I like to compare the teacher’s work designing learning experiences to the work of an architect. In my new book with Dr. Katie Novak, UDL and Blended Learning, I share a story about working with an architect to design a new home after my family lost our house in the Tubbs Fire in 2017. Over a series of three meetings, my architect asked me countless questions about what I wanted in a home and how I used the space. He wanted to understand me to ensure that the home he sketched would fit my needs, preference, and lifestyle. In much the same way, teachers must get to know their students. How do they enjoy engaging with information? Do they work better on their own, with a partner, or in a group? What are they interested in or passionate about? Do they work best in particular environments? What avenues might work best for them to share their learning?
Below are three aspects of our design work that I encourage teachers to consider as they architect learning experiences for their students.
#1 Get To Know Your Students
The first step in our design work must be an effort to get to know our diverse learners. Without this crucial step, teachers fall into the practice of designing a single experience for all students. However, a one-size-fits-all approach to design does not provide equitable learning experiences. In an educational context, equity understands that different learners will need different inputs to reach a particular output. Some students will need more time, resources, and support to reach a particular learning objective successfully. Providing the varied inputs that learners need to thrive in a classroom demands that teachers have more than a single model for designing their learning experiences.
- How will you get to know your individual students at the beginning of the school year?
- How can you make time for conversations with individual learners?
- How might you lean on digital tools (e.g., surveys, video recordings) to aid your understanding of your students?
#2 Establish Clear Objectives and Firm Goals & Select the Best Instructional Model
Teachers must believe all students are capable of meeting high expectations. However, different students will need different inputs and learning paths to get to a particular outcome or goal. It is that flexibility that demands our teachers have an arsenal of instructional models and strategies to choose from when designing learning experiences. Too often, teachers rely exclusively on the teacher-led, whole group model because that is what they were taught in teacher training programs. It’s still common to walk into classrooms with an agenda written on the board and the teacher positioned at the front of the room. In a teacher-led, teacher-paced lesson, students have little control and few opportunities to make key decisions about their learning experience.
I want teachers to explore the range of blended learning models available to select the best model for a particular outcome. The beauty of blended learning models is they shift control over the learning experience from teacher to student. This is a critical shift if we want to cultivate expert learners who are resourceful, strategic, and motivated. The qualities of an expert learner are impossible to cultivate when students are not asked to share the responsibility for learning in meaningful ways. If the focus is on compliance and following directions, learners do not have opportunities to become resourceful or strategic. Over time, the lack of autonomy and agency also negatively impacts a learner’s motivation.
As teachers use the range of blended learning models to combine active, engaged learning online and offline, they are freed from feeling pressure to spend large chunks of a lesson at the front of the room controlling the experience. Instead, these models create the time and space for teachers to work directly with individual or small groups of students. It is in these one-on-one and small group settings when we can be most effective at understanding where learners are and meeting their specific needs.
- Do you consistently anchor your design in grade level standards and articulate clear learning objectives?
- How much control do students in your class typically have in your lessons? Do they get to make meaningful choices?
- Which instructional models have you used with your learners? How much experience have you had experimenting with blended learning models?
- What concerns do you have about designing learning experiences that shift students to the center of learning? What explicit skill building might need to happen to help learners be more successful as we shift the responsibility for learning to them?
#3 Identify and Remove Barriers
When I lead training sessions on blended learning models, I sometimes experience pushback from teachers concerned with the time it will take to make a video or design a station rotation. Yet, when we think about many of the instructional strategies we have used for years (e.g., lecture, discussion, written responses), there are myriad barriers that may make it hard for students to access information and share their learning effectively.
Last week at the end of a flipped classroom workshop, a teacher said, “Why would I spend time to make a video when I can present this information to the class?” I turned the question to the group and asked them to work with a partner to brainstorm all the barriers that might make it hard for all students to access information presented. Teachers identified the following factors that might create barriers: audio processing disorders, poor vision, attention deficit, distractions and day dreams, headache or illness, language proficiency, etc. So, if all those factors could be at play in a classroom, it makes sense to question whether a live lecture or whole group mini-lesson would be the best strategy for ensuring that all students can access the information we are presenting.
Taking time to identify barriers in our design work is critical.
- What might make it hard for a student to process information presented verbally in a lecture or mini-lesson?
- How might a whole group, real-time discussion make it challenging for some students to participate?
- How might asking students to demonstrate their understanding in a written response distort our understanding of what they actually know or understand?
Once we have identified potential barriers, we can focus on providing meaningful choices and providing scaffolds in the lesson to remove those barriers.
The architect I worked with to rebuild my home created a blueprint. He designed a detailed plan customized to my needs, but he did not build my home. Instead, it was a team of contractors and subcontractors who did the laborious work of building the structure. Similarly, I want teachers to design learning experiences that invite the students to do the hard work of making meaning and constructing knowledge. Too often, the teacher does the heavy cognitive lifting in the lesson when it should the students doing it. The more intentional our design work, the more likely we are to create learning experiences that allow all students to be successful and encourage them to think, do, make, discuss, and reflect, which are critical to deep and meaningful learning.
Additional Learning Opportunities
If you want to do a deep dive into universally designing blended learning to remove barriers and create flexible pathways, you can order your copy of UDL and Blended Learning: Thriving in Flexible Learning Landscapes from Amazon or request a bulk order for a team of teachers (10+) who want to do a book study! Each chapter ends with reflection and discussion questions to guide those book study conversations.
Dr. Katie Novak and I have also completed a self-paced online course to support teachers as they gear up for back to school! If you are a school leader interested in exploring a book and course pairing for your teachers, you can submit this form to get a quote for bulk course licenses and a discounted price on our book.
Want to explore blended learning in an online course? I have two courses–1) beginning and 2) advancing– so you can choose the self-paced course that is the best fit for you! Both courses include video tutorials, templates, resources, and action items to help teachers explore blended learning models and design student-centered learning experiences that combine active, engaged learning online and offline. Teachers who purchase a license for either course will have unlimited and ongoing access to it, so you can continue learning all year long! Leaders looking to purchase bulk licenses to support teachers can complete this form!