Friday, June 19, 2015

The State of Inclusion in Alberta Schools

This was written by Avis Glaze as the Forward in The State of Inclusion in Alberta Schools by the Alberta Teachers' Association.

by Avis Glaze

So often, as teachers, we reiterate the statement that “all children can learn and achieve given time and proper supports.” I have no doubt that we believe this statement. But I would like to encourage deep reflection on what this statement means, and, more importantly, what we will do differently to enable students to be more successful. 

Permit me to congratulate the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) for its attention to inclusive education here. The State of Inclusion in Alberta Schools is an outstanding study that will serve as a model internationally. I commend the Association for carrying on its rich tradition of excellence and leadership in education through its creation of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools. The Blue Ribbon Panel’s findings, outlined in this report, are very important and the focus on inclusion is timely. 

All across the globe, teachers, politicians, community members and parents are striving to ensure that education lives up to its promise of creating a more just and harmonious society. They recognize the complexities associated with inclusion, but want more inclusive practices to prevent their children and grandchildren from falling through the cracks. In the same vein, Albertans want the best for the province’s children and youth, but will not be able to confidently say that the education system is successful until the bar is raised and achievement gaps are closed. A commitment to inclusive practices will greatly enhance the quality of education in the province. 

Education is the ultimate tool of empowerment. It requires both will and skill to help students fulfill their potential. Alberta teachers fully realize this. They know that they must continue in their relentless quest to achieve excellence through equity. They want the best for their students. But there is also a broader goal. We live in one of the greatest countries in the world—one that promotes democracy, fairness and justice. We cannot afford to forget that democracy and education are inextricably intertwined: democracy is strongest where education is strongest, and publicly-funded education is the hallmark of democracy. 

To my mind, this study’s focus on inclusion and its findings represent a clarion call to action. Reaching the goals and successfully implementing the strategies outlined here require a shared purpose and mission. Alberta teachers—who work with students every day and are committed to student success—have the will, skills and attitude to make it happen. 

The children deserve no less.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Teacher Leadership

The best schools have both a strong and healthy administration and teaching staff. Weak administration can leave even the most qualified teaching staff anemic -- and a strong administration with a weak teaching staff leaves a school with a lot of talk and no walk.

I often think about how it is a systemic flaw that teachers have to leave the classroom in order to make more money or advance their careers.

In some school districts, being a troublemaker is one of the best ways to become an outcast and get fired, while in other districts it is one of the best ways to make a difference and become influential.

The best schools and school districts understand that the most innovative and inspiring teachers are first labelled as troublemakers until they become popular, then they are called leaders.

What are the best ways a teacher can demonstrate leadership in the classroom?

1. Idealism is not a character flaw. Teacher leaders inspire others to see students and school for what they could be and might be. They find the perfect balance between preparing students for the world the way it is, and preparing students to make the world a better place.

2. Healthy and interesting people make the best teachers. Teacher leaders know that the school year is a marathon not a race. Slow, steady and sustainable effort are what schools and students need -- teachers who burn out before the weekend or the summer don't do anyone any good. It is unsustainable for teachers to take better care of other people's children than their own children or themselves. Teacher leaders balance work, family and play so that their colleagues and their students are inspired to also balance work, family and play.

3. Teachers help teachers. Teacher leaders know that too many teachers quit and that inexperienced teachers are too often preyed upon to do too much too soon. Teacher leaders don't simply close their door and teach, nor do they use the staffroom as a complaint box. Teacher leaders make themselves available for their students and teacher colleagues alike.

4. Reject the blame game. Teacher leaders understand that the blame game is as seductive as it is destructive. Schools that are marinated in cultures of failure are often plagued with blame -- teacher leaders reject this culture by seeing success and failure not as time to reward and punish but as teachable moments.

5. Education is political. Ultimately, great teachers make great schools, but great teachers can’t do it alone – they require the support of an equitable society. Teacher leaders are active participants in our democracy and work inside and outside of their classroom for equity and equality.


Friday, June 5, 2015

MYTH: You can do more with less

This was written by Pasi Sahlberg who is a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? This post first appeared here.

by Pasi Sahlberg

Governments in Alberta and Finland are under economic pressure to reduce public spending as a result of failed national politics and unpredictable global economics. When government budgets get off track, bad news for education systems follow. The recently defeated Finnish government carried out huge cuts in education infrastructure. As a result, small schools were closed, teaching staff lost their jobs and morale among educators declined. Albertans are now facing similar threats.

When the going gets tough in our wealthy societies, the powers-that-be often choose quick fixes. In search of a silver bullet instead of sustained systemic improvement, politicians turn their eyes on teachers, believing that asking them to do more with less can compensate for inconvenient reductions in school resources. With super teachers, some of them say, the quality of education will improve even with lesser budgets. While some might suggest leadership is doing more with less, I would counter that real political leadership is about getting the appropriate resources in place to create a vibrant society.

