Sunday, November 6, 2016

Precision of Language

Since late last fall, a simple two-syllable word has taken over my life. Like a trending hashtag, this word has appeared more in my writings, discussions, and trainings than other words that have long been the foundation of my working vocabulary. Like all good words, this seven letter word came with multiple connotations and denotations that prompted me and my colleagues to constantly define what it means to us as an organization. As well as I thought that I understood the definition of the word “blended”, my district’s experiences preparing teachers and administrators for implementation of this deceptively simple and common word has added multiple layers of meaning to my now complex personal definition of this word.

Winning a Raise Your Hand Texas grant to transform learning has become much more than just a district and department initiative; it has evolved into a complete and sometimes jarring shift in thinking and practice. Birdville ISD was chosen along with four other innovative and diverse schools/districts across the state of Texas in April 2016 as part of a Raising Blended Learners program. Our official definition of “blended” is taken from our blended learning bible, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools by Heather Staker and Michael Horn. Founded in the work of the Christensen Institute, Staker and Horn use the following definition: “...blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns:
  1. at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;
  2. at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;
  3. and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.”

As a former secondary English teacher, words and authors’ choices speak to me. This three-part definition is specific and descriptive while also including nudges towards innovation in its word choice. If you look closely at the definition above and pull out only the adjectives, those extra words that author’s painstakingly choose to pinpoint their exact meanings, you get these words: formal, education, online, student, supervised, brick-and-mortar, learning, integrated. These adjectives alone create a basic picture of blended learning. The looser general definition of “blended” that most educators think of consists of a basic “blend” of technology and traditional teaching. Because of this, the “online learning” words in the Christensen Institute definition are often what teachers and administrators focus on, and though technology is an essential tool to unlock the possibilities of blended learning, it is not the most important part of this disruptive innovation.

As we have prepared, trained, and observed our blended learning teachers these first few months of our blended learning implementation, I have come to think that though the definition provided by Staker and Horn is specific on paper, the definition of “blended” is still sometimes muddy in reality. The connotations associated with the word “blended” are getting in the way of the true purpose and goal of this mindshift: personalized learning. One who blends would be described a “blender,” a word that evokes images of a loud smoothie maker chopping different components to bits and then whirring them forcibly together to create a new, tasty mixture. This image is not remotely close to what blended learning is in truth. So, in the interest of clarity, I humbly offer a different word to replace “blended” that I believe better captures the essence and spirit of what my district and others in the state are trying to do for students: tailored.  

Tailored learning. One who tailors learning would be called a “tailor.” A tailor brings to mind an image of a person with a tape measure who can work magic to create clothing that is perfect for any body type. This tailor listens to the customer and finds out fabric preferences, deadlines, style, and purpose needed for the clothing before getting to work to create the garments that the customer needs and wants. These garments are being made by a true craftsman to be just right for each customer. This personalized design process is at the heart of the goal of blended learning, and though I doubt our teachers want another word or another definition right now, I want to help all of our teachers become the learning tailors that all of our students need to achieve and become future-ready. Our current educational system of “ready-to-wear” clothing that is made in huge quantities for general sizes is not “fitting” a growing number of students as seen by the increasing EOC re-tester numbers in our district. Tailored learning is a solution that, like clothes tailoring, takes more time, effort, and intentionality than factory-made clothing or one-size-fits-all lesson design, but the rewards and benefits of personalized learning make it an imperative for teachers and curriculum designers in our district as we strive to prepare students that reflect our new district Portrait of a Graduate.

Works Cited
      Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. (2014). Blended: Using disruptive innovation to improve schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand.
     Christensen Institute - Improving the world through disruptive innovation. (n.d.). Retrieved November 06, 2016, from 

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