3 ways to do a Flex model

April 24, 2018 | by Jenny White

A student-led Socratic discussion at Greenfields Academy.

A student-led Socratic discussion at Greenfields Academy.

One of the most-read blog posts on the Blended Learning Universe (BLU) has consistently been our deeper look at the Flex model. The most-searched model type in the BLU directory is, also, Flex. When we speak to schools about their goals around blended learning, something about increased flexibility in students’ path, place, and pace of learning is almost always mentioned. Indeed, a flexible learning experience is an integral piece of how mostf define personalization for students.

The Flex model sometimes gets talked about as some kind of “holy grail” in the education space. The truth is, however, that its transformative impact depends on the model’s implementation. No single approach is a magic bullet; Flex, like all of the blended-learning models, can work for certain students in certain circumstances.

To ground this conversation for a moment, let’s refer to the Christensen Institute’s definition of Flex: The Flex model lets students move on fluid schedules among learning activities according to their needs. Online learning is the backbone of student learning in a Flex model. Teachers provide support and instruction on a flexible, as-needed basis while students work through course curriculum and content. This model can give students a high degree of control over their learning.

It can truly be a journey to be able to reach a point in the classroom where students have the agency and motivation to take control of their learning, and for the teacher to feel ready to guide from the side. To help us understand that journey, over 200 schools have shared their Flex model experiences by building profiles in the BLU directory. I took a peek through the directory to find three examples of how a diverse set of schools are implementing the Flex model school-wide. These schools are quite distinct from one another: one is a 7-12 public school, another is a public charter middle school, and the third is a K-8 private school. Hopefully, if you’re an educator earnest about shifting toward flexible learning paths, one of these examples could help shape your own journey.

Conrad High School, Conrad, Montana

In 2017, the rural Conrad High School launched a pilot personalized learning program. The push to move toward blended learning came from students and parents who were demanding change, and fortunately, the district superintendent was innovative and supportive.

In this Flex model, teachers built their own curriculum, which is housed on a learning management system (LMS) called itslearning. As students work through the curriculum, they earn tokens within the LMS. The tokens help students and teachers alike track progress. Students work at their own pace, but must earn a minimum of four tokens a week to maintain proficiency at 80% or higher. Students begin their day by checking in with their teacher advisor to look at their schedule for the day, make sure they are maintaining progress, ask and answer questions, and build relationships. Teacher advisors are in communication with parents at least every other week.

The school started planning the new learning design in December 2016 and kicked off the pilot in August 2017. With one academic year nearly complete, what’s the school’s main piece of advice? “Take the leap.”

Greenfields Academy, Chicago, Illinois

Modeled after Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, this small, private school opened its doors in 2014. At Greenfields, K-8 students use interactive technology and hands-on projects in a single, multi-age environment to master self-paced challenges. “Guides” oversee the learning by helping students set goals and discover answers, but they rarely (if ever) directly instruct the students. After a group discussion, students spend each morning mastering core skills by working independently, mostly online; during this time, students may elicit the assistance of a peer or a guide, but their learning is dependent upon self-direction and question-based curiosity. Following time for lunch and play in the middle of the day, students spend the afternoons engaged in collaborative offline projects, art compositions, writers’ workshops, or Socratic discussions.

Student choice plays a significant role in Greenfields’ Flex model: students choose their own learning pace and when to work on each learning goal, which is meant to build internal motivation, engagement, and an understanding of real consequences. Rather than compiling a transcript with letter grades, students use portfolios, public exhibitions, and apprenticeships to demonstrate their skills. Peer reviews, goal tracking sheets, online dashboards, learning badges, and standardized tests provide additional evidence of transformation and mastery.

Although the model is fairly well defined, the school takes to heart its commitment to flexible learning and tweaks the model each year based on student and parent feedback.

Oakland Unity Middle School, Oakland, California

Since 2015, this public charter school of 77 students has used a mastery-based Flex model. Teachers assess all students’ mastery of concepts on a 1-4 scale using a standards-based teaching and learning platform called JumpRope. Students have agency in determining how they wish to master various concepts, and whether they want to continue to work online or join in on group instruction.

Students meet weekly with their teachers to set S.M.A.R.T. goals to own their progress and learning of the various concepts. To help them progress through the school year, students take standards-based formative assessments each Friday. If a student wants to move ahead faster, however, he or she may elect to take standards assessments at his or her own pace. After setting their weekly goals, students have the rest of the week to ensure mastery of their chosen concepts in any way they choose. This looks a bit different in different subjects, but in each case online learning is the backbone.

Every school day, students log into JumpRope, assess where they are at accomplishing their goals, and work accordingly. Teachers intervene throughout the day as needed, but try to encourage students to seek out help as they feel it’s necessary.

Now three years into the model, the school’s main advice to others is to accept trial and error. “You have to stumble and fall a few times before you get it right, and experiments help you know what systems you will need in place before implementing across the whole school.”

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Is your school using Flex or another model of blended learning? Share your story with peers in a BLU profile.

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