“Teacher effectiveness” is a commonly used term that refers to how much student performance on standardized tests is determined by the teacher. It plays a visible role in the education policies of nations where there is a wide range of teacher qualifications and therefore uneven teacher quality. Measuring teacher effectiveness has brought different methods of evaluation to the lives of teachers in many countries. The most controversial of them include what is known as value-added models that use data from standardized tests of students as part of the overall measure of the effect that a teacher has on student achievement.

Alberta and Finland are significantly better off than many other countries when it comes to teacher quality and teacher policies. In the United States, for example, there are nearly 2,000 different teacher preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Canada and Finland, only rigorously accredited academic teacher education programs are available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor Finland has fast-track options into teaching (although Teach for Canada is entering the game in Alberta with 40 new recruits in 2015/2016). Teacher quality in successful education systems is a result of careful quality control at the entry stage of teacher education rather than measuring the effectiveness of in-service teachers.

In recent years the “no excuses” argument has been particularly persistent in the education debate. There are those who argue that poverty is only an excuse used to avoid insisting that all schools should reach higher standards. With this argument, the silver bullet is better teachers. In Finland, education policies have concentrated more on school improvement than on teacher effectiveness, indicating that schools are expected to improve by having everyone work together rather than teachers working individually. Lessons from the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) were identical. Effective school development is equally about system-wide social capital and developing strong individual human capital.

THREE Fallacies

When education budgets are questioned or cut, teachers are often asked to do more with less. Some economists have calculated how much students’ achievement could be improved by enhancing the quality of the teaching force. An efficient way to do that, they argue, is to find poorly performing teachers and get rid of them. Then, bringing young, enthusiastic talent into these classrooms will actually lead to the betterment of education at the same time when resources diminish. Within this logic lie three fallacies that, if taken as facts, will be harmful for the teaching profession and thereby for the entire education system.

The first fallacy is to believe that the best way to elevate the teaching profession is to attract the best and the brightest to become teachers. In many countries the teaching profession has suffered from declining social respect, trust and thereby popularity among young people as prospective and admired lifelong career. Education system leaders, such as Arne Duncan in the U.S. and Michael Gove in the U.K., have suggested that recruiting academically smarter people to teach in schools would enhance the quality of teaching and improve academic outcomes in schools.

Those who rely on the idea of “the best and the brightest” often point to Finland and Singapore as examples of education systems that have built their success on that principle. We frequently hear that the best education systems systematically recruit new student teachers from the top 10 per cent of their applicant pool. But a closer look at how students are selected into initial teacher education programs reveals that the truth is not that straightforward.

The University of Helsinki in Finland selects 120 new students from approximately 2,000 applicants each year for its primary school teacher education program. This pool is large enough to actually pick up all 120 students from the best quintile. But that doesn’t happen.

In 2014, as I have shown elsewhere, only one of four students selected into the teacher education program at the University of Helsinki came from the top quintile. Furthermore, one in four students had an academic record that placed her or him in the bottom half of the pool, as measured by their performance in diploma examinations. Clearly it is important that criteria beyond strictly defined academic qualifications must be considered in selecting teacher candidates.

Singapore follows similar academic admission procedures for students who study at the National Institute of Education.

The second fallacy is that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. This statement became known in education policies through the influential McKinsey & Company report entitled How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out On Top. It has since appeared in the 2012 reports of the Programme for International Student Assessment — by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — as well as several policy reports and documents. Although these documents often take a broader view of enhancing the status of teachers through better pay and careful recruitment, this statement implies that the quality of an education system is defined by the quality of its teachers.

Many educators, and certainly experienced teachers and school principals, perceive teaching in school as team play. The role of an individual teacher in a school is like a player on a football team or musician in an orchestra: all teachers are vital, but the culture of the school is even more important for the quality of the school. Team sports and performing arts offer numerous examples of teams that have performed beyond expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit.

Take the U.S. ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when a team of college kids beat both the Soviets and Finland in the final round and won the gold medal. The quality of Team U.S.A certainly exceeded the quality of its players. Or take Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse. Without five-star musicians that always hit all the chords perfectly they have performed better than the quality of each player and created music enjoyed by millions for almost half a century. So can an education system.

The third fallacy is that the most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers. This is the driving principle of former New York City public schools’ chancellor Joel Klein in his new book as well as many other education “reformers” today. If a teacher were the most important single factor in improving quality of education, then the power of a school would indeed be stronger than children’s family background or peer influences in explaining student achievement in school. But we have known since the mid-1960s that that isn’t so.

Research on what explains students’ measured performance in school remains mixed. However, researchers generally agree that up to two-thirds of the variation in student achievement is explainable by individual student characteristics like family background and such variables. The American Statistical Association concluded recently that teachers account for about 1 per cent to 14 per cent of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in system-level conditions. In other words, most of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of teachers or even schools, and therefore arguing that teachers are the most important factor in improving the quality of education is simply wrong.

This doesn’t mean that teachers would not be important or that individual teachers could not turn the course of children in school. Of course they do. But it is often a combination of powerful factors that makes the most positive impact on students. Most scholars agree that effective leadership is among the most important characteristics of good schools, equally important to powerful teaching. Effective leadership includes leader qualities, such as being firm and purposeful, having a shared vision and goals, promoting teamwork and collegiality and frequent personal monitoring and feedback. Several other characteristics of more effective schools include features that are also linked to the culture of the school and leadership: maintaining focus on learning, producing a positive school climate, setting high expectations for all, developing staff skills and involving parents. In other words, school leadership matters as much as teacher quality.

