A change in the wind

Education today is undergoing exciting changes with the integration of technology, hybrid classes, online offerings and cyber schools.  Personalized learning is one of the trends which is resurfacing in a new way, thanks to the technology that has recently become more readily available to students. Students use fitbits for online Health class, get ahead by combining two years of a language into one hybrid class, have access to programs like STEM and IB career classes, and online math programs track their progress and advance them as they are individually ready.  Outside of school students can learn on their own using Kahn Academy, Virtual nerd, Duolingo, and a host of other quality sites, all of this giving them more choice and autonomy when it comes to their education.   It’s time for the World Language classes to harness this new power as well in order to create personalized, competency-based and blended learning classrooms.  

The goal

Parents and students today desire to see the same self-paced, independent, flexible and diverse learning opportunities that they see on the web reflected in their schooling. In order to stay relevant and to fully engage our students, world language classes need to be employing the latest strategies and methods, unafraid to go where credible research points us. World languages now have access to multiple programs which can transform our traditional methods of teaching a foreign language. In this age of information on-the-go, it seems very “old-school” to have all students learn at the exact same time and pace as the others in their age group.  Sitting through lecture-style, teacher-centered classrooms has been proven to be the least effective and least engaging way to learn.  The one-size-fits all model has created a large percentage of students who simply give up on their education and quit taking world languages.  We see students everyday who have disconnected and disengaged.

A collaborative, personalized environment in which the student has a voice and a choice leads to empowerment and success.  We know that children develop at different paces yet we demand that they all follow the same learning route.   We need to apply the mindset of growth, engagement, mastery and success for all students by allowing for personalization in their learning.  This will ensure that school becomes and remains a meaningful experience for them and will start them on the path of lifelong learning.

Implementing the change

Let us bring the values of choice, ownership, voice and authenticity as well as personalization and collaboration into the classroom in such a way that it becomes the very fabric of the environment in which they learn.  The very design of the classroom needs to be demonstrating “student-centeredness”.  This means that there is no front or back of the classroom.  No stage for the teacher to be the center and deliver the information.  The students own the space and feel at home there.  

They also must have the freedom to work at their own pace, allowing for them to work with the material until they master it.  This will look different for each student, and the class must allow for this differentiation. The teacher acts more like a guide, an encourager and the resident expert who can help them to reach their own goals.  Students engage in active learning – doing the work, experimenting with the material, pursuing the answers, creating unique ways to demonstrate their understanding, and owning their progress.  They can no longer simply sit back and passively watch the teacher entertain them. Technology steps in to do the personalized tracking and delivery of information which keeps them on track and reflects back to them their actual progress and true level of understanding.  This allows for deeper more reflective learning to take place, which is the key to mastery.  Effort leads to growth in knowledge and intelligence.  The role of the environment is to extend such an enticing invitation that it draws them into full engagement and elicits that effort.

How it becomes possible

The opportunity to implement student centered, active learning classrooms has never been greater thanks to the emerging technology which provides the tracking and personalization that has previously been impossible for a teacher to do on their own. Blended learning is the best of both worlds: it applies the principles of online learning – with its’ instant feed-back, progress tracking, self-directed pacing and 24 hour access to information – to a real brick and mortar classroom where the students can receive guidance, practice, encouragement, and learn the crucial skills of collaboration and cooperation.  

Research has shown that students actually enjoy coming to school and being with their peers.  They also enjoy having a healthy relationship with a supportive teacher. And to master a foreign language they need to be communicating in it and growing their speaking skills – this requires face to face interactions. But to truly learn they need to have more personalized programs which will allow them to grow at the right pace for them, master the material, see success and progress and be fully vested in the experience.  Learning becomes something that they do instead of something that we try to force on them while they fight back with apathy and disengagement.  When learning is seen as the teacher or the school’s responsibility, students become just another number in the vast workings of the system.

Blended classrooms empower students to be at the center of the learning experience – where they ought to be – since it is after all, their education.  With modern technology  we have a chance to customize and constantly know how they are progressing, thus helping them to chart a course that feels right for them and meets their needs.  It also frees up time for more conversational practice in the classroom, a goal which has always been a challenge, and more one-on-one help for those who need it.  It frees up time for interest generating, authentic project based learning in real world scenarios.  Grammar and practice can be done independently – meaningful communication in the target language becomes the main classroom activity.  Technology becomes a tool that works for us and the blended classroom approach prevents any students from repeating a level 1 course three times or ending their year without having mastered the basics.  There is no way around the learning in a blended classroom.

Available to all

Up until now it has been very difficult for public schools to provide the same type of small classroom, individualized experience that private schools can offer.  We have large classes of 30 students each with different needs and a content heavy curriculum which drives the machine on.  But thanks to blended learning models, this can now be a reality at public schools. Students can customize their learning, move on based on progress and mastery, and receive the support and personalization which had previously only been available to those in more exclusive school settings.  The exciting news is that we can create a learning path that will engage and excite each student because it will be about them, their needs and interests.  

Helpful for all

The research has shown that all types of students benefit from this type of project-based, active learning.  The strongest students are able to achieve more and remain challenged, while the weaker students can also achieve satisfying results but at their own pace.  The technology really is only a tool – the methodology and pedagogy behind the blended, active and student centered learning is what is transformational.  The technology allows the teacher the freedom to implement all of this.  Informational and communicative technologies were also found to be motivational and attract students who otherwise might disengage and even leave school.  This type of approach has also proven to be helpful for special needs students who enjoy using and communicating through the use of social networks and forums.  

Training and growth

Technology cannot replace the human element so necessary in the classroom and so essential to the intricate planning and charting of the journey.  This is why it is so important that schools be prepared to back up their adoption of technology with a very thorough, supportive and ongoing professional training program for teachers.  Without the proper coaching, mentoring and training, teachers will not bring this new innovation into the classrooms, and devices – no matter how amazing their potential may be – will sit unused in the corner of the classroom or simply become a thousand dollar pencil.  In order to bring about the change our students need and remain relevant in today’s educational transition, teachers need the support of their administrations to help them move forward.  The plan and the implementation process is even more important than the technology itself – it is the catalyst for the change we seek.

Answering the call

Now that technology has given us the needed tools, this is the ideal time to make the change from teacher-centered, factory set-up classes to a more fluid, collaborative and student-centered approach.  Allowing students to choose, actively participate in and ultimately own their learning will bring out the best both in them and in us, the teachers who will provide the environment and expertise as we partner with them and  mentoring them to success.  The technology which exists today can do what we could not do just a few years ago.  Using the tools available opens a whole new world for our students and encourages them to connect and contribute to the larger world – which as world language teachers is our ultimate goal.

Effort, respect, reflection, freedom and collaboration are the pillars on which our modern day education needs to be built.  This is a type of education worth working for and I invite you to join me in actively participating in this exciting shift towards creating a more engaging, personal experience for our students by employing blended learning within student-centered classrooms.

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Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. (2015). Blended: Using disruptive innovation to improve schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Oblinger, D. G. (2006). Learning spaces. Boulder, CO: Educause.

UNESCO. (2012). Turning on mobile learning in North America; Illustrative intiatives and policy implications. Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Venezky, R. (2004) Technology in the classroom: steps toward a new vision.  Education, Communication and Information, Volume 4 2004, Issue 1

What Schools Must Learn From LA’s iPad Debacle Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2015/05/los-angeles-edtech/

Williams, M. (2013, May 14). What’s the best way to teach languages? Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com