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Why Blended tops my thankful list

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Nov 14, 2014

LeavesEach November our family has a tradition of listing things we’re grateful for on 100 colorful construction-paper leaves and taping them all over the windows by the kitchen table.  The recent publication of Blended of course tops my list! Admittedly that’s in part because of the relief of a finished project, but the more lasting joy is from knowing that Michael Horn and I helped preserve stories that I think need to be told about children and school and the profound effect of adults’ choices on children’s lives.

The book begins with a story about Jack, a fifth grader at Santa Rita Elementary School who started the 2010-11 school year at the bottom of his math class. He struggled to keep up and considered himself one of those kids who would just never quite “get it.” In a typical school, he would have been tracked and placed in the bottom math group. That would have meant that he would not have taken algebra until high school, which would have limited his college options.

But Santa Rita Elementary took a different tact. The school placed Jack in a blended environment. After 70 days of using Khan Academy for part of his math time, Jack rose to become one of the top four students in his class. He was working on material well above grade level.  Well-constructed blended learning can give students a second chance to find their genius. I’m grateful for that.

Another story tells of Keitha Jones, a seventeen year old from Roseland on Chicago’s South Side, one of the worst-off neighborhoods in the city by just about any measure. Former New York Times writer Paul Tough first wrote about Keitha in his important book How Children Succeed.  He explained that Keitha’s mother was a crack addict; her father, who lived a few blocks away, had fathered at least 19 children in the neighborhood; and Keitha was the victim of repeated physical abuse.

Things turned around for Keitha when Lanita Reed, a 31-year-old Roseland resident who owned the Gifted Hanz beauty salon, took her on as her mentor. Ultimately, Reed helped Keitha change her outlook on life at the advanced age of 17, when many people think a child is beyond hope. The sad truth is that an increasing number of children need this kind of wraparound advocacy and intensive mentoring. I’m grateful that many schools are designing that into the heart of their blended programs and 21st-century teacher roles.

I’m also grateful for the book’s collection of stories about blended-learning blunders, failures, and false starts. Schools have invested over $100 billion in technology over the past few decades, and we don’t have enough progress to show for that. These are dollars that could have been used to improve children’s noisy, complicated lives, but sometimes instead only inserted a screen between the students and the learning experiences that really matter. Those stories needed to be told as well.

I hope that as adults, we can use others’ stories to inform our efforts and help more children find joy, positive connection, and success at school. That would be something for which we’d all give thanks.

Heather Staker

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.

  • J

    Sounds to me like u should b thankful for Kahn Academy for being a better teacher than a teacher. Teachers will become about as important as travel agents. For 99% of learning a computer will be used.
    For elegant odd circumstances beyond algorythms, a teacher or mentor will b useful.
    When u add up all the pension money after retirement, public school teachers are WAY too expensive and make far too much money with far too little accountability.

    • Heather Staker

      > Jon, I encourage you to read this thoughtful post from my colleague Tom Arnett entitled “Will computers replace teachers?” http://www.christenseninstitute.org/will-computers-replace-teachers/

      I agree with his argument that “those who proclaim that computers will replace teachers often naively reduce teaching to mere instruction and assessment.” My own children attend a school that leans heavily on software for core-skills instruction, but the face-to-face teachers are absolutely critical as well, not only for all of the learning-to-do and learning-to-be activities that round out the day (including two hours of hands-on projects and plenty of Socratic discussion), but also to show the children genuine, daily, personal attention and love. That might sound soft, but we’re talking about children, and that human part is in fact central and fundamental.