HANDLE WITH CARE

At a time of austerity, education policymakers have to be very careful in changing and also protecting current conditions that influence the teaching profession. It is tempting to suggest that, by enhancing teacher effectiveness, we can maintain current levels of teaching quality in schools. It is also far too convenient to suggest that, on top of all other duties, teachers should contribute more to struggling national economies by creating innovators, active citizens and a skilled labour force to emerging new occupations. In this respect, Alberta and Finland stand before a similar challenge. Searching for super teachers is not the right solution.

Instead, leaders in Alberta and Finland need to be reminded that schools must have appropriate, well-researched policies supported by adequate resources to be part of the campaign to bring our economies back on track. Finnish schools are now redesigning their curricula to match the National Curriculum Framework 2016. All schools must have at least one extended study period for all students, and all the school subjects are merged into integrated, phenomenon-based teaching and learning. Municipalities and schools may choose to have more than one such study period per year, and they may also decide the duration of these periods. This renewal has the potential to become a revolutionary step forward in building the ideal future school in Finland.

Educational reform won’t happen without sustained investments in schools, appropriate support to teachers, and changing some of the current regulations that stand in the way of planned change. Bilateral research partnerships like that between Finland and Alberta (FINAL) can play a pivotal role in making necessary changes possible. As we have learned from FINAL, it is through the internationalization of education research and evidence gathering that we can create the kinds of schools our students deserve.

1 The entire March 2015 issue of Educational Researcher, the journal of the American Educational Research Association, was dedicated to teacher evaluations and value-added models.

2 Sahlberg, P. 2015. “Q: What makes Finland’s teachers so special? A: It’s not brains.” The Guardian, March 31. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/31/finnish-teachers-special-train-teach (accessed on April 24, 2015).

3 McKinsey & Company. 2010. How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top. London: McKinsey & Company.

4 American Statistical Association (ASA). 2014. ASAStatement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment. Alexandra, Va: ASA.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

MYTH: Class size doesn't matter

This was written by J-C Couture who is the Alberta Teachers' Association's associate co-ordinator of research. This post was originally found here.

Jose da Costa
by J-C Couture

Few other public policy questions have been more contested in the past couple of decades than that of class size. While there has been a large body of scholarship internationally on this issue, anyone familiar with the rich legacy of educational research in Alberta will point to the 2001 study Literacy Achievement in Small Grade 1 Classes in High-Poverty Environments, co-ordinated by Fern Snart, then associate dean of the faculty of education at the University of Alberta, and co-researchers Margaret Haughey and José da Costa.

Working with Edmonton Public Schools staff, the research team examined improvements in student learning when classes were limited to 15 students, and participating teachers were supported by professional development activities focused on balanced literacy and/or early literacy.

To acknowledge and draw on this legacy of important study, I interviewed José da Costa, currently a professor of educational administration and leadership at the University of Alberta. While the study was conducted close to 15 years ago, it has stood the test of time and reinforced subsequent national and international studies that clearly demonstrate that class size reductions augmented with supports for high quality teaching do in fact make significant improvements in student learning.

Q. In 2001 you were part of a landmark study on class size in the Alberta context. One of your key findings was that “reduction in class size produced various benefits, many of which have been previously recognized by researchers — less noise, fewer overt discipline issues, more space and hence a greater sense of ­autonomy, and sufficient ­resources. These benefits resulted in better learning, improved student interaction and positive social growth.” Can you tell us more about some of these key findings?

A. Our main finding showed that teachers with smaller class sizes had more time to devote to each child, to support and scaffold their learning more effectively. These characteristics you provide above were critical for teachers to create and focus on learning in their classrooms.

Interestingly, this didn’t just happen automatically as a result of reducing class size, which happened just after the Christmas break in the middle of the school year. It came about in the second year of the project after teachers had engaged in a variety of the professional development experiences, including coming together once a month to discuss their practices and reflect on insights from the research literature. This was facilitated by Fern Snart, Margaret Haughey and me as part of the research project.

In the first year of the project, during the first six months, teachers treated their small classes, which had literally been cut in half — taking classes of 26 to 32 and making them 13 to 16 students in size — as though they still had the larger groups. The teachers didn’t work differently with students in that initial phase. They simply were not familiar with practices for teaching these smaller groups differently from the approaches they had used for years with the large groups.

As with other education policy changes, the reduction in class size came about as a surprise, with most teachers not finding out about the change until the very beginning of January when they arrived at school. Furthermore, new teachers had to be hired to teach the additional classes that had been created. They had days to plan how they were going to teach their classes over the following six months. The teaching staff had almost no direct experience teaching groups of 13 to 16. Teachers felt they had to turn on a dime and reconsider familiar practices that worked in large classes but were not optimal for addressing the needs of all students.

