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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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This guest blog post was written by Brian Greenberg, Envision School's former Chief Academic Officer.

Don't listen to the current education reform rhetoric: There is more than one way to educate a child. In fact, sometimes very different approaches can yield terrific results when combined together.

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with project-based learning (PBL), but may be less familiar with the notion of "blended learning." Blended learning generally refers to incorporating online learning into traditional brick-and-mortar schools to create hybrid learning experiences for students. So how do the generally progressive ideals of PBL merge with the more reform-oriented blended learning approach? Beautifully, at least in theory.

Sal Khan of the much-acclaimed Khan Academy personifies the blended learning movement. His team's herculean efforts to record thousands of videos, create practice problems, and build sophisticated back-end analytics are opening educators' minds to what is possible with online learning. As with any innovation, there is a growing army of critics who accuse Khan of being just more of the same drill-and-kill pedagogy. They ask, "Where is the deep and engaging curriculum that Ted Sizer championed?" It may surprise readers to know that Sal Khan himself is an advocate of projects and hands-on learning, believing that using videos like his can free teachers' time and energy up for richer instruction focused on higher-order skills. So if Mr. Blended Learning embraces PBL, can the PBL community embrace blended learning, too?

As the former Chief Academic Officer of Envision Schools, I experienced the beauty and power of PBL. But I also saw how PBL could sometimes create content-area gaps for students because of the focus on depth versus breadth. Few teachers can master all the challenges of teaching state standards, designing engaging projects, assessing all students along the way, and intervening effectively when students don't master the material.

The Best of Both Worlds

But what if PBL teachers also had online resources to help students learn content and to provide better feedback on student outcomes? In this scenario, students might be learning content at home in the evenings or for some of class each day. The online learning would be highly personalized and adaptive, allowing some students to go deeper or faster and letting others go at the pace they need to ensure true mastery. This could also provide a more accurate daily picture of the content students had mastered and exactly where each student struggled. This blended learning approach can be seen in schools like Carpe Diem, SF Flex Academy -- and even in Envision's own summer school pilot, being documented right now on the Blend My Learning blog.

What most of these early blended learning models are missing, however, is application of knowledge -- the deep and meaningful learning that students experience when they synthesize content and apply it in novel, exciting ways. This is where great PBL comes in. I'd love to see Khan paired with awesome physics projects, for example. Complete four badges showing you've mastered certain content and "unlock" a project challenge. The software helps ensure you have mastered the content; the challenge lets you apply the learning and produce a beautiful piece of work.

Or flip it around: Present the challenge that engages students first and then elicit their desire to tackle the online learning. This is where the expertise of the leaders in PBL is so valuable. I'd like to see High Tech High, Envision Schools, the Big Picture Learning, and New Tech Network digitize their best projects and resources and make them "student-facing." The New Tech Network's Echo platform and the blossoming partnership between Envision Schools and Show Evidence are two promising examples of bringing the best of PBL to a wider audience. And Khan Academy's two million users per month demonstrate the power of the Web to spread good ideas and scale implementation.

The blended learning movement is still in its infancy and needs time to prototype, experiment, make mistakes, and figure out what works. It would benefit greatly from incorporating decades of learning from the PBL community around what engages students and leads them to producing the highest quality work. The PBL community, similarly, should embrace the power that blended learning offers.

The technology itself is not the game changer; it is the personalization that technology affords. Blended learning's greatest potential lies in the combination of immediate feedback to students, more personalized pacing, ability to make students responsible for their own learning, and ability to serve up the content when and how students are ready for it. If we can get this right, blended learning 2.0 could be a powerful way to run our schools -- where the best of online learning meets the best of project-based learning. I have to believe the results for students will be powerful.

Credit: Bob Lenz

Brian Greenberg is a former teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, founding principal of Leadership Public Schools -- Hayward, and Chief Academic Officer of Envision Schools. He can be reached at blendmylearning@gmail.com.

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Rosemarie's picture
7th & 8th grade math and science teacher from Southern California

I know some may see the phrase "everything in moderation" and think that it is restrictive or boring. I see it as opportunity to safely explore and an opportunity to add variety. Instead of saturating every class period with one approach, I like to pack it with intense portions of different approaches. I am fortunate enough to have two 90 minute blocks and one 55 minute period to teach math. I would like to try to use the Khan Academy system as an incentive program to supplement direct instruction enabling me to carve out time for a chapter based mini project. I suspect that hw correction time and direct instruction will take less time if the students "preview" the lesson online. I intend to offer incentives (hw passes, extra credit) for voluntary participation on the Khan Academy activities. I know from past experiences that my students (junior high) will jump at the opportunity to explore on line for extra credit or hw passes. Even though, in many cases the "extra credit" option actually takes more work and time!

