The Blending Edge

We were talking about this curve over a cup of coffee when something struck us – technology adoption is not the real challenge, nor is adopting a new solution.
Adoption curve1 Instead we frame this challenge as the ability to adapt to changing needs and conditions in our schools, of our teachers, in our classrooms and in the minds of our students.

(Everett Rogers Innovation Adoption Curve – captured from “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic” from New Schools Venture Fund )

For the past few years we have been talking about and reading about blended learning models that are primarily based in effective utilization of technology platforms as tools for moving the needle on instructional effectiveness.  What struck us is that maybe that is not  the right problem to solve, or maybe that the conversation about blended learning needs to take a leap forward from implementing platforms and models to the acts of teaching and learning.

In innovation and technology adoption we often hear about the innovation curve illustrated here.  Out front are those on the bleeding edge, followed by those on the cutting edge, those on the trending edge, those on the following edge and those on the un-involved edge.

We have been exploring a different notion – that blended learning is a great idea and we have spent many years as innovators in blended learning, however it tends to focus on technology based solutions and the reliance of those solution on platforms doesn’t do as good a job as we need them to on the very personal part of teaching – that multi-sided collection of dimensions that go into the teaching/learning relationship between teachers and students, nor the complexity of leading – supporting consistent growth in teaching and learning.

image001The emerging notion we discussed is based in the concept that all learning is blended learning and that a different view of the innovation curve might be illustrated by changing the labels a bit so that instead of thinking about this as an illustration of innovation in education, perhaps we should view it as an illustration of effectiveness in blending current skills and knowledge with new skills and knowledge.  In this case the point where one might locate current status on the curve is in effectiveness in blending prior and current learning resulting in new learning.  This puts the innovators on the blending edge – those who are out front in growing student learning in ways that work for the students’ benefit.

We are most certainly not anti-anything but have worked through enough technology implementation projects to feel certain that technology provides great tools but technology alone doesn’t produce the results we are seeking. The same can be said of any other innovation – better time management, realignment of authority or budgets, rewriting and realigning the standards, adoption of frameworks, etc..  We see the challenge as better blending all of those things in a more focused effort on the learning needs of students – in another word – personalization. Unfortunately many of these efforts end up as functionally renewing the factory model we are trying so hard to displace.

How we might get closer to where we imagine…

One way of thinking about this is in terms of capacity – presuming that where an educator, a school, a school leader finds themselves on this curve is primarily a function of capacity, the challenge is one of developing the skills and understanding to expand capacity to engage in more and better opportunities for blending learning.   Our approach to this has been modeling an inquiry approach to openly exploring the possibilities and methodically, Socratically working through local solutions, focusing on outcomes rather than answers, functionally an organizational and individual capacity growth strategy.

We have walked the halls and talked with the teachers and school leaders of hundreds of schools.  We have worked with this strategy in dozens of schools.  Yet we have yet to see anything approaching a sure fire fix.  The number of failed implementations is disheartening.  The quantity of time, funds, effort, innovative ideas, frustrated teachers, leaders and students, points to how difficult it is to match the scope of the problems with solutions.  But we have also seen it work in schools serving every kind of neighborhood.

In a way, the failure problem parallels the same one we so often hear about students – they aren’t trying hard enough, or don’t have the pre-requisite skills, or the conditions just aren’t aligned well enough to achieve the expected outcomes.  We have seen this as effectively a lack of will to reach far enough, functionally the grit challenge.

How can we engage school teams in effectively taking on building their capacity to reach that far?  This is what we do – walking the halls, sitting in classrooms, offices and meeting rooms, asking questions, sharing thought provoking resources, seeking to blend prior understanding about the tasks and responsibilities of teaching and leading with the growth of new skills and understanding about what is possible and how to make it work to expand the options and possibilities for students.

Blending Learning or Blended Learning

The past half a dozen years have brought substantial discussion about blended learning – model maps, resources, strategies, personalized outcomes. I could try trashing “blended learning” by calling it what happens when all those learning resources are poured into the spout of the kitchen blender and the resulting “health food” is poured into a glass for consumption and the better good of the individual – but that is not what I mean – blended learning models are structures for supporting individual learning and providing structured opportunities for learning is perhaps the most critical role we have as educators. What I am most interested in right now is that other thing – Blending Learning…

I was talking with a school leader yesterday, (for context he was carrying a youngster for most of our conversation – estimating a kindergartner – sleeping on his shoulder, apparently in need of something warmer than a classroom chair that day) about how a decision made last fall has helped his students develop a visible improvement in numeracy skills (using a “blended learning” resource) but he is concerned that he has not seen similar progress in literacy skills, and his plans for addressing that – getting more literacy resources into the hands of students and teachers is a big concern. Then the conversation turned in another direction. If students are developing numeracy skills – and that is evident because they talk about it, show off their work, parents comment on it… aren’t those students practicing literacy skills as well? Does being able to “talk in numbers” just involve numeracy skills or does it also require literacy skills? And after a little brainstorming – maybe our students could extend their numeracy skills into literacy skills by thinking about, talking about and inventing scenarios where JiJi’s problem solving approach goes beyond numbers and patterns – a series of one act plays or skits about “What would JiJi do?” when faced with a real life challenge – taking the character students had taken to miming on the playground and creating new scenarios, creating and telling new stories – turning a learning that resulted from numeracy into building literacy.

image001This notion of blending learning across traditional boundaries is what we think of as “blended learning” – it is not a classroom design or technology systems challenge, (yeah there’s that too, but…) it is an instructional mindset based on finding opportunity in the vast maze of crossovers between our traditional content boundaries, talking about math, writing about science, illustrating the shifts of history… we have pretty much always blended learning this way – utilizing skills across boundaries, but how much farther can we go? These things are at the heart of Project Based Learning, Inquiry Based Instruction, field trips – can we make better use of “Blending Learning” by being more conscious of how and where that blending occurs and taking it farther – using our multiple literacies to build extended literacies? Recognizing that our students’ skills in blending learning may be the only context that matters.