In the second year of the project, however, teachers talked about changing their instructional practices as well as re-imagining learning experiences for the smaller groups of students they were teaching. They spoke of having far more time to devote to each learner to address questions and to provide formative feedback to support their learning. Many teachers shared stories of being able to identify students who performed adequately, but not to the best of their abilities. These students they then supported much more actively to “push” them to the extent of their abilities.

The teachers talked about, in very real terms, what we now commonly refer to as differentiated instruction. Without the significant reductions in class size, teachers were not able to meaningfully develop and support individual program plans. I recall one teacher who realized, with the switch to the substantially smaller class, that one student who appeared to be progressing with the class was in fact falling behind but was skilfully masking this by asking her classmates for help and borrowing other students’ work. This sort of falling through the cracks happens when we expect teachers to work with large numbers of students with complex learning needs.

Q. Your team’s study made an important contribution to the public policy discussion back then. Since that time there has been a lot more research and of course much more controversy and contestation. Looking back on the past decade, how if at all has your thinking changed on the class size issue?

A. I think where we saw the greatest shift as a result of our work and the work of many other researchers looking at the class size issue was in the recognition of the importance of smaller class sizes in the critical formative years in lower elementary school. This seems to be the time during which students develop their efficacy as learners. Even today, the per-student grant for students in the lower elementary grades is still considerably higher than the grants for upper elementary and junior high school. (High school is funded on a credit equivalent unit model that actually encourages large class sizes.)

If we’re serious about having students learn curriculum in ways that are meaningful to them and in ways that positively impact their communities, we can’t just herd them through a factory funding and mass-production model, allowing them to sort themselves. Every child who we fail to support to reach his or her maximum ability is a loss for our local communities and society as a whole. What is the loss to society when, because of excessive numbers in a classroom, a student gains only the knowledge required to get a good grade but fails to gain mastery that would allow deeper understanding of a subject at advanced levels of learning?

What have we gained as a society in the long term by saving education dollars by putting 35 students in a class when the child who had the aptitude and ability to be successful doesn’t learn in elementary and junior high school the nuances necessary for this success? If the government wants to increase class size because of its own fiscal priorities, then it must be clear with the public about the consequences — that scarce resources must be allocated and troublesome choices will be made that are not in the best interests of students.

Q. As you know, many pundits and policy-makers, citing international studies including those emanating from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, claim that the Alberta government should focus on quality teaching instead of class size reductions. Do you see merit in these claims?

A. The balance between quality of education and the number of learners in a classroom being taught by each teacher is one that seems to come up whenever governments are looking for a place to reduce expenditures. The education system we currently see in our publicly funded schools is the product of the Industrial Revolution, when an efficient mass production approach to education was put into place. The system then was meant to enable students to gain a sufficient but rudimentary understanding of reading, writing and arithmetic so they could be productive factory employees. These rudimentary skills are a far cry from our expectations of learners today.

Today’s classrooms cannot simply be places in which teachers, as talking heads, deliver their lessons and then have students regurgitate what they heard on meaningless worksheets. Today’s classrooms must be focused on individualizing instruction to facilitate meaningful learning, starting with what the learner knows and understands and what is meaningful — it’s about creating learner-centred experiences rather than teacher-centred experiences.

We also need to recognize the great diversity of our learners. These include abilities such as intellectual capacity and cultural and linguistic diversity. The diverse learning needs in our classrooms are accentuated by mainstreaming initiatives that have seen the desegregation of students with learning disabilities. This is a move in the right direction for learners, but this shift does place additional demands on classroom teachers to meet the learning needs of an even more diverse group of learners than ever before.

Of course quality teaching is critical. However, increasing class size beyond what the literature suggests as optimal — somewhere between 12 and 17 for the lower elementary grades and about 20 to 25 in upper grades — simply results in teacher time being spread more thinly across the increased number of learners. This simply results in a system in which students are seen to be learning as long as they meet whatever external benchmarks have been established. This takes away the focus from enabling students to learn and achieve to the best of their ability.

For example, the student who consistently achieves the standard of excellence on external tests but isn’t actually pushing herself to do so is achieving below her capability. Teachers don’t have the time, in large classrooms, to push that student to reach her individual capacity. If we fail to do this, we fail the student and our province’s future.

Q. As a researcher, you have seen decades of debate on class size in this province. How might we engage education partners and the public at large in a meaningful discussion around the class size issue?

A. This is a very difficult question. I think it is more a political question than a research one, although research can obviously inform the discussion.

Parents who see their children in classes with large numbers of other students with diverse learning needs are often the ones who notice their children aren’t getting pushed to the limits of their ability. Those parents who have the social capital and financial ability often enrich their children’s learning by providing them with enrichment activities outside of school.

Members of the general public who don’t have direct connections to contemporary schools are less likely to be sympathetic to the learning needs of students in large classes, or of students in smaller classes that have unprecedented numbers of children with a variety of individualized learning needs.

We can only understand schools from the point of view of our experiences with schools. People who are not directly connected to K–12 schools typically view the education system based on their own experiences as a learner in that system, even if that dates back four, five, six or more decades. While schools and education have changed drastically, even in the last couple of decades, our experiences are always grounded in what we know and what we think is still true. I believe the issue is, how do we challenge those preconceptions to the point where people understand that today’s classrooms are not what they experienced decades ago?

