Blended Learning Part 2

The trouble with schools is that they are full of structures we just don’t like to let go off.

Some of you who have read some of my previous blogs or gone into some of the links will have read some of what is below and so to avoid you being put off reading to the end, here’s the contents of this Blog (Does anyone know how I can create links to each section as a contents page might?):

  • An introduction – what is blended learning?
  • The structure of project-based learning in a blended learning context
  • The basic ingredients of all extended or project-based activities
  • Planning a project (the detail)
  • A script for all teachers facilitating learning through tutorials or supporting students who are working independently

Introduction – What is Blended Learning?

While writing the last blog on blended learning, I looked at some of the definitions.  These tended to draw comparisons with flipped learning, both of which use a blend of home, IT rich learning and in in school practical application of what has been learned.   It’s flipped because the two middle sections of any good learning experience (as I highlighted the last time) are flipped.   The Discovering New Information section which would normally come first and lend itself to school-based activities, takes place at home and the Practical Application/Making Sense which follows happens in school.     

I’m fine with this and don’t really mind what takes place where as long as whatever is done at home is not overly scaffolded by the teacher and there really is independent learning taking place.   

In the current blended learning frenzy at the moment, it’s vital we don’t lose site of the principles underlying flipped or blended learning.  I’m seeing some definitions popping up at the moment which are happy enough to latch on to the definition of blended learning, but which are focussed on school-based activities. The ‘blend’ refers to the mix of various IT resources to enhance the learning in a traditional classroom setting.  

I’m worried that if we apply IT use at home in order to enable more engaging ways to carry out work at home and hand it in effectively, we may be doing this using the same old ‘teacher reliant’ learning activities albeit some of it will be carried out at home.   Do this and all we’ll do is replicate current practice which isn’t effective as we can clearly see in the current crisis.

Blended learning is about the blend between knowledge acquisition (there are times when the teacher should become the expert and go into the detail that requires modelling and discussion with students) facilitation of learning in quality tutorials and truly independent learning and working practices.   If we focus on this student-centred approach, we will create learners who will flourish

Perhaps I can illustrate this better by describing what I see as blended learning, in a project-based context.  Compare it to the learning that goes on in your own classroom or school.  The description below could happen solely in school or a blend of home and school which we may face from September.   Apologies, if you have seen some of this before, but I think it’s relevant to this blog also.

Project Based Learning in a Blended Learning Context

Very briefly, learning within PBL type activities can be broken down into three segments: 


Although the teacher no longer has a monopoly on information, we should recognise that there will always be difficult concepts within various topics/subjects which will require personal explanation or elaboration in order to ensure real understanding.  In addition, concepts often need ‘brought to life’ by an enthusiastic practitioner.   For this reason, seminars, lectures or good old fashioned lessons are necessary, where the concept can be ‘taught’; at times, if need be, in ‘lecture’ format, delivered to large groups in half year blocks, groups of 60, 30 or lower.   Times and length of seminars could also vary on a daily or weekly basis.     

In our current situation these could be online seminars, where the teacher most skilled at delivering the topic delivers it to the whole cohort.  At times, we may wish these to be in school when the topic needs repeated modelling or discussion.  Ideally there may also be times when an external expert who delivers the topic in a far more interesting/exciting way online (e.g. on You tube, BBC Bitesize, Khan Academy) can be used.   This is the ‘discovering new information’ part of a traditional lesson.

Focus sessions

Using concepts gained from the seminars mentioned above or from other sources of information, students will work on their projects in open spaces or in classes, with learning facilitated by teams of teachers.   At times one teacher may facilitate project work/learning with a large group, while another teacher takes smaller groups or individuals for extension or catchup work.  This is in the main the ‘making sense/practical application’ part of the traditional lesson.   However, students may also during this aspect of PBL be carrying out their own research and discovering new information for themselves.

In our current situation the bulk of this will be carried out at home apart from when where school facilities are required to make sense of practically apply what has been learned.  For example, a science lab or Design technology workshop.


During Focus sessions students can also be taken for tutorials by their allocated tutor.   In addition to the teacher led activities described in focus time above, this may be 1:1 or small group tutorials, where feedback related to progress and quality assurance is focused upon.   Focus sessions allow space for individual teachers to take these tutorials effectively.   These can be held in the same area/class as focus sessions or in adjoining tutorial rooms.  

In our current situation, this would be where we work with small groups in schools.   This is the most important element.  It’s where the teacher clarifies misunderstandings, provides feedback and looks at next steps

The basic ingredients of any extended activity or project

When planning any extended piece of work or project for pupils we should include the following basics (These should all be made explicit to the pupil):

  1. A Driving Question – Getting to the heart of the matter
  • Consider the extent to which it is important to their lives. 
  • What is it you want your pupils to be able to answer at the end of this project? 
  • What do you hope that students will discover or learn as they confront the issues or problems? 
  • What sub questions arise from this driving question? (Answering these will help the student take a stepped approach towards answering the driving question)
  • It should not be a question that has a yes or no answer

2. Identify the difficult concepts – When only a teacher will do

  • What difficult concepts will the students come across when working on this project or extended task? 
  • How will you ensure you can explore and clarify these difficult concepts with students?

