Best-selling author Michael Horn speaks about how models of blended learning create a personalized teaching method that accounts for the different ways each student learns.
Michael Horn wants to transform our education system into a student-centric one. Instead of accommodating the unique learning needs of our students, he says, “we teach to the class, not the individual.” For Horn, the results are clear: the factory teaching model has left many students passive and disengaged. With accelerating technologies, we have the flexible tools to combine online and in-person learning into a blended model that can empower students to fulfill their potential; it can also help teachers transition away from a standardized top-down approach to one that is personalized and bottom-up. Named one of Tech & Learning magazine’s most important people in the creation and advancement of the use of technology in education, Horn has continued to advance these ideas to education boards across the country. He has also co-authored the award-winning books Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. While doing all this, he co-founded the Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to new frameworks for education.
Here at ONEder, we are gearing up for the launch of ONEder Academy. Our goal is to make the flexible, blended implementation of life-changing curriculum easy. We were lucky enough to sit down with Horn, the man who literally wrote the book on blended learning, to discuss how blended learning makes customized tutoring accessible to every student.
What is disruptive innovation and how does it apply to the classroom?
Disruptive innovation is a process that transforms sectors; it takes things that are centralized, expensive and inaccessible to the majority of people and introduces technology-powered solutions that are far more affordable, convenient, and simple.
When you turn to education, and K-12 in particular, we’ve known for a long time the impact of tutoring and small group activities on children and their learning, but for the vast majority of people, it’s been prohibitively expensive to have that sort of learning experience. We’ve built schools in a factory model system, [with too many students assigned to too few teachers], and as a result, the ability to personalize is almost nonexistent. What we see with disruptive innovation is the power to bring that tutoring and small group learning experience to everyone, everywhere, with the aid of technology, and disrupt the classroom as we’ve known it.
It’s true, my fifth-grade teachers had 32 kids in a class that didn’t fit 32 kids.
Yeah, I mean forget about the personalized instruction component, the number of times students even get to talk and participate in the learning creates an incredibly passive experience that is disengaging. How many moments do students go by in their daily life in a traditional school where they’re bored, disengaged or feel like they can’t get it because the material is ahead of where they are? You add that up and it can be devastating.
Blended learning can be an example of disruptive innovation. What are some of the common misconceptions about blended learning?
One clearly is that technology by itself is the answer. That can be a number of things like starting with technology or that it’s going to replace the teacher or that just because we have technology, we’re doing blended learning. There’s a whole bunch of things around that I think are deeply misunderstood in many cases. I hear many schools say, “well we were doing blended learning and now we’re doing personalized learning.” Blended learning is a way to personalize. That’s the action we want to help unlock learning for every kid and their potential. Blended learning is an engine to power this sort of learning and I think that’s a deep misconception—less among teachers and more among the, what I like to call, the education intelligentsia: philanthropies and think tanks. It feels to me like teachers fundamentally get it more than the chattering class a lot of the times. They’re like “I’m doing blended learning, so I can reach every child.”
What sparked your interest in blended learning? How does it connect to the Christensen institute?
I was a student in Clay Christensen’s class on disruptive innovation at Harvard Business School and at the end of class one day he said, “I have an opportunity to co-author a book applying my ideas to help public schools improve. Who’s interested?” I had a writing and public policy background and had gone to business school to get away from both. I said to him, “I was running from this, but to co-author a book with you about one of the most important challenges and opportunities of our time, how we educate our youth, is something I would never pass up on.” And that’s how the journey started. He had already done a lot of the thinking about how online learning, broadly speaking, could be used in schools to personalize, but he hadn’t put all the pieces together. We wrote Disrupting Class and in the middle of that he said, “I don’t want to just write a nice book, but find it gathers dust on people’s shelf and doesn’t move the needle; I actually want to create change.” So, we came up with the idea to create a nonprofit think tank in 2007, the Christensen Institute, to house the research work and then to push the ideas out there to help educators make change. The blended learning piece really came out of that in 2010. I think our conception was always a blended one in Disrupting Class. All the vignettes that occur in that book are in schools with teachers and students, but there wasn’t a real clear lexicon around how you describe online learning in schools and people started to ask a lot of questions. At the Christensen Institute, we did a lot of research and defined what blended learning is and it matters, and we developed the book Blended from all that research work we had done with all these schools around the country.
In your book Blended you talk about the four primary models of blended learning. At the same time, you once commented that there was “no best model.” Can you expand on that thought?
I think the misconception is that there is a best model, or just because we’re doing station rotation, for example, we will get better results than lab rotation for instance, and the reality is that it’s context-specific; the model should be based on what is relevant to your school, to your teachers, to your students, to the curriculum you have, and to the learning objectives you’re trying to achieve. I think it’s way more important to build the right model for your context than worrying about what the perfect model is. One of the things that I really hate about a lot of research, but education research in particular, is this notion that best practice is to do “x.” On average that may be true, but given I have this type of spread of students or this type of learning disability for these students, that “best practice” might not be the right practice in my circumstance. I’m much more interested in the context and circumstance you’re in and finding the right practice for you, not the “best practice.” That’s the thinking behind the models. I love the flex model, but I’m not totally sure I’d want my second grader in a flex model; I think a station rotation with a little more structure could be really good. Being able to think about that from a developmental perspective, from geography, from students’ circumstances, all those things are important.