I think it would be useful for the profession to raise public awareness of what teaching and learning are about in 2015 and what we anticipate these being in the next decade or two. I don’t mean conducting surveys in which teachers tell everyone how busy they are. The public doesn’t want to hear that and, frankly, it just comes across as whining.

I think the public needs to see what educators are working toward in our publicly funded schools and what that looks like. We need to capitalize on the power of story. The public needs to see, not just hear, that how and what our children are learning in K–12 enables them to contribute meaningfully to society and will have a direct benefit for individual taxpayers. Let’s keep in mind that these are the people who support governments and who governments listen to.

That child who isn’t able to become an outstanding tradesperson, cancer researcher, engineer or teacher because we simply allowed her or him to “be good enough” is a loss to us all.

This kind of awareness campaign would serve the purpose of educating the public as to what contemporary classrooms are like and how increasing class size can only have a detrimental effect on the quality of learning experienced in our classrooms, which bears directly on the quality of life for members of society as they age. Once this groundwork has been laid, then I think we will be able to engage in meaningful dialogue and debate about how best to achieve the goals of education.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

MYTH: Blended Learning is the Next Ed Tech Revolution - Hype, Harm and Hope

This was written by Dr. Phil McRae who is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers` Association and adjunct professor within the faculty of education at the University of Alberta. Dr. Phil McRae’s Biography, Research, Writing, Scholarship and Presentations can be found at www.philmcrae.com, and you can follow him on Twitter here. This post first appeared here.

by Dr. Phil McRae

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic." 
~ John F. Kennedy

Blended learning, where students’ face-to-face education is blended with Internet resources or online courses, has been gaining considerable attention in education reform circles. It has become entangled with the ambiguous notion of personalized learning and is being positioned as the new way to individualize learning in competency-based education systems.

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and a key proponent of blended learning, claims that it is the “new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost” (Horn and Staker 2011, 13).

To what extent is this a new model of learning in a digital age? How are private corporations employing old rhetoric to advance new avenues into public education? Most importantly, is blended learning becoming yet another overhyped myth on the crowded road of technology-as-education-reform panacea?

ORIGINS OF A MYTH

Students blending the use of technology with face-to-face instruction as a means of collaborating and extending their learning experiences is not unusual, revolutionary or foreign to the average Canadian classroom. As a concept, blended learning is now almost two decades old, having been imported into K–12 education in the late 1990s from corporate education, business training firms and the post-secondary education sector. Although the precise origin is unclear, it has been suggested that an Atlanta-based computer training business coined the term in 1999 (Friesen 2012), as it announced the release of a new generation of online courses for adults that were to be blended with live instruction.

Many blended learning practices already fit well with a vast array of hybrid face-to-face and digital experiences that students encounter in K–12 schools, including distributed learning, distance learning, or e-learning. Dr. Norm Friesen, a key academic in this area, suggests that blended learning “designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical co-presence of teacher and students” (Friesen 2012). As this broad definition illustrates, it would be difficult to find any use of technology in education that does not easily fit into this boundary.

Despite this fluidity of meaning, different models of blended learning have taken shape. In particular, Staker and Horn (2012) have attempted to classify blended learning environments into four models: rotation, flex, self-blend and enriched virtual. These four combinations range from those that are more connected to people and brick-and-mortar buildings (rotation, flex) to contexts in which the students are primarily self-directed through online courses or platforms that “deliver” the curriculum (self-blend and enriched virtual). In the more self-directed models, teachers or non-certificated facilitators are conditional and only scheduled for support as deemed necessary.

Although many models have been implemented over the last 20 years, there is scant evidence of the success of blended learning. Out of 46 robust research studies conducted between 1996 and 2008, only five have focused on results for students in K–12 settings (Murphy et al. 2014). As a recent article in Education Week illustrates, when looking for strong evidence of success around this strategy for K–12 students, very little “definitive evidence” or few significant results can be directly attributed to blended learning (Sparks 2015).

HYPE

The current hype around blended learning models, especially in the United States, is that they bring to life personalized learning for each and every child. Personalized learning, as promoted under a new canopy of blended learning, is neither a pedagogic theory nor a coherent set of learning approaches, regardless of the proposed models. In fact, personalized learning is an idea struggling for an identity (McRae 2014, 2010). A description of personalization that’s tightly linked to technology-mediated individualization “anywhere, anytime” is premised on archaic ideas of teaching machines imagined early in the 20th century (McRae 2013).

Some blended learning rhetoric suggests that personalization is to be achieved through individualized self-paced computer programs (known as adaptive learning systems), combined with small-group instruction for students who have the most pressing academic needs. For those looking to specifically advance blended learning in times of severe economic constraints, a certificated teacher is optional.

Software companies selling their adaptive learning products boldly state that the “best personalized learning programs will give students millions of potential pathways to follow through curricula and end up with the desired result — true comprehension” (Green 2013). This is part of the myth of blended learning and is marketed using superficial math and reading software programs (adaptive learning systems) that make dubious claims of driving up scores on high-stakes tests. Corporate attempts to “standardize personalization” in this way are both ironic and absurd.

