying new methods like this?
  • Would you be willing to “blend” class time with screen time?
  • Is your class experience about you and your career, or is it about the student?

This is a paramount issue. We’ve got to figure it out. Comments anyone?


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  1. charlene.fonseca on February 12, 2014 at 9:03 am

    I took a quick look at Khan. Without a thorough assessment, I think it would alleviate pressures placed on teachers to make all students conform to a middle-of-the-road performance. As Suney said, It’s hard to give up control, but I think it’s even more difficult to survive the impossible job of streamlining all levels of achievers.

    • Tim Elmore on February 13, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      I agree, Charlene. I think we have a great opportunity on our hands to figure it out and see what works with today’s students, when it comes to blended-learning.

  2. Billie McConnell on February 12, 2014 at 2:54 pm


    I think you are on the right track, especially with control, but it is more than just blended learning. I believe the answer is student-centered learning, which has many forms. Of course, it depends on how you define blended-learning. All student-centered learning has a blended component. However, I have seen many teachers take the blended approach and use it to keep doing teacher-centered instruction. We must teach teachers how to create learning environments that are engaging, real-world and challenging. Our students must become self-directed learners and they must learn to communicate, collaborate, innovate, and critically think. You were right in your previous article. . . a great majority of teachers are not taught how to create these types of learning environments in teacher education programs. It is my mission and passion to help make that change.

    • Billie McConnell on February 12, 2014 at 6:19 pm

      BTW: Moving to student-centered doesn’t mean getting rid of lectures, quizzes, tests, etc. I always tell teachers that I am not going to ask you to get rid of anything that you have done before (except for maybe mindless worksheets). I am just going to ask you to do it in a different order. It is about generating interest and a challenge and then giving students what they need when they need it.

  3. Jennifer Achtstatter Boberg on February 12, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    I am a preschool teacher and I “LOVE” this idea. The factory model of education should die. It is an outdated model. The advantage of the old one room school house was that children only advanced to the next level of education when they completed the previous work. Children went to school and worked at their own pace and as education was available to them. Allowing children to learn at their own pace is a great idea and prevents children who are slower from being left behind. More and more research shows children who are advanced ahead to the next grade without mastering the skills, get further and further behind. While gifted children often are bored and act out because they are not being challenged. Likewise children maybe advanced in one area but on grade or behind in another based on person interests or strengths.
    My question is, would this work for preschool?

    • Tim Elmore on February 14, 2014 at 9:59 am

      Hi Jennifer,
      Great question. I would think it would work, but unfortunately I am not an expert on preschool. I would recommend speaking with someone like Joe Krichner of Primrose Schools.

    • Janice Blizzard Sturm on February 15, 2014 at 9:54 am

      Blended education is the natural norm of a good Montessori classroom.
      I am not familiar with the Primrose School but plan to investigate it.
      You may want to look into the Montessori Philosophy to see how it works in this type of a learning environment.

  4. Lynn Oucharek on February 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I’m familiar with blended learning, Khan academy and experiential learning, all amazing tools and concepts when put in play well as you said. What everyone needs to ask themselves is can they treat every day like an opportunity to be surprised and experience new learning for themselves? When we begin to treat every day like a field trip, then the door is to great teaching and learning opens easily. It doesn’t mean the prep is easy, it can be more work but the rewards for both students and teachers takes engagement to a whole new level.

    • Tim Elmore on February 13, 2014 at 5:37 pm

      Great points, Lynn. As I commented above, today’s students learn in a classroom that is experiential, participatory, image-rich, and connected.

      What are your thoughts on how to help teachers treat everyday like a field trip?

      Thank you for commenting, Lynn!

      • Billie McConnell on February 15, 2014 at 12:11 am

        Just my thought: I think the answer is to create learning environments that are engaging and challenging. What we have learned from video game designers is that the “fun” is in the challenge. Instead of telling students the question and the answer, we need to be working with our students to ask the question, to create the challenge, and then facilitate the process of solving the problem. Let them inquire, let them explore, and let them have the opportunity to “fail” in solving the problem. Learning is in the process, not in being given the answer. We can do that at every grade level.

        • Tim Elmore on February 18, 2014 at 3:42 pm

          Great points, Billie!
          “Learning is in the process, not in being given the answer.”

  5. Laura Donaldson Lyons on February 16, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Of course I love the idea of blending technology with individual pacing, with the teacher as a facilitator. My school building is about 50 years old and isn’t retro-fitted with wiring to sustain the technology, which we cannot afford. Our classroom PCs are 13 years old, and our two laptop mobile labs are 5 years old. We have a high-stakes testing computer lab that is used for (you guessed it) high stakes testing and test prep. Many of our students don’t have access to any technology in the house aside from television video games and the occasional telephone or tablet connected to the internet or wifi. So, how can we ensure that even poorer schools and students have access to updated technology?

    • Tim Elmore on February 18, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      Hi Laura,
      Great question. I wish I was an expert in that field of education, but unfortunately I am not. I would think that there would be grants a school could apply for. Over the years I have heard of nonprofits that specialize in helping schools acquire computers for their students.
      Hope this helps,

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What Makes Education Work? (Part Two)