Making Student-Centered Learning A Reality

A student working on his laptop smiles for the camera.

Disclaimer: This initiative initially was launched and coordinated by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, which in 2022 merged with and became the Charles Butt Foundation.

Blended learning represents a powerful and scalable way for teachers to personalize learning for each and every Texas student. To fully appreciate the potential of blended learning, it is important to reflect on the challenges teachers face working in a traditional learning environment.

Educators are tasked with helping young learners become college- and career-ready for the 21st century, but have inherited a classroom model built to prepare the previous generation for factory work in the 20th century. The students who walk through their doors are increasingly diverse, with a wide range of skills, learning challenges, and complicated individual needs. Therefore, tailoring lessons to each child in a classroom with 20-35 students and only one teacher is nearly impossible. Today’s conventional model of education is an ineffective way to promote individual student growth and achievement.

For years, student-centered, personalized learning has represented the gold standard of education. Back in the 1980s, Dr. Benjamin Bloom’s research at the University of Chicago confirmed that students who receive one-to-one tutoring vastly outperform students who receive standard, classroom-based instruction: on average, tutored students performed better than 98 percent of students in the control class.1 Despite the clear evidence of the value of one-on-one instruction, 30 years later we are still teaching as if we are preparing students for a lifetime of factory work, through large, inflexible classrooms, static bell schedules, and a single standardized curriculum.

The reason our schools rely on this dated factory model is simple: achieving a one-to-one teacher-student ratio has always been insurmountably expensive. However, today blended learning can help bridge the divide to a personalized and student-centered learning experience for every student. Just as technology enables customization in so many other parts of our lives, integrating technology and online learning into schools will allow students to benefit from customized learning experiences.

Adaptive and modular digital content can help provide individualized instruction that meets students at their current level and challenges them at the appropriate pace. Students can learn anytime, any place, on any path, and at any pace. Meanwhile, technology also frees up teachers to become learning designers, mentors, facilitators, tutors, evaluators, and counselors to reach students in ways never before possible. Teachers can more easily structure small group and one-to-one time to better understand each student’s strengths and areas for growth. (Read more).

But how might this look in practice?

High quality blended learning employs technology and face-to-face interactions to meet each learner where they are and take them where they need to go. As an example, a teacher in an elementary classroom of 22 students faces an expansive range of reading levels, individual preferences, and interests in reading topics. Using online literacy tools, she can provide customized, adaptive content that matches each student’s current reading level and adjusts as students progress. During face-to-face small group or one-on-one time, she can now provide students targeted support based on both her observations of their performance and the real time data she has collected from online programs. Using this data, she can help a student who has quickly and enthusiastically demonstrated mastery on a learning objective and provide them with resources and activities to support their continued learning. When teachers combine the thoughtful use of technology with their own expertise, it allows them to make more targeted instructional decisions, which in turn makes learning more meaningful and personalized for students.

While leveraging blended learning to deliver student-centered learning is a relatively new concept, innovative practices are taking root across the country. Districts and schools are creatively using technology, talent, time, and space to radically change the way students are taught. Through the Next Generation Systems Initiative from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, six districts in five states from California to Florida have recently designed and launched new personalized learning models and worked to make system-wide changes to support these new models. Other efforts across the nation, such as those supported by the Rogers Foundation in the Bay Area, LEAP Innovations in Chicago, CityBridge Foundation in Washington, DC, and Great Schools Partnership in New England, are similarly providing important examples of new ways to re-imagine schooling through blended and personalized learning. Raising Blended Learners aims to catalyze this type of innovation in Texas, making the state a pioneer in providing truly personalized learning, with our students as the beneficiaries.

Blended learning represents a critical missing ingredient needed to transition from the dated factory model of education to a student-centered, personalized model that will provide each child with the individualized attention they need to succeed in the 21st century.

1Bloom, B. S., The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring (1984) Educational Researcher 4-16.