Grants help more schools adopt blended learning model

| January 29, 2018 | 1 Comment

Second-grade teacher Robin Van Nest helps Charlotte Kinzer learn math skills at St. Therese Catholic School in Deephaven. Students rotate through three stations to practice math skills and meet learning targets. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Like his classmates at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic School in Mound, seventh-grader Noah Vogt’s regular math homework is to watch his teacher give a lesson via video. The next day in class, he does his homework with that teacher nearby.

The concept is called a “flipped classroom,” and it allows teachers to answer students’ questions while they work through material. It’s also part of how Our Lady of the Lake incorporates “blended learning” — an educational approach that aims to help students learn at their “just right” level through the blending of traditional methods with differentiated instruction and education technology that target learning gaps.

Our Lady of the Lake and two other local Catholic schools began to adopt the blended learning model in English and math in 2014 thanks to grants from the Twin Cities-based GHR Foundation, which funded training and support from the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame. Also selected were Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Columbia Heights and St. Therese Catholic School in Deephaven.

In December, ACE announced that it was partnering again with GHR to expand the model locally. GHR has offered $1.8 million for use over three-and-a-half years to implement blended learning in five schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The grant will fund teacher training and support, and the majority of the schools’ participation costs, including technology and infrastructure upgrades. Recipients will be selected jointly by ACE and GHR. The deadline is in mid-February.

In blended learning classrooms, students typically work individually or in pairs or small groups. Instead of preparing one large lesson for the whole class, a teacher prepares several lessons tailored to the small group needs. Part of that learning is done with computers with software that customizes “learning pathways” for each student.

“When we talk about blended learning, we talk about personalized learning, and that each student is learning at their ‘just right’ level,” said Becky Kennedy, principal of Our Lady of the Lake. “You walk into a kindergarten classroom, and it isn’t typical teacher-led instruction. … It’s like a little city of kids working, and they’re all working on different things.”

Planning multiple lessons does create more work for the teachers, but that doesn’t bother Melinda Young, who teaches fifth-to-eighth-grade math at Our Lady of the Lake. “If you want a student to truly learn at their level and get what they need in an education, then blended learning is the way to go,” she said.

Young is in her sixth year teaching at Our Lady of the Lake, and she’d previously taught in conventional classrooms. In her experience with blended learning, she sees students better engaged in the material because they’re not bored or overwhelmed.

With flipped classrooms, students can pause or re-watch her video instruction, which means they take better notes, Young said. And in class, students are less likely to say, “I don’t get it,” she said. “Instead, [they say], ‘I got to this point … . We’re having more higher level questions coming up.”

Vogt, 12, is among Young’s students, and he was introduced to blended learning when he enrolled at Our Lady of the Lake in fourth grade. “You could always work at your own pace, and not have to worry about whether you were getting behind or ahead,” Vogt said. “That made me feel a lot better because I wouldn’t be so stressed out.”

Kennedy started at Our Lady of the Lake the year after it launched the blended learning model. Not only does she think it’s been a success for the students, but she also has data to back up her observations, thanks to records of the students’ individual learning paths created by and tracked through the model’s integrated technology.

Father Nate Wills, ACE’s director of blended learning and a Holy Cross priest, has been sold on blended learning since he came across it in 2010.

“In five to 10 years we’re not going to call it ‘blended learning,’ we’ll just call it ‘learning,’” said Father Wills, a Mendota Heights native. “Like many sectors in our world right now, I think education is moving to personalization. … And it’s because technology can adapt to particular needs.”

The model “becomes a way to use the technology well but also to free up teachers to do what they do best, which is make small-group targeted interventions with kids,” he said. “It’s nothing revolutionary in that it’s just letting teachers spend one-on-one time with kids.”

Rather than “blended learning,” St. Therese’s principal Lauren Caton calls it “full potential learning” to make the objective clear. She recommends other schools consider it.

“Our teachers say, ‘I can’t imagine teaching any other way,’” she said.

Gayle Stoffel, assistant director of Catholic education in the archdiocese’s Office for the Mission of Catholic Education, said the office is excited to work again with Notre Dame.

She sees blended learning as one of many innovative approaches being taken by local Catholic schools, and one that honors students’ unique personhood and inherent dignity. “In our Catholic schools we always have care for the person, and we want them to reach their fullest potential,” she said.

GHR “has seen some impressive academic results in the existing three schools and, because of these indicators, we were eager to expand the program to other Catholic schools in the archdiocese,” said Meg Nodzon, GHR senior program officer. “GHR Foundation believes personalized instructional models like blended learning are an effective way for Catholic schools to address the achievement gap.”

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