On another note, a blended approach is an easier sell to my administrator. I can still use my current curriculum as the skeleton for the class and then flesh it out with Khan Academy and PBL.

Jenny Uribe's picture

Hi. I have never taught at a PBL school. I was just hired on as a self contained 7th grade classroom. I was told that the school is to implement project based learning in the curriculum. We are a new school (alternative education), small class size setting, population of 160 students and slowly growing. The student population has a large influx of suspension-expulsion students. While I appreciate the flexibility in implementing PBL, I have very little experience and I am nervous. All of my previous teaching assignments have sadly required DI or direct instruction where anything besides this was out of the question. I have already begun my research on how to implement PBL at my school and have started to create a list of ideas. Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

Erica's picture

For available contracts for Blended Learning Programs that your school can apply for see GrantWatch.com

Luke's picture
9th grade math teacher from ND

I really like the idea of the blended approach. I teach a Pre-21st Century math class for lower level students. It is a fairly new class to our school and we try to do a lot of PBL with these students. I think that in a math classroom of this type, the blended approach could be very beneficial to the students and also enjoyable to them. I also split this class with a technology teacher to integrate a technology piece to the course. Because of this, I can see the PBL and the blended approach working terrific in this class.

Jason Schwalm's picture

PBL is used by Philadelphia's network of almost 200 city-funded afterschool programs, although it is rarely incorporated into the school day. However, this year, summer school teachers at Belmont Charter School joined forces with out-of-school time staff to offer project-based learning activities during the school day as well. This approach offered experiential, engaging activities to both high and low performing summer school students, while also giving summer school teachers the flexibility to use a traditional, direct-instruction approach when needed (knowing that their project activities would be reinforced by out-of-school time staff after the school day).

To read more about this partnership, as well as to find resources about the project-based learning instructional method, look for us at the OST Project-Based Learning Blog.

HoneyFernDotOrg's picture

Late to the party here...this is how HoneyFern functions. We are small, multi-age and individualized, but we come together for science, so when we studied the chemistry and biology of water (as part of a high school biology class), we decided to apply the content knowledge by adopting a local stream where we conduct chemical testing once a month (and in the spring we will start bacteriological and biological training for the same stream). This applies all of the lab procedure we have studied as well as the content knowledge, and it is a problem-based, real-life project. From this we have also studied GPS, topography and writing (students rotate who blogs about our visits).

The blended part is in the manner in which we get our content - a mix of online resources, textbooks and lecture/discussion. All students at HoneyFern integrate their learning in all subjects in this way, and the mix of it, along with the relevance, has transformed the way they look at school.

Bob Lenz's picture
Bob Lenz
Executive Director, Buck Institute for Education, Novato, CA

This sounds like a great project. How do the students access the online resources - iDevices, laptops, computer lab or in class desktops or a Smart Board? It would be great also if you can send a link to your school's web site. People are always asking for examples of schools doing PBL.



HoneyFernDotOrg's picture

My school (www.honeyfern.org) is wireless; we have laptops and desktops, plus projection devices for a really big TV. Our max enrollment is five students, 6th-12th, for the full program, and we are one-to-one computing(either the students provide their own laptop or we provide one for them to use). We have lately started to incoporate more Google tools (Docs and Hangouts), and we will be using social media when we go on our end-of-the-year, two-week tour of American history, planned and budgeted completely by the students, one of whom is studying civics and will be starting AP US history next year. This is like a preview for him for next year, and it incorporates all subjects.

I also do some pretty standard online classes that utilize Edmodo and Google+ for "meetings." I am starting to incoporate more Google+ into my tutoring sessions for writers; I tutor some homeschooled students who cannot meet with me every week, so we are starting to meet in Google+ hangouts.

Bob Lenz's picture
Bob Lenz
Executive Director, Buck Institute for Education, Novato, CA

[quote]I really think that blended learningis one a the best ways to teach. Thanks for the provided such a great post![/quote]

If you liked this post, please check out my post today and "hype" blended learning.

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