First graders at Lou Dantzler complete lessons on laptops as part of Inner City Education Foundation’s new blended learning model .
A Frederick Douglass middle school student works on his math lesson
“There’s something to be said about having an actual novel in your hand where you can annotate or highlight things if you need to,” said Peter Watts, director of Inner City Education Foundation’s blended learning program.
“But we also know that our kids need a 21st Century education.”
Watts started the program his last year as principal of Thurgood Marshall Elementary, the same time ICEF was coming out of a financial collapse, he said.
“[At that time] we were changing our school into a blended learning model and we went through the process of doing research and finding out what blended learning is,” Watts told the Sentinel in a recent interview.
What blended learning is, in fact, is an educational program where students learn by a combination of ‘brick and mortar’ teaching techniques and computer mediated instruction. The goal is to have a situation where no student is held back and no student is left behind. With the computer programs, teachers have more access to each students’ educational needs.
“The model we found most effective for us,” Watts explained, “is the station rotation model where you have three stations in the classrooms: a teacher directed station, a student collaborative station and then you have a station with the technology…”
At the elementary level, he said, ICEF chose i station and Dreambox.
“We chose those programs because they are adaptive. When the students take the initial assessment, depending on how they answer, the program will tailor the learning to that student versus, ‘here are the standards that you’re supposed to know and did you get them right?’ And that’s how you’re able to provide that individualized instruction to students.
“When you have 25 students in a classroom (for example) you can’t get to every single student every single day. So, behind that, it’s really looking at the data that the computer programs are generating, and being able to say, ‘okay, this group of students is having trouble with adverbs and this group is having trouble with systems of equations…’”
Watts said the pilot program included about 25 teachers but it quickly gained momentum throughout schools in the ICEF and more teachers wanted to be a part of it. It didn’t come without a few challenges, however. One was that since all teacher weren’t in the program, there were kids who’d come from blended learning classes to traditional ones feeling as if they’d been slowed down. Another, was that there wasn’t an initial consideration for the program’s practicality, so not having enough band width for example, would cause computers to crash or run slow.
But due to the program’s success, people were willing to donate and help ICEF work through the challenges, Watts said. By the time one teacher’s class took their CSTs at the end of the year, they scored about 88 percent proficient in language arts and 100 percent proficient in math. But the longtime educator is careful not to credit technology for every success.
“It’s not the technology per se, that’s causing the students to score higher but it’s the concept of blended learning,” said Watts.
Technology, he said, is an accelerator and that acceleration could go either way.
“If you’re doing something terrible, using technology will make it even worse. if you’re doing something good, technology could make it great. So, really it’s about the teachers and the pedagogy behind the blended learning that we’ve been developing. What do we see as our approach? What model is most effective?”