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Give Learning Over to the Students…Are You Crazy?

By Dr. Irma Brasseur-Hock

“Students like helping each other, teach them to

teach, not just give the answers.” -Mrs. Paula Barr

(2nd grade Blended Learning Teacher, iNACOL Blended Learning Teacher of the Year)

Walking down the corridors of the Lawrence Public School Districts’ elementary, middle and high school buildings, where the Blending Learning Instructional Model is being implemented, many would think “there can’t be any learning going on in there; the classrooms look like the students are doing whatever they want.” In fact, students were up and moving around, some were working on the floor together with a loads of art materials building something, some were working alone at a computer so focused they didn’t even notice that I was in the classroom. These classes looked and felt very different from what I had experienced in my years of teaching and providing professional learning for teachers. What was happening in these classrooms?

I have to say, as a parent of 7-year-old triplets, I was very skeptical. How would my triplets learn in a classroom that appeared to be chaos? After observing Blended Learning classrooms, I was left wondering how my Justin, who needs to be guided, challenged and engaged in learning by doing, versus my Lydia who prefers to figure things out on her own, as compared to, my Jack, who needs to be passionate about what he is learning to engage and perform. How could they flourish, grow, and meet the expectations in this type of classroom? My inquiry became one of seeking to understand how teachers planned, designed and implemented Blended Learning with the needs of students at the forefront. I was skeptical that this model was feasible, efficient and lead to increased student learning.

“Learning is by nature curiosity.” –Philo

My skepticism turned to curiosity. Curiosity that I was able to explore through a research project funded by the Oak Foundation. For the past three years, I have been in the field investigating, learning, designing and developing Blended Learning tools that have a direct impact on the outcomes of students who learn differently. As an investigator, I put aside my skepticism and approached this investigation through the lens of “seek first to understand then be understood” (Covey, 2004). To begin, I needed to understand Blended Learning before I could begin to develop a schema for observing and interviewing practitioners and leaders of Blended Learning. In my search, I found a variety of definitions of Blended Learning, but the one most frequently referenced is offered by the Christensen Institute:

The definition of blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns: (1) at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; (2) at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; (3) and the modalities along each student’s learScreenshot 2016-03-14 11.03.13.pngning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience. The majority of blended-learning programs resemble one of four models: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual. The Rotation model includes four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation (see more at: http://www.christenseninstitiute.or/blended-learning-definitions-and-models/).

This definition makes sense, but it wasn’t until I interviewed Mrs. Paula Barr, 2nd grade teacher at Quail Run Elementary and iNACOL (International Association for K-12 Online Learning) Blended Learning Teacher of the Year that I was able to grasp the concept behind Blended Learning. She describes Blended Learning from the practitioner’s perspective:

“…as a traditional teacher, I have my 25 little sponges all sitting at their tables and desks. I was the vessel of all the knowledge, and I held everything that they needed to know. I poured that knowledge into my little sponges as I went around the roomScreenshot 2016-03-14 11.06.11.png. I decided when they received that knowledge, how they would receive it and how they would show me that they learned it. As a Blended teacher, I take those 25 little sponges and I throw them in the pool. Some of them will build a raft and as a group get there. Some of them have water wings and they need me to get to the other side. Some of them go to the other side and get out and go to the next pool. Some get clear out of the pool and they take their own path to get to their goals” (Paula Barr, February 11, 2015).

In essence, Blended Learning transforms the teacher’s role from leading to coaching and empowers students to take ownership for their learning. Blended learning “blends” online learning with classroom learning. In part, students have control over time, pace, and place in which their learning occurs. I have to admit, after completing a search on the definition of Blended Learning, I was left with more questions. How were students going to drive their learning? My helicopter mom mode surfaced, and I was very concerned thinking about what would happen as Jack, Justin and Lydia took responsibility for driving their learning. I could see it. Justin would be stuck on one idea for days and get easily distracted by his neighbor, Lydia would take forever getting through a book to learn about her topic and Jack would go from one activity to another maybe without even finishing any of the activities. How could blended learning really happen in a classroom of 25 students? Hence, I sought to find answer to this question and along the way found myself down the trail of ‘terms’.

Personalized learning, student-centered learning, differentiation, and individualization, were key terms I found in the Blended Learning literature. Some terms were subsumed within other terms while other might have very close meanings. I was able to sort out the different terms and bring clarity to my thinking. I wanted to be mindful about what was similar yet unique about blended learning models, so I could gather information during interviews with practitioners and leaders. Below are definitions informed by my search:

Personalized Learning: The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL, 2015) defines Personalized Learning as tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests –including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn- to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.

Student Centered Learning: Wikipedia defines student centered learning

also known as learner-centered education, as encompassing methods of teaching that shift the focus of instruction from the teacher to the student. In original usage, student-centered learning aims to develop learner autonomy and independence by putting responsibility for the learning path in the hands of students. Student-centered instruction focuses on skills and practices that enable lifelong learning and independent problem-solving.