These adaptive learning systems (the new teaching machines) do not build more resilient, creative, entrepreneurial or empathetic citizens through their individualized, standardized, linear and mechanical software algorithms. On the contrary, they diminish the many opportunities for human relationships to flourish, which is a hallmark of high-quality learning environments.

One of the blended learning examples that has received perhaps the greatest attention is the “flipped classroom.” It is so named because it inverts classroom instruction during the day, so that students watch online video of lectures at home at their own pace, perhaps communicating with peers and teachers via online discussions in the evening, and spend their days doing homework in the classroom. Think of the popular media hype and mythical cure for math challenges sold to the public by the Khan Academy. There is nothing revolutionary or deeply engaging about pure lecture as a pedagogy, yet apparently adding hours of digitally distributed video each evening to a child’s life makes it so. In fact, research suggests that the use of this type of lecture recorded technology, as a primary approach to learning, can result in students falling behind in the curriculum (Gosper et al. 2008).

Many myths, when viewed up close, provide deep reflections of ourselves and society. Technologies in particular have amplified our North American desires for choice, flexibility and individualization, so it’s easy to be seduced by a vision of blended learning environments delivering only what we want, when and how we want it customized.

The marketing mantra from corporations as diverse as media conglomerates to banks is that of services at any time, in any place or at any pace. Many governments have in turn adopted this in an eagerness to reduce costs with businesslike customization and streamlined workforce productivity, all with the expectation that a flexible and blended education system will be more efficient and (cost) effective.

In the mythical space of blended learning, class sizes apparently no longer matter and new staffing patterns begin to emerge. The amount of time students spend in schools becomes irrelevant as brick-and-mortar structures fade away. However, this myth disregards the overwhelming parental desire and societal expectation that children and youth will gather together to learn in highly relational settings with knowledgeable and mindful professionals (teachers) who understand both the art and science of learning. As John F. Kennedy (1962) so eloquently stated: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

The U.S. Department of Education (2013) has clearly articulated a commitment to making blended learning come to life through nebulous ideas of competency-based systems and personalized learning.

“Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money … make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently … Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity.”

The cost efficiency and effectiveness rhetoric must be given special attention as part of the myth of blended learning in competency based systems.

HARM

Schools and classrooms across North America are being subjected to economic volatility and severe constraints by reduced public education funding. Blended learning can be positioned as the vehicle to bring in third-party education providers to wipe out the expectations of small class sizes and certificated teachers in traditional classrooms. This idea is gaining momentum through a variety of U.S. virtual and charter schools that are radically reducing the numbers of teachers and executing increased class sizes under the banner of blended learning. As Michael Horn states when asked to give expert advice on blended learning models, “budget cuts and teacher shortages are an opportunity, not a threat” (Horn et al. 2014).

As school jurisdictions across the U.S. turn to online learning and blended models as a way to reallocate resources, the private providers are also advocating for “eradicating rules that restrict class size and student-teacher ratios” (Horn and Staker 2011, 13). To achieve this means lifting the rules around teacher certification so that schools can replace teachers at will with para-professionals or noncertificated individual learning specialists. As Christensen and Horn (2008) suggest, “Computer-based learning on a large scale is also less expensive than the current labor intensive system and could solve the financial dilemmas facing public schools” (13).

To enable this in an education system, several policies must be enshrined by governments that would allow private schools, virtual cyber-charter schools or educational technology companies direct access to students outside of a protected public system. The first is to open up multiple pathways of learning, which are more flexible in terms of time and space, and designed around technology solutions that only the company can deliver.

The Software & Information Industry Association, the principal trade association for the software and digital content industries in America, is a clear backer of redefining and expanding the role of the teacher, and advocates that “teacher contracts and other regulatory constraints may also need to be addressed to provide the flexibility in a teacher’s role needed to make this dramatic shift in instruction” (Wolf 2010, 15).

On the surface, this flexibility sounds promising, as teachers and school leaders certainly recognize that the industrial model of command and control does not fit with our hyper-connected world. Yet the flexibility of any-time, any-place learning is manifesting itself in the U.S. around adaptive learning software programs or mandatory online learning courses that are being delivered by private companies. New course access legislation (as found in Wisconsin, Texas, Utah, Florida, Michigan and Minnesota) now allows anyone to teach online courses to students regardless of jurisdiction, certification or geographic location (Dwinal 2015). In other words, every course, for every student, anywhere, anytime — and now — taught by anyone. Half the teachers, but sold as twice the fun?

In the case of K12 Inc., the United States’ largest private for-profit provider of online education for grades K–12, student-teacher ratios are as high as one teacher to 275 students (Aaronson and O’Connor 2012). As the president and CEO at McGraw-Hill Education affirms: “With this new method and capability, all of a sudden you could see a teacher handling many more students ... the productivity could double or triple” (Olster 2013).

