For mastery-based approaches, consider a disruptive blended-learning model

September 4, 2019 | by Jenny White

It often takes time for a school to change age-old instructional practices. To shift away from traditional seat-time learning and whole-class instruction, many schools start with hybrid blended-learning models, conduct small-scale pilots, or run years of professional development overhaul. In some schools that are relatively tiny (and new), however, educators are using their size and opportunity to reset to their advantage. In fact, they’re leveraging disruptive blended-learning models, which include Flex, Individual Rotation, Enriched Virtual, and A La Carte, that do not rely on seat time as a measure of performance. 

In these disruptive models, the backbone of student learning is online, affording a shift for teachers to facilitators and students to drivers, opening up a new degree of flexibility around place, path, pace, and time of learning. Disruptive models thus appear to be ideal frameworks for deploying competency-based systems, which likewise take strictly time-bound learning off the table.

These three high schools demonstrate how their disruptive blended-learning model enables mastery-based learning:

  1. Twinfield Union School, Plainfield, VT

A small, K-12 school in rural Vermont, Twinfield Union has been an early adopter of proficiency-based learning in a state that has mandated its implementation across all its schools by 2020. Every Thursday, the high school is designated for flexible learning, called “X Day”. On this day, many high schoolers participate in Renaissance, a teacher-designed internship and mentorship program that matches students with local professionals in a career of the student’s interest. Students can choose not to participate in Renaissance, but there is no schedule or formal classes on X Day. Instead, this day is completely Flexstudents complete their online work at their own pace and check in with their teacher-advisor(s) about their personalized learning plans. Sometimes teachers will request “call backs” with specific students for 1:1 or small-group instruction during X Day.

Every other learning day at Twinfield Union is also self-paced and proficiency-graded, though students do move on a schedule between different subject courses. Students’ learning lives in the learning management system, PowerSchool, and their proficiencies are tracked within a program called LiFT by SchoolHack

  1. 360 High School, Providence, RI

360 opened in 2015 as a new high school in the Providence Public Schools System. It was designed by educators, community, and youth through a collaborative process that resulted in the school’s three foundational pillars: personalized learning plans, mastery-based learning, and project-based learning. According to principal Kerry Tuttlebee, blended learning was the mechanism to help drive these pillars from the get-go. 

The school uses the learning management system Schoology as an online backbone for learning. While the pace of learning still happens on a bell schedule and traditional calendar, students can demonstrate mastery in personalized ways. The school uses an adapted version of the competencies developed by Cleveland Metropolitan Schools, which emphasizes portfolio-building to demonstrate learning progress over time. While pathways to mastery are not self-paced by 360 students yet, this approach already affords students much more collaborative learning time in the classroom. With core instruction often happening asynchronously online, teachers use face-to-face class time to optimize for group learning. 

The Flex model is used in various circumstances within the school, but the disruptive A La Carte model is more consistently applied throughout the school, and used for Personalized Learning Time (PLT): a credit recovery period in which students move through online curriculum, such as OdysseyWare, at their own pace. Students may opt into PLT when the more traditional class doesn’t work for them, or if students fall behind, teachers may advise them to transfer to this alternative setting. In PLT, students are far from working alone; they progress alongside peers who may be studying the same online subject, and there is always a subject-area teacher in the classroom to provide one-on-one support as needed and to check in daily with each student.

  1. Map Academy, Plymouth, MA

This new charter school opened in Fall 2018. It was designed from the ground-up to serve students at the margins of the community: those who had dropped out of high school or who were off-track in a traditional school. Map’s co-founders and co-directors Rachel Babcock and Joshua Charpentier call the school “a blank slate,” both because they’ve designed and built it from the ground-up and because their students get a fresh start at high school. 

Map is intentionally small: there are currently 7 teachers on staff and 130 students. In addition, 3 full-time, on-site social workers are on staff. Learning is entirely student-paced and student-driven, and it mostly happens online in an Enriched Virtual, Flex environment. Map partnered with Bronx Arena High School to adopt and modify its in-house designed Tracker platform to house content and track student learning along their Individual Learning Plans. Students attend “Studio” blocks during the day, where there is a teacher present to support and guide students. Students aren’t necessarily required to attend school every day, however. Whenever students’ lives inevitably get in the way, learning can still continue asynchronously and off-site. Map plans to do a full roll-out of the LiFT program this fall to track non-core academic learning, such experiential and project-based learning, which may occur off-campus.

Babcock explained her school’s mission behind blended learning: “The blended, asynchronous structure frees up every adult to prioritize relationships with students. The Tracker is such an amazing glue that holds the model together. It allows staff to house all content and instruction online, and [thereby] frees staff to be responsive to the immediate needs of students.” Babcock says that when students’ lives get in the way of their learning, they can just hit the “pause button” thanks to blended learning, and resume when they’re ready to focus.

All three of these schools noted that both their small size and invitation from their states or districts to start from scratch were critical factors in liberating them from some traditional measures of performance. If your school’s circumstances seem drastically different, disruptive innovation is still possible, and you can kick it off by tackling specific problem areas ripe for disruption. In the cases of these three high schools, there are replicable components that, over time (or just with the right level of autonomy), hold the potential to penetrate an even wider swath of schools.

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