An Ohio school district has spent the last year and a half rethinking what learning looks like. And after trying different instructional strategies and tools, even kindergartners say they don't want to go back to the way school was before.
Leaders at Mentor Public Schools did their homework on instructional methods that could help students become better learners, and they found one method that studies consistently show as effective: small group instruction, said Jeremy Shorr, district director of educational technology and curricular innovation as well as a National School Board Association (NSBA) 20 to Watch and Ohio innovative leader honoree.
Equipped with digital content and different instructional strategies, students could spend all day learning productively. And that's what Shorr and Ridge Middle School Principal Megan Kinsey pitched to their superintendent.
"When you see that enthusiasm, how do you not say, 'OK, let's try this,'" Superintendent Matthew Miller said.
And Mentor Public Schools did try it with students from kindergarten up to seventh grade. After a three-month pilot of blended learning, the district decided to start scaling instructional strategies slowly so that education leaders could support teachers through the transition.
Phase 1 of the initiative began in the 2013-14 school year with 160 seventh-grade students and tablets for each of them. Meanwhile, kindergarten and second- through fifth-grade classes got a taste of blended learning in a state-of-the-art classroom called Catalyst at Ridge Middle School. Next year, phase 2 will include nearly 1,000 students, covering sixth- through eighth-grade at Ridge Middle School and eighth grade at the district's other two middle schools.
With blended learning, students have more control over how fast they learn, when they learn and what direction they go. Because part of the learning is online, they can independently complete activities while teachers work with small groups.
But their faces aren't buried in devices. That's something the district team saw in site visits to other schools and wanted to avoid, Shorr said. It's not necessarily appropriate for students developmentally depending on the grade and what they're learning.
In Mentor Public Schools, leaders encouraged teachers to match the tools they had in their arsenal with what they were trying to teach. In some cases, an interactive whiteboard works better, or pen and paper. In kindergarten, students spend about an hour and a half each day learning with tablets.
While kindergarten teacher Tracey Dunn knew her students at Hopkins Elementary School could work independently, she has been surprised this year at how much they can get done as they rotate between different stations in her classroom.
"My students were more engaged and excited because they played a bigger role," Dunn said.
These kindergartners were nervous about going to a new blended environment with Dunn at Ridge Middle School for the second quarter of school. But they adapted to frequent schedule changes, learned how to think quickly on their feet and switched directions easily.
In the Catalyst classroom, they had flexible chairs that roll around the room, Plexiglas on the walls to write on and tablets to use. Even with spending 25 minutes on the bus four days a week to travel between schools, students outperformed Dunn's previous classes and did remarkably well at the district level, Shorr said.
At the end of the quarter when kindergartners presented their capstone project, education leaders asked them whether they were excited to go back to Hopkins full time for the next quarter.
"Just about every one of those students said, 'No, I don't want to go back to school,'" Shorr recalled.
This answer indicates that they were having so much fun learning in the Catalyst classroom that they didn't realize they were in school. And it also exposed a problem with the structure of the U.S. education system: "By the second quarter of kindergarten, we've already ruined school for them," Shorr said. But these different instructional strategies can help solve this nationwide problem.
After Dunn's kindergartners came back to Hopkins for the rest of the school year, her classroom got a makeover so that students could continue learning like they had at Catalyst, which includes an observation room and earned an Ohio Trendsetter Award at the Ohio Educational Technology Conference in January. Dunn earned an Ohio teacher innovator award for her blended learning efforts on top of becoming an NSBA 20 to Watch honoree.
Blended middle school
The association also awarded the district for its blended learning implementation in seventh-grade at Ridge Middle School. As a result of changing instructional strategies and the physical classroom environment, seventh-graders became more engaged and appreciated having more of a say in how they learn, said Kinsey.
One instructional strategy that teachers introduced was Genius Hour, which gives students an hour on different days to work on a project that they come up with. Some students blogged about video gaming and others raised awareness of cancer in their projects. As a result of Genius Hour, students began to see school as a place where they could pursue something that they enjoyed, not just what their teacher wanted them to do.
But like anything, transitions are tough, and both students and teachers had some adjustments to work through. Teachers are afraid to fail and not do things perfectly the first time, so in grade level meetings, Kinsey emphasized that failing is fine. When something didn't work as planned, she encouraged teachers to rethink how they did things and try to improve them.
Initially, the seventh-grade team failed at trying to do everything all at once. It had students use the tablets and apps constantly, and after five weeks, felt defeated at the grade level meeting. The team members assumed that students could magically use the devices for learning and content creation, and they couldn't. They had to learn how to use them for learning.
Students also had to adjust to having more ownership and choice over their learning. Instead of asking the teacher questions during small group instruction, they had to ask three of their peers first and try to find the answer online. This procedure initially offended some students, but they eventually accepted it, and it helped them work on problem-solving skills.
Instead of feeling defeated at their grade level meetings and professional learning communities, teachers are excited and have more powerful conversations than they've had before. While they used to complain about students who didn't turn in homework, now they use the gatherings to help each other grow professionally.
Kinsey said, "Once you have a group of empowered, motivated teachers, it's like, 'Watch out world, here we come!'"