Middle Grade Math Blends: 10 Lessons Learned

We’ve been studying middle grade math blends and with the help of guest authors and partners we’ve observed 10 lessons.
1. School-wide. Blended classrooms can be beneficial, but blended learning is a team sport and requires a common vision for personalized learning. The KIPP Foundation suggests that school leaders need to facilitate:

  • Instructional design: commoninstructional priorities, academic goals, and teaching competencies; and
  • School model design: schedule and physical space; staffing and performance management; operations, finance and development; and blended learning models.

Both lab and station rotation models without connection to school-wide Instructional Design and School Model Design are possible but have special requirements of freelancing teachers.
2. Data. Teachers benefit most from synthesized, actionable data that identify groups of students and areas for remediation. But students benefit from data too. In fact frequent feedback is necessary for students to take charge of their learning. “Teacher data is important,” say Alex Hernandez of the Charter School Growth Fund, “but, if we really want student’s to take charge of their learning, we can’t forget about the data going to to students. Student-centered schools value direct feedback to kids, and lots of it.”
3. Alignment. Key to a sound blended learning instructional design is component alignment (e.g., alignment of core and supplemental instructional materials). The introduction of powerful adaptive tools can be very beneficial but it can make the math program feel disjointed to a student.
A unified blended learning program like the one used by Summit Public Schools or Michigan’s EAA (usually called an individual rotation) creates coherent pathways for individual students.
Aligned programs seek to calibrate difficulty–between frustration and boredom–with what Tim Hudson, Dreambox Learning calls “appropriate scaffolding—strategic social interactions, learning experiences, and instruction based on a student’s past performance, intuition, and current thinking—that guide effective learning and development.”
With components including a mixture of teacher-led and adaptive instruction are used, data can help align instructional elements. Encinitas teachers often use ST Math game on an interactive whiteboard to start a conversation about math applications and to boost math vocabulary. Principal Stephanie Casperson explains that this bridges the gap between what happens in independent practice and the classroom and encourages a deeper understanding of difficult math concepts. “Kids understand the process before the teacher has even starting teaching.”
5. Management. KIPP Chicago teachers found that strong classroom procedures and classroom management are fundamental to ensuring success of instructional technology.
Alliance, a Los Angeles secondary network, created digital learning agendas so it was clear to each student what they were to be working on at each station. Cheryl Niehaus said, “From a logistics standpoint, that might help ease teacher concerns of time on task for middle school students.”
6. Pay attention to motivation. Cheryl Niehaus said “FirstLine Schools is very thoughtful in how they approached the question of student motivation during the online learning component.” They use a goal-setting process with students around what they were to complete and when incorporating some competitive elements based on student progress.
Help kids set goals for, say, a week’s worth of time on the computers. “I’m going to master these 4 modules on Khan…” and then help them reflect on those goals and learn from their progress (or not). Don’t harp on whether their “engaged” every single minute of the week’s worth of rotations. Set the goal, and hold them accountable at the end. Gotta build up their ability to self-regulate over longer stretches of time.
6. Support. With strong support, said Elizabeth Stock of CFY, even teachers who are not eager to teach in a less teacher-centric and lecture-focused way can learn how to implement blended learning effectively, and are enthusiastic about the results they are seeing with students. A teacher in an LAUSD partner school remarked that before working with PowerMyLearning, her classes were completely teacher-centered and lecture-focused. At that time, she was not aware of how to teach differently, but now she cannot imagine going back to the way she used to teach.
KIPP Chicago found it important that teachers understand how to use programs with fidelity (e.g., as recommended by content developers) to best enable teachers to evaluate results. Teachers should be sufficiently trained on acting on data from programs and on creating systems / processes required for streamlined procurement and data integration.
7. Tech support. “Sweat the small stuff when it comes to maintaining the technology,” said Greg Klein, Rogers Family Foundation. “Make sure they keyboards and mice are left neat and straight, charge all the laptops going the same direction.” Scott Ellis, The Learning Accelerator, echoed the need for good tech support–a classroom culture of peer support and collaboration.
8. Start whole group. “Early on when teaching kids how to use the online content, use whole-group instruction,” said Greg Klein. “I definitely had teachers who wanted to release a group of kids to computers on Day 1 and pull a different small group themselves, leaving too many kids to have figure out too much on their own.”
Klein added, “Let kids practice using and learning the program using math content/lessons that are easy for them. Hard to learn how the program works and how the math works at the same time.”
9. Portfolio blend. “Over time, develop a portfolio approach to content, matching different programs for different kids for different learning needs/styles,” said Greg Klein. “As much as possible, let kids choose which program they need to use and tell you why.”
“A platform like PowerMyLearning that gives teachers a lot of control (instead of being “teacher-proof”) can support teacher growth and professional learning communities,” said Elizabeth Stock. In successful partner schools, teams of teachers meet several times each week to review how their students are doing and discuss resources that the teachers can use to help their students’ progress.
10. Flexible. We’re all in the early innings of figuring this out. Visit/review as many models as you can (see NGLC profiles, and Blended Learning Universe). As recently suggested, take an iterative approach: develop and test hypothesis on short cycles. Sweat the culture as much as the design–and be good to each other.
This blog is brought to you by The Nellie Mae Education Foundation as part of a series on blended math. For more stayed tuned for the Getting Smart on Blending Middle Grade Math bundle and see the other posts in this series:


Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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