I think, too, you have to be an outstanding instructional teacher to be able to successfully teach your students in the flex model.
I totally agree. The degree of difficulty in a flex model is super high and it can go horribly wrong, which has been a lot of the Credit Recovery labs across the country where it’s just students on computers [redoing previously failed coursework] and the teacher’s almost nonexistent. You’re really missing something when you do it that way, whereas when a teacher really takes ownership of what the culture will look like and the set of experiences that he or she wants the students to have in a flex model, you can have an unbelievably engaging experience where it’s a lot of free-flowing movement at your pace, opportunities to go super deep on projects, things of that nature, but it’s not preordained.
In an article in Education Next you discussed the “ideal” blended learning combination. What is the “ideal” combination?
This is a piece we did where we surveyed a bunch of educators to say: What was the percent of time that students should be on a computer in the course of their day? I think it was 35 percent or something like that. I don’t know that there’s a golden ratio there either, I’m uncomfortable with it because I think it’s probably different for each individual student, depending on circumstance and it probably differs week to week. The point was teachers, experts in the field, and parents, they don’t want their kids on a computer 100 percent of the time, that’s not what this is about. That’s the real takeaway. And it might not be 50 percent of the time, it might be significantly lower. It’s also not 10 percent of the time probably. I think that’s the takeaway.
If I’m a kindergarten teacher I don’t know that I want my kids on the computer more than 30 minutes a day max. If I’m teaching 10th grade, I have a lot more confidence in students to make the right decision for them about what that time on a computer versus another modality is, based on the learning objectives. If that ends up being three hours in a day, I think I’m way more comfortable with that. That’s another point that gets back to the misconception earlier. The one-to-one movement is just terrible for education because yes, you can create some really cool models with it, but it’s not a prerequisite to innovating. If you use it as your anchor point, you might actually miss the right models for what you’re trying to achieve.
How do we shape the culture of different types of schools to achieve that ideal blended learning implementation? How do we make that change?
I’m still wrapping my head around this question. I think people like me have done a good job writing for educators, but we haven’t done a great job writing for parents. I think we really need to sell the vision to parents and get them to see that the struggling moments that their kids have are an opportunity. We can innovate and make a far more engaging, exciting experience around learning and really put them in the place of their kids. Your child already understands something—why are they going over it for the fifth time? They’re growing disengaged, or vice versa, they’re far behind, they have no idea, they’re just giving up and not believing in themselves anymore. Wouldn’t you like a school that treated every single student as an individual and was able to give them the time and resources to allow them to fulfill their potential? Isn’t that what you want in every service in this country today? To have that individualized, personalized experience? We can do that in schools now. I think really not getting caught up in a lot of the weeds at first, but selling the vision, showing the possibilities, inspiring people right now is really important just to lift their expectations and their ideas of what a school can be. If we don’t bring them along, it’s very hard for a school to innovate.
There’s a school near here, they were doing this really cool implementation of summit blended learning; the students were excited, the teachers were excited, the administrators were excited, the results were great. But a couple of parents, I don’t think they understood why they were doing it — they just saw kids on screens a little bit and that scared them. My understanding is that they stopped the program completely and what a loss that is. But I suspect it’s because we haven’t sold the vision and the why.
Could you tell us one or two success stories that you’ve seen as a result of your research, or your book, or the work that you do?
I’m always hesitant to take credit for anything; I hope we’ve inspired, but I feel like people are actually doing it on the ground. I’m super inspired with what Middletown public schools in New York have done with blended environments that they’ve created. You go into any classroom in their elementary schools and you can ask any student what they’re working on and why, and they can answer that question at any point in time. It’s really amazing; that metacognition is amazing.
The KIPP school in Los Angeles, one of the early examples in the book, remains super moving to me because they came to us in the summer when they just learned they weren’t going to be able to afford a fifth teacher and they were only going to have four teachers for their opening kindergarten class. To build the model they did, get the academic results that they did, and to create those small group learning experiences using blended learning: really inspiring. Also, for a place like KIPP, a charter school that had a very tradition-bound structure, to innovate was a really powerful moment for the field. To see that even these guys who have this regimented structure to how they do things were willing to step outside the box was inspiring. And they were able to get really good results when they did this; again, another amazing moment.
You once noted that personalized learning is a means, and not the end goal, and that personalizing alongside other students doesn’t yield the results you might expect. Could you explain this for our readers?
I think we’ve come to treat personalized learning as a noun when we should see it as a verb. We are personalizing so that students can build passion and fulfill potential. Just because you’re personalizing doesn’t mean you’ll personalize well. I could say to you, “what are you interested in?” And could you say, “I’m interested in underwater basket weaving.” You could do underwater basket weaving for an entire year and I’m not sure I would be unlocking your full potential as a human. So how do we personalize, and on which dimensions do we personalize? If you’re struggling with a four-digit addition problem, taking you back to single-digit addition might not be the right personalization. You might have a problem with operations of carrying numbers and so forth. How we personalize really does matter and seeing it as a panacea is, I think, a mistake.
At the same token, I think we all ought to be personalizing. That should be a goal, but how we do it matters, and it shouldn’t be the goal in and of itself. It’s the verb to get us to where we want to be.
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