Differentiation: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) defines differentiation as a teacher’s reacting responsively to a learner’s needs. A teacher who is differentiating understands a student’s needs to express humor, or work with a group, or have additional teaching on a particular skill, or delve more deeply into a particular topic, or have guided help with a reading passage—and the teacher responds actively and positively to that need. Differentiation is simply attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small group of students rather than the more typical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike.

Individualized Learning: The International Society for Technology in Education captures the definition of individualization as Instruction calibrated to meet the unique pace of various students. If differentiation is the “how,” then individualization is the “when.” The academic goals, in this case, remain the same for a group of students, but individual students can progress through the curriculum at different speeds, based on their own particular learning needs. This approach serves students who may need to review previously covered material, students who don’t want to waste time covering information they’ve already mastered, or students who need to proceed through the curriculum more slowly or immerse themselves in a certain topic or principle to really get it.

In my search, I ran across a clarifying table offered by, Kathleen McClaskey and Barbara Bray-co-founders of Personalize Learning and co-authors of Make Learning Personal. They provide a quick reference table which you can download using this link: http://www.personalizelearning.com/2013/03/new-personalization-vs-differentiation.html. The table is organized by three areas: Personalization, Differentiation, and Individualization.   The table unfolds from the perspective of ‘the learner’ and ‘the teacher’ actions. For example, the column for Personalization unfolds based on ‘the learner’ such as the learner… drives their learning. Under the differentiation column is driven from ‘the teacher’ perspective such as: “the teacher… provides instruction to groups of students”. Individualization is presented from the teacher point of view: “the teacher…provides instruction to an individual student”. The table provides 10 areas to consider under each topic.

In sum, blended learning transforms the environment, instructional planning and design through the principles of student-centered personalized learning. There is no ‘front of the room’. Every aspect of the classroom is focused on the students learning needs. For example, in Mrs. Barr’s classroom there were round tables with a basket of basic materials for all students to access; kidney shaped tables with large screen computers, a keyboard, and head sets for students to work in collaborative groups; individual desks strategically placed around the room with a computer for students wishing to work independently; iPads were available for students to use; book shelves housed tools and materials for students to access at anytime, and a comfy corner with a rocking chair surrounded by shelves full of books. The walls had white boards, poster paper, and areas for students to work. Procedures were posted guiding students in the behaviors to follow for specific areas of the room. At the beginning of the year, Mrs. Barr taught students how to use these learning areas. During my observation, I witnessed students teaching other student’s how to do math problems. Students working independently on assignments at the computer. Students working in groups building a model of erosion. Student’s working with Mrs. Barr in small math group instruction, as well as, one-on-one math instruction with Mrs. Barr.   My curiosity has lead to a new vision of learning for my triplets. Justin would love to lead others in learning something he had mastered especially if he was taught how to do this. Jack would thrive having the opportunity to demonstrate his understanding through working one-on-one with the teacher. Lydia would blossom having the opportunity to use technology such as video to create a mini movie explaining what she understands. I applaud Mrs. Barr for the amount of perseverance and grit she put forth to transform her ways of teaching to one that ensures ALL students learn.

My investigation continues and my learning deepens. The funding provided allowed = our team to complete an iterative process of investigation that has lead to the development and design of an online course entitled Blended Instructional Design: a course to enhance learning for ALL students. For more information contact: kucrloak@ku.edu.

My eyes have been opened to what is possible for meeting the needs of ALL students and brings me great hope for the future of education.

“It is a general insight, which merits more attention than it receives, that teaching should not be compared to filling a bottle with water but rather to helping a flower to grow in its own way.  As any good teacher knows, the methods of instruction and the range of material covered are matters of small importance as compared with the success in arousing the natural curiosity of the students and stimulating their interest in exploring on their own.” -Noam Chomsky


Basye, D. (2014). Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning. Arlington,

Va: International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from


Clayton Christensen Institute (February 2015). Blended Learning. Retrieved from


Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the character

ethic ([Rev. ed.].). New York: Free Press.

Hannafin, M. J., & Hannafin, K. M. (2010). Cognition and student-centered, web-base learning: Issues and implications for research and theory. In Learning and

instruction in the digital age (pp. 11-23). Springer US.

International Association for K-12 Online Learning (February 2015). What is

Personalized Learning? Retrieved from http://www.inacol.org/news/what-is-personalized-learning/

Jones, Leo. (2007). The Student-Centered Classroom. Cambridge University Press

Tomlinson, C. A., & Allan, S. D. (2000). Leadership for differentiating schools &   classrooms. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum                                    Development. Retrieved from                                                                                                            http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/100216/chapters/Understanding-Differentiated-Instruction@-Building-a-Foundation-for-Leadership.aspx

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Dr. Irma Brasseur-Hock, Ph.D, is a Program Designer and Instructor for the online High Incidence Teacher Education program at the University of Kansas and an assistant research professor at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. Dr. Brasseur-Hock earned her Ph.D. in Special Education at the University of Kansas. Her research interests include adolescent literacy, blended personalized learning, staff development, coaching, instructional technology, and instructional sustainability. Dr. Brasseur-Hock has extensive experience as a special education teacher and is highly regarded for her skills as a professional development specialist, particularly in the area of adolescent literacy.

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