One Trick to Pitching a Blended Learning Plan

By Heather Staker

Imagine you find yourself in an elevator for three minutes with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who together are giving up to $1 billion in each of the next three years to “advance human potential and promote equality.” You can’t believe your luck! You’ve been dreaming for years about a more personalized, blended model for your school, and now you actually have the chance to pitch the idea to the founders of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. What would you say in the next three minutes before that elevator door slides open?

You could explain the education problems that you want to solve, or talk about your SMART goals and intended outcomes, or tout the amazing team that’s agreed to help you.

But if I were the one in the elevator, I would skip that. I would jump straight to what I’ve come to see as the heart of any great blended-learning plan — the vision for the student experience. And I’d express that vision as a story, the story of a day in the life of a real student whom I imagine in my new blended program.

“Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan,” I might say. “I’m a principal down the street at West Middle School. To be honest, it’s a traditional, sit-and-get environment, and many of the students have tuned out. I’m worried about Lucas especially. He’s bright, but falling behind and seems unmotivated. I know you care so much about education. Do you mind if I tell you how I wish students like Lucas could spend their day?”

I would then highlight a few key elements of my vision for Lucas. Perhaps I see him meeting with his coach for 30 minutes at the start of the week to set personal learning goals and check-in on whether he’s finding friends to sit with at lunch. I see him moving at his own pace through personal playlists to master core skills and then meeting with his team to complete interdisciplinary quests. I see him having more time to be physically active in nature. The details vary, but I’d describe a few key experiences that match Lucas’s needs and circumstances. And then I’d ask for Mr. Zuckerberg’s and Ms. Chan’s support.

Michael B. Horn, who co-authored the new The Blended Workbook with me, told me that he finds the day-in-the-life stories that our workbook helps readers develop to be the most telling section of their plans. I agree. In fact, if I don’t have time to review an entire blended-learning plan, I skip straight to the day-in-the-life stories. They’re powerful for several reasons:

Day-in-the-life stories show the design work

Well-developed stories paint a picture of students’ daily walk and how that contrasts from the status quo. In the ideal, the design includes varied academic and social experiences. I confess that I’ve been brought to tears reading some of these stories and imagining the students whose lives will improve because of the more compelling, humane designs. After one group in Chandler, Arizona presented aloud their day-in-the-life story, which showed how Tonya’s dreary credit recovery lab experience would improve, I paused everything, looked at them, and said, “Will you please promise me you’ll do this?” Tonya should not spend one more minute in her old day, when this team’s vision for the new day in her life is so much sweeter.

Day-in-the-life stories show the application of jobs-to-be-done theory

In the workbook, Michael and I ask teams to develop a plan that unlocks students’ intrinsic motivations of feeling successful each day and having fun with friends. We explain why designing for the functional, social, and emotional “jobs” that students have in their lives is the key to increasing their engagement. Day-in-the-life stories are the best chance to convey how the new design evidences total sympathy for the student perspective. The best stories laser focus on the jobs students are trying to do in their lives, and that makes those stories powerful to hear.

Day-in-the-life stories explain the link

The best stories provide a fully reasonable rationale for why the new student experience will lead to better outcomes. They explain the link between design and result. For example, instead of merely describing what Lucas’s new experience will be, a great story will conclude with something like: “After several of such coach-filled, self-directed, project-based, active days, Lucas’s life will change. He’ll find more joy in seeing his progress, feel more connected to peers and guides, and enjoy greater academic performance as a result.” That kind of story convinces me that it matters.

Day-in-the-life stories showcase competency-based learning principles

The idea that students should move forward only as fast as they master the content is intuitive. When students advance based on time, instead of learning, they develop pesky holes and gaps that follow them for years. The best day-in-the-life stories correct this major structural flaw in the current way that most education systems operate. Rather, they showcase a design that ensures students will have the opportunity to work on higher-order skills and will not move in lockstep pace with the class. Sometimes the idea of so-called competency-based learning seems complicated and confusing. But day-in-the-life stories can break through the jargon and communicate via a simple narrative a very important principle of learning design.

Day-in-the-life stories elevate the role of teachers

Sometimes when people think of computers in classrooms, they imagine a robotic environment devoid of quality teaching. To prevent that reaction, lead with a day-in-the-life story that paints the opposite picture — one that incorporates the principles of sound, one-on-one mentorship and coaching such that students will have the face-to-face support and relationships they need to succeed and richly benefit from positive interaction with caring teachers.

As you think about your blended-learning plan, remember that it’s challenging to dream up a new, brighter student experience, but it’s even harder to convey that vision to all the stakeholders whose support you’ll need to bring it to fruition. Perhaps meeting Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan in an elevator is unlikely. But you are certain to meet with teachers, administrators, parents, and students whom you will need to win over with your plan. So, don’t pitch them a promise to nudge up state test scores. Don’t pitch them a dissertation about learning theory. Don’t try to explain definitions and models. Instead, if you have only a few minutes, pitch them on how the day in the life of their actual students will be richer, more meaningful, and more connected in the human sense. Paint a picture of that vital opportunity. When you do that well, expect to hear a few people — especially parents — look at you (as they have looked at me) with all sincerity and say, “Will you please promise me you’ll do this?


Originally published at www.edelements.com.