Making Blended Learning Work in the Fall: Lessons Learned from Greenfields Academy

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research

Many independent schools are considering some type of hybrid model for their students when they return to school in the fall. Conversations have included some portion of learning taking place in the classroom (face-to-face) and the rest taking place online (at home). While this may be a significant shift for many schools, the good news is that there are well-established blended learning structures that are already suited to serve as possible solutions.

A recent call with Assistant Head of School, Maggie Baker, at Greenfields Academy in Chicago (part of the Acton Academy network of schools), provided some food for thought on what a school may need to put in place to make blended learning successful. They utilize a flex blended learning model, which prioritizes student agency. The school is focused on “making sure students have the opportunity to explore their passions, find their interests, and recognize success in all its forms, not just what is traditionally prescribed by academic institutions.”

Flex Blended Learning Model:

From the Christensen Institute: The Flex model lets students move on fluid schedules among learning activities according to their needs. Online learning is the backbone of student learning in a Flex model. Teachers provide support and instruction on a flexible, as-needed basis while students work through course curriculum and content. This model can give students a high degree of control over their learning.

Below, insights from Elevate’s conversation with Greenfields have been contextualized in terms of questions schools may want to consider to help them reopen in a hybrid learning environment.

Multi-Age Classrooms

At Greenfields, students are segmented into multi-age groups. Their second and third graders, for example, are in one larger cohort called “travelers”. Their sixth – eighth graders are grouped together, as “explorers”. In addition to these segmentations, the school is also focused on ensuring that there is plenty of opportunity for students between cohorts to interact, regardless of age. To accomplish this, children can work in any of the main spaces in the school building during their independent work time. Additionally, on Fridays, there is designated time for multi-age interaction (e.g. eighth graders working with first graders).

From a learning perspective, the benefits of a multi-age classroom are significant. Research has shown that it allows for students to access learning not only from their guides (At Greenfields, teachers are called guides), but also alongside their peers. Older students can provide real-time tutoring to younger students that strengthens their understanding of the topic, builds overall class community, and provides younger students with an additional person to call on. Multi-age classrooms can also present an opportunity for teachers to better utilize a spiraled curriculum as the same topic can be taught multiple times but with different extensions based on the child’s readiness level.

Questions for schools to consider as related to multi-age classrooms:

  1. If schools will already be creating smaller cohorts of students to maintain social distancing guidelines, are there opportunities to have those cohorts be multi-age so that there can be more peer to peer support within classes? Given the level of learning loss students may be contending with next year, re-organizing classrooms this way could provide an additional touchpoint (e.g. an older peer) to reach struggling students.
  2. How can older students support younger students, either via virtual or in-person tutoring? The benefit of a younger student receiving extra personalized attention, teachers getting a cadre of volunteers, and older students building their leadership and empathy skills can be a win for the entire school community.

Greenfields Students Intentionally Experience “Freedom Shock”

Because students must be successful at self-directed learning to thrive at Greenfields, all new students attending the school go through something that they label “freedom shock”. Maggie explains that “because students are so used to being told what to do at specific times, when they have all the time in the world to do whatever they want, they end up doing nothing”.

Sound familiar? That may be how many students first experienced (and continued to experience) the sudden school shutdown and the empty vastness of a school day that wasn’t operating on the traditional schedule. At Greenfields, because they expect that this will happen due to the nature of their open-schedule (which will be further explained below), students make a gradual transition during the course of the school year to having increasing levels of freedom. Students on Freedom Level 1, for example, do not have as much choice on where to work, and they work with their guides to develop an agreed upon plan for what they should be doing in a given week. Students in Freedom Level 5 have the highest level of flexibility on both the use of the school’s space and what they want to focus on in their learning, as long as they are following the agreed upon rules for the school.