The harsh reality, however, is that private online schooling is not about new blended learning models, flexibility or choice, it is about profit through the constant cycle of enrolment and withdrawal of students known as the “churn rate” (Gibson and Clements 2013). In contrast, our current publically funded and publically delivered online schools across Alberta reinforce the important role of certificated teachers as compassionate and empathetic architects of learning who work relentlessly to reduce the drop-out rates and increase student engagement in virtual learning environments.

Rocketship Education, one of the many rapidly growing charter schools out of the U.S., has adopted a rotation model of blended learning known as the Rocketship Hybrid School Model for kindergarten to Grade 5 students. It combines online learning on campus with traditional classroom-based activities in order to save $500,000 per charter school per year in teacher salary costs (Danner 2010).

To accomplish this, Rocketship Education has cut half its teachers, changed its scope of practice and hired low-paid adults to supervise and monitor students in computer labs. The new staffing patterns within this rotation blended learning model place the schools in a one to 100-plus student/teacher ratio, with one or two low-wage computer lab monitors. These support personnel are endowed with titles like “individual learning specialists,” “coaches” or “facilitators” (Public Broadcasting Service 2012).

Without certificated teachers present, there is a need to gather data on student performance, so the children spend a great deal of time in a computer lab with an adaptive learning program monitoring their every interaction. John Danner, former CEO of Rocketship Charter Schools and a board member of DreamBox Learning Inc., promotes increased screen time during the day for children. He thinks that as the quality of software improves, “‘Rocketeers’ could spend as much as 50 per cent of the school day with computers” (Strauss 2013). How many hours of development, in the minds and bodies of children and youth, are we willing to sacrifice for more individualized computer-human interactions under the guise of blended learning?

If blended learning through the rotation model is to be defined by reducing the number of certificated teachers in schools and placing students in computer labs to spend half of their day in front of math and reading software programs, then education in the 21st century is indeed heading down an antiquated and very dangerous path. This is not historically the way blended learning has come alive in Alberta classrooms, nor should it be our preferred future.

HOPE

The growth of digital media and the Internet has led to an explosion of resources and opportunities for teachers, students and learning communities. A constant shift is occurring with different mobile apps, blogs, video podcasts, social media tools, e-learning courses, or learning management systems in schools that all promise to help teachers create and organize student work, provide (real-time) feedback or communicate more efficiently.

With the proliferation of digital tools in our lives, many K–12 students now experience learning through a blend of face-to-face and digital or online media and are able to access new ideas and resources where student attitudes and engagement towards their education can be positively supported. If blended learning is to lead to positive outcomes for students, then it must be highly relational, active and inquiry oriented (both online and offline), and commit to empowering students with digital tools.

If done right, blended learning can be used to support more equitable access to learning resources and discipline-specific expertise. It may also engage students (and teachers) in a variety of online and offline learning activities that differentiate instruction and bring greater diversity to the learning context. Improving communication between teachers, students and parents and extending relationships across boundaries and time may also be an outcome of blended learning. It may also hold value by employing certain technologies that help teachers and students to formatively assess learning.

To make this truly hopeful, school-based technology infrastructure must be robust and up-to-date, with equitable access, and the necessary resources (human and technology) must be made available to pedagogically support the blending. It is not tenable if Internet connectivity is unreliable or limited, or if there exists inequitable access to bandwidth or technology infrastructure in the school and home. Finally, if technical glitches are pervasive, or if dependable technical support is not available for students and teachers, then it is unlikely that blended learning will be a sustainable concept.

CONCLUSION

Blended learning is not a new term nor a revolutionary concept for classrooms in this second decade of the 21st century. However, the way it is being (re)interpreted could be hopeful or harmful depending on how it is implemented. It is an increasingly ambiguous and vague notion that is growing in popularity as many groups try to claim the space and establish the models, despite a lack of evidence and research. We should therefore be skeptical around the mythos of blended learning before endorsing or lauding it as the next great reform.

Blended learning has occupied a place in discourses of educational change for well over a decade, but it cannot be co-opted into a movement that displaces the human dimension of learning with an economic imperative to reduce labour costs by cutting the teaching population in half. Of particular concern in times of severe economic restraint is that high schools may become the testing ground for policymakers looking at ways to redesign by cutting certificated teachers in favour of massive online cohorts of students tutored by “facilitators” or “individual learning specialists.”

Technologies should be employed to help students become empowered citizens rather than passive consumers. Innovations are needed in education that will help to create a society where people can flourish within culturally rich, informed, democratic, digitally connected and diverse communities. We should not descend into a culture of individualism through technology where our students are fragmented by continuous partial attention.

For the vast majority of students within Alberta’s K–12 public education system, we must achieve a more nuanced balance that combines both digital technologies and the physical presence of a caring, knowledgeable and pedagogically thoughtful teacher. This is not an optional “nice to have,” but a “must have” if children and youth are to build resilience for the future. Blended learning may be (re)shaped by privatization myths, with adaptive learning systems as their voice, but in Alberta, our teachers still remain the quintessence of the human enterprise of paying it forward for our next generation. It is time for Alberta teachers to claim the space of blended learning and push back at the myths and questionable rhetoric.

