Learning Environments

This post is a reflection on the Leading Edge Digital Educator unit on Learning Environments.

While I tried to get as many of these assignments as possible done over the summer, I decided to wait on this one until the school year was underway. This year I am trying the completely new blended learning environment in my classroom and wanted to be able to reflect a bit more on how it is actually working out rather than how I had been visualizing it in my mind.

For this school year, I set a goal for myself that I would never lecture the entire class. On the very first day, the students moved around the room and visited various stations with information and activities without direct prompting from me. This actually is working out rather well overall and I have never addressed the entire class aside from announcing time to clean up. The students have adapted to this environment and do appreciate having time during the school day when they are not confined to a teacher-centered class. I conducted Back-To-School night the same way and the parents were quite surprised and impressed with the independence allowed during class.

My class is 1:1, with all students using Chromebooks. At the start of the year, the students were definitely overwhelmed with how much I had them using their computers during class. Because I am not lecturing and not using paper, I have to distribute the content through the computer, which does add up to more screen time than I’ve had previously. Because of this, my challenge has been to create assignments that the students can do without the computer. One of the best features is having them take photos of their work and then turning in the image to Google Classroom. The students seem to have adjusted to how we use the computers during class and I also use the MoveIt Chrome extension on Table Days and Quiet Days to get them moving and focusing away from their screen at regular intervals.

In order to disseminate assignments, I have been using Google Classroom. The students are supposed to come in to class, read the daily announcement, and then get to work on whatever assignment they have not yet completed. I originally was going to go with more of a game-based structure where they couldn’t advance until they completed the earlier assignments but I decided to let that go early on. The students who got through things quickly moved on to exciting assignments that the other students were feeling trapped because they couldn’t work on them yet. I decided to let students have the autonomy to choose their activities each day, but with the understanding that they would have to do all the assignments eventually.

I also have set up my class to have three types of days: “Building Days”, “Table Days”, and “Quiet Days”. The different days give students an opportunity to focus on different types of assignments. Building days are definitely the most fun and noisy, but there needs to be some balance so that students have quiet or calm time to work on the computer based assignments. Out of my 70 students, about 10 of them are unable to be self starters or to choose appropriate tasks for each day, so I know I need to check in with these students frequently to help keep them on track. At the trimester, I am going to ask the students for feedback about the different days and see if they have a different idea for dividing up the days that might be more helpful for the rest of the year.

This blended learning environment is a complete change for me. At the start I have a lot more work outside of the classroom because I have to adapt my assignments to something the students can do without direct instruction. During class, I move around the room and answer questions from students, providing immediate feedback on student work. I feel like I got to know my students much more quickly this year than I have in the past. As I go around the room, the students are talking to each other and on their computers, but are engaged in some sort of science related task. I’ve only had minor off task behavior this year, even though I do encourage students to go down a rabbit hole if something relevant interests them (i.e. What’s in a lava lamp?) The students also conclude each class with a journal entry about what they worked on that day, which gives me a pretty good feel for their progress and engagement.

For the rest of this year, the challenge is sustaining student engagement. I want them to be excited about the next activity. While it is difficult to think of new ways to disseminate the same information, I’ve been finding myself going toward DOK 4 scenarios and open-ended engineering challenges that require the student to demonstrate understanding in non-traditional ways. A lofty goal for me is to have the students working harder than me, which is true during class but which is very unbalanced outside of school. Providing feedback on student work is important but time consuming so I am actually going to start incorporating peer feedback into our next big project. I also need to tap into the student’s ideas more often and let them design their own methods for demonstrating understanding.

The final question here would be if I would ever go back to the “traditional” method of teaching. As I have been reading more and more, I would have to say that our educational model is broken and is not beneficial to our students. The students in my class now are learning at their own pace and have access to a rich assortment of resources and activities to make the material come to life. I feel much more like their guide than their instructor, and the students seem to appreciate that new relationship. I am definitely quite lucky to be at a school site where I have this freedom to take this plunge into the unknown and feel that this choice is truly in the best interest of the whole student.

Blended Learning Mind Map

This mind map shows the benefits and challenges of a Blended Learning classroom.  I decided to avoid using pro and con in this case because while I do definitely know that there are negatives for any arrangement, I feel it would be better to face that negative as a challenge that needs to be attacked and thought through.  I also used color and the connecting lines to show the degree to which every aspect was a challenge or a idealistic benefit.

I am planning to convert my class into a blended learning environment this year so I can see this map being helpful in several ways.  The challenges are definitely things I will have to be mindful of throughout the year but I will also need to pay attention to the benefits.  If my students or I are not experiencing the benefits from the situation or activities, then that is a sign that things need to be adjusted.  This actually would be a good exercise for me to do again at the end of the year as a reflection to show what worked and what didn’t after living this experiment.