Creating a diverse and dynamic learning environment
by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist
When I first saw the job title “Blended Learning Specialist” I pictured a culinary instructor in an apron demonstrating how to make smoothies in a food processor. “Two scoops of ice, one cup of blueberries, a banana, a pinch of cinnamon and blend. ” What I discovered was a bit different: a new world inside the classroom fostered by the ability to help students learn in an environment where they are the center of attention and the teacher acts as a coach and motivator of their learning.
My first days in the classroom as a Blended Learning Specialist were eye-opening. Throughout my previous career teaching in classrooms at various levels, the most challenging task was to modify the learning environment in order to differentiate instruction for students. I usually felt I was doing what most educators do but are loath to admit: teaching to the middle.
In a classroom with multiple levels of ability, and even multiple languages spoken, it is far too cumbersome to design lessons for individuals or for multiple groups. There isn’t time or curriculum material. Fast learners are bored but feel punished if given extra work; slower students struggle painfully to keep up. The only ones who are comfortable are the average students in the middle.
By contrast, in a blended classroom using technology as an instrument much as a music teacher might use a piano or a drum, I can help teachers find ways of reaching students at their individual levels. I can watch those students progress and develop their skills through lessons tailored to their own learning styles and abilities. I can make curriculum adjustments as I see needs arise. This is differentiated instruction: individualized, flexible, responsive to student needs in real time.
A gardener does not treat each plant exactly the same: some need more water, some need less sun, and some require more pruning, others like extra plant food. I always felt that using technology in the classroom was a great way to bring education to where the students were (on their phones, tablets, YouTube, wherever). Now I have discovered that technology gives me the tools to differentiate instruction so that I can give each student the right lesson for that moment.
The term “blended learning” typically refers to a classroom in which technology is combined with lessons delivered by the teacher, printed material, group study, and other activities. Thanks to my experience as a Blended Learning Specialist, I have come to realize that “blended learning” can also refer to an approach that blends students of different abilities, interests and learning styles together to create a diverse and dynamic learning environment. My new definition of the blended classroom is one in which every student is getting the kind of instruction he or she needs through the teacher’s skillful use of the resources accessible through technology. For this kind of blending, no apron is required.
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