Citation:
McRae, P. (2015). Myth: Blended learning is the next ed-tech revolution – hype, harm and hope. Alberta Teachers' Association Magazine 4 (95). Edmonton, AB: Barnett House Press p. 19-27.


REFERENCES

Aaronson , T., and J. O'Connor. 2012. “In K12 courses, 275 students to a single teacher.” Miami Herald, September 16. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/09/16/3005122/in-k12-courses-275-students-to.html.

Christensen, C. M., and M.B. Horn. 2008. “How Do We Transform Our Schools?”Education Next 8, no. 3 (Summer), 13–19.

Danner, J. 2010. “Rocketship Hybrid School Model — Half The Teachers and Twice the Pay.” Donnell-Kay Foundation website. http://dkfoundation.org/news/rocketship-hybrid-school-model-half-teachers-and-twice-pay (accessed May 4, 2015).

Dwinal, M. 2015. “Solving the Nation's Teacher Shortage: How online leanrning can fix the broken teacher labor market.” Clayton Christensen Institute website. http://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Solving-the-nations-teacher-shortage.pdf (accessed May 4, 2015).

Friesen, N. 2012. “Defining Blended Learning.” Learning Spaces, August. http://learningspaces.org/papers/Defining_Blended_Learning_NF.pdf (accessed May 4, 2015).

Gibson, D., and J. Clements. 2013. Delivery Matters: Cyber Charter Schools and K–12 Education in Alberta. Edmonton, AB: Parkland Institute.

Gosper, M., D. Green, M. McNeill, R. Phillips, G. Preston and K. Woo. 2008. Final Report: The Impact of Web-Based Lecture Technologies on Current and Future Practices in Learning and Teaching. Sydney: Macquarie University.

Green, N. 2013. “What to look for in a personalized learning plan.” DreamBox Learning website. http://www.dreambox.com/blog/personalized-learning-plan#sthash.ubJ00yA3.dpuf (accessed May 5, 2015).

Horn, M. B., and H. Staker. 2011. “The Rise of K–12 Blended Learning.” Clayton Christensen Institute website. http://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-rise-of-K-12-blended-learning.pdf (accessed May 5, 2015).

Horn, M. B., C. Christensen and C.W. Johnson. 2010. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Horn, M. B., T. Hudson and J. Everly. 2014. “Blended Learning in K8 Schools: Expert Advice from Michael Horn.” DreamBox Learning website: http://www.dreambox.com/webinar/blended-learning-k8-schools-expert-advice-michael-horn (accessed May 5, 2015).

Kennedy, J. F. 1962. “Yale University Commencement Address.” Transcript of speech given at Yale University, New Haven, CT, June 11, 1962. Miller Center, University of Virginia website. http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/speech-3370 (accessed May 5, 2015).

McRae, P. A. 2010. “The Politics of Personalization in the 21st Century.” Alberta Teachers' Association Magazine 91, no. 1: 8–11.

McRae, P. A. 2013. “Rebirth of the Teaching Machine through the Seduction of Data Analytics.” Alberta Teachers' Association Magazine 93, no. 4. Also available at http://philmcrae.com/2/post/2013/04/rebirth-of-the-teaching-maching-through-the-seduction-of-data-analytics-this-time-its-personal1.html (accessed May 5, 2015).

McRae, P. A. 2014. “[Debate] Challenging the Promise of Personalized Learning — WISE 2014.” World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwI4oC_A0IM (accessed May 5, 2015).

Murphy, R., E. Snow, J. Mislevy, L. Gallagher, A. Krumm and X. Wei. 2014. Blended Learning Report. Austin, TX: Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Olster, S. 2013. “Better Technology and More Productive Teachers are Just Around the Corner.” Fortune website. http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2013/01/10/the-future-of-the-classroom (accessed May 5, 2015).

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). 2012. “Can 'Rocketship' Launch a Fleet of Successful, Mass-Produced Schools?” PBS Newshour, December 28. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education-july-dec12-rocket_12-28/ (accessed May 5, 2015).

Sparks, S. D. 2015. “Blended Learning Research Yields Limited Results.” Education Week, April 13. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/04/15/blended-learning-research-yields-limited-results.html (accessed May 5, 2015).

Staker, H., and M.B. Horn. 2012. “Classifying K-12 Blended Learning.” Clayton Christensen Institute website. http://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Classifying-K-12-blended-learning.pdf (accessed May 5, 2015).

Strauss, V. 2013. “Rocketship Charter Schools Revamping Signature ‘Learning Lab’.”The Answer Sheet blog, Washington Post, January 25. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/25/rocketship-charter-schools-revamping-signature-learning-lab (accessed May 5, 2025).

U.S. Department of Education. 2013. “Competency-Based Learning or Personalized Learning.” U.S. Department of Education website. http://www.ed.gov/oii-news/competency-based-learning-or-personalized-learning (accessed May 5, 2015).

Wolf, M. A. 2010. Innovate to Educate: System [Re]design for Personalized Learning, A Report from the 2010 Symposium. Software & Information Industry Association. http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/CSD6181.pdf (accessed May 5, 2015).
There was an error in this gadget

Follow by Email