Some questions schools can consider around self-directed learning include:

  1. What are the core skills of self-directed learners and how can schools prioritize building these throughout the year? A student’s ability, just like a school’s, to be agile and flexible will allow them to navigate a sudden shutdown (if it were to happen) with more ease, rather than fear or anxiety.
  2. Should all students at schools go through a “freedom shock” (or freedom shock lite) experience in the first few weeks of the school year? As students potentially transition back and forth from in-person to online learning, gradually releasing responsibility to them will help them throughout the school year and, undoubtedly, in the future.
  3. What types of training do teachers need to build student’s self-efficacy alongside teaching the content? Building self-directed learners requires skill and thought. Investing in supporting teachers in how to push their kids further will be critical to success.
  4. How is self-efficacy of students measured across the school? If self-efficacy becomes a part of the school’s mission and vision for students, what does it look like for the school to hold themselves accountable to students’ progress in this area?

A Schedule That Prioritizes Student Agency

An experience like freedom shock is of critical importance to Greenfields because their daily schedule provides students with a significant amount of unstructured academic time. After an opening circle, students of all ages have “core-time” for the first two hours of the day. Core time is broken up into one hour of pure independent work-time and then a second hour which may include small-group work, a demonstration lesson by a guide, or an exploratory period. Upon the completion of core time, all students go through a reflection process to consider whether they met their goals for the day and if not, what they could do to improve the next day. After outdoor time and lunch, students then launch into their project-based learning for the afternoons. On Wednesday and Friday afternoons, students also have dedicated time to focus on passion projects.

The morning core-time is screen-focused and students use educational apps such as Khan Academy for their math learning to progress through concepts. However for their youngest students, screen time is limited (although still used) during core. They build their independent time around play, and interacting with the world.

Given students’ familiarity with technology at Greenfields, including the youngest ones, when schools closed in late March, students did not struggle with wayfinding in the same ways many other children across the world have. They were able to quickly navigate the technology they needed to stay on track with remote learning, since they were familiar with it already.

Questions for schools to consider as related to personalized learning and the schedule:

  1. What portions of the curriculum are better suited to students learning independently and online? How can a revised school schedule allow for this type of personalized and highly flexible learning?
  2. How can teachers supplement gaps in e-personalized learning, and use students’ independent work time to focus on struggling students and/or to build on core knowledge? This type of structure where students learn for a portion of the day online, at their own pace, can allow the school to have more flexible staffing solutions as well, which may be required when students return.

Tracking Progress Through Badges Instead of Grades

At Greenfields, students earn badges instead of grades as they progress through their learning goals. Older children use a proprietary software called Journey Tracker to set goals and track their progress through the content. According to Maggie, the problem with grades is that they “are often measuring where you are compared to teacher expectations”.

A poignant example she shared:

Say Charlie, a student at Greenfields, did really well in math at this point. He is really good at multiplication and getting A’s, then all of a sudden, he hits division. Oh, my gosh, he suddenly is struggling and doesn’t understand. Suddenly, he is getting B’s and C’s and math, even though he just needs more time and help. Instead at Greenfields, Charlie would have preset requirements and a curriculum that he works through at his own pace. So if Charlie is really good at multiplication, then he can finish the entire multiplication curriculum in a week. Now Charlie is onto division and that is taking him longer to get through. That is absolutely fine. Charlie doesn’t have to keep pace with anybody but himself. And then once he has mastered division, then he can move on.

A challenge of course, is that real mastery doesn’t come from a student taking and doing well on a test. Maggie describes how the default is that a student sits down and takes a test:“if you’ve mastered ten out of ten things, you’ve passed. At Greenfields, the focus is on measuring excellence. The students in the explorer group are writing a white paper right now, about political theory and policy. And the measurement of excellence is focused on: are you able to effectively communicate your ideas? Can you convince somebody of your side? Can you clearly synthesize research?”

The badges students do receive showcase mastery over a subject. A student could get a badge for completing one full year of math curriculum, but if in one year, they finish two years worth of math content, then they can also earn two badges in one year. Greenfields’ perspective is that “badges are a better way of recognizing student accomplishment, because it’s not measuring against a teacher’s set pace and expectation. It’s measuring against high level expectations out of students at their pace.”

Questions for schools to consider as related to grading:

  1. If schools have opted into Pass/Fail for the remainder of this school year, how can this continue to translate to equitable mastery-based grading practices in the fall? How can a school personalize an individual student’s learning journey so it is focused on learning content rather than meeting teacher expectations?
  2. How do teachers assess for mastery and what guidance do they need to move towards a broader range of assessment tools?