3. Products – The outcomes you want to see

  • What do you want the pupils to produce during the project or extended work? 
  • There may be several products or just one product
  • These products could be linked to the sub-questions which progress the student towards answering the driving question

4. Clarity with regards to assessment – Knowing how well they are performing

  • For each product, there needs to clear guidance for pupils, as to your expectations for all, most and some.
  • It is good practice to have a rubric attached to each product (outcome) which is transparant for all students. Expectations will be clear and there will be transparency with regards to how to achieve a higher grade/assessment.

5. Every product needs a milestone – Deadlines

  • All pupils should be aware of the deadline for each product within the project or extended piece of work.
  • At these milestones opportunities for students to review their progress should be given.
  • As with the products the milestones can be connected to a sub-question
  • These are good times for assessment/feedback 

6. Answering the driving question – A solid conclusion

  • An ‘informal’ ending could be through a final product e.g. an online presentation, illustration etc.
  • However, a ‘formal’ ending should also be included, where the students are given an opportunity to answer the driving question, through a written essay, referencing all the points they have learnt on their enquiry journey.

Planning a project (the detail)

1. Ensure the project has:

  • a driving question which will be answered in steps. 
  • steps which should take the form of sub-questions or areas of understanding (It is essential that each step plays a crucial role towards answering the driving question)
  • a list of the products (outcomes)  
  • the milestones (deadlines) for these products and final product.
  • transparent assessment criteria for each product

2. When you have worked out the scope of the project (intended steps), work out your timeline

  •  How long should it roughly take to complete each milestone?
  • How long will it take to complete the project overall?

3. Identify the difficult concepts, where you as a ‘teacher’ will need to explain/discuss in more depth than a video or other online resource can offer. 

4. Be discerning with regards to the resources given.  

  • Do they all need them? 
  • Use them as scaffolding for those in need.    
  • Point them in the direction of sites if necessary.

5. Decide if you would like the students to work in teams (possibly remotely)

6. Think about how you will organise the use various communication tools available.   

  • How will you deliver a class lesson (lecture)?
  • How will you communicate with individuals?
  • How will they communicate with you and hand in work?
  • How will they communicate with each other?
  • How will you supervise and check progress?

7. Are there opportunities to team teach/collaborate?  E.g. Plan and co-deliver a project with colleagues in the same department. 

  • One person may be stronger at delivering a particular difficult concept.
  • How will you work together to organise focus sessions and tutorials? 
  • Will you allocate learning space curator?  Someone who will ensure every teacher has the opportunity and time to hold individual or small group tutorials (see next bullet)?

8. Organising/timetabling your ‘check-in tutorials’ with small groups or individuals.

This is the hardest aspect of PBL to organise.  All of this can be simply done with one teacher in a classroom, but tutorials will be difficult to carry out while the rest of the class is sat in front of you working (are they going to remain settled??) Tutorials call for collaboration with other teachers.  The other teacher can look after the majority of your class also while you hold the tutorials.   This of course has space implications – in older schools, you may be reliant on using halls  as an independent learning space. 

9. Each project could have a should have an ‘informal’ ending possibly completed by the team. 

  • E.g.
    • Presentation
    • Class debate with teams or individual arguing their point
    • Display board or info pack
    • A set of instructions
    • An online performance
    • A piece of art or construction/design

However we all know that not all the students in your group will work effectively and contribute to the team effort during the project and so to motivate those who may try to ‘sit back’, there should also be a formal ending

10. Each project should also have a ‘formal’ end where the individual ‘answers’ the driving question. E.g. a written essay; a hypothetical lab report.

Student review booklets

Student review booklets (online or paper) are not where they will produce their work, they are a review of the project content and an opportunity where evaluation takes place.   They may include:

  • The driving question
  • Sub- questions
  • An opportunity for them to add their own suggestions for sub questions and/or areas to explore further
  • The dispositions they would like to develop and how they will evidence this.  (An opportunity for teacher verification as well)
  • A list of the expected products and milestones along with a space for students to tick when completed and verification comment by teacher
  • A list (with dates/times) of lectures which will take place
  • A self-evaluation section at the end

More motivated/independent students could be given a slightly altered booklet.  Which has an end date, but allows them to plan their own milestones and suggest their own products.

Introducing a project or extended task

  • Mind maps are good ways to introduce a project. 
    • Introduce the driving question
    • Ask them to suggest their own interpretations of this e.g. what will they need to find out/understand/answer before being able to answer the driving question
    • Hopefully they will come up with your pre-prepared sub-questions, any new ideas can be extension activities for some.
  • Ask them to consider what dispositions they might like to develop in this project (the 4 Rs)
  • Or alternatively focus them on some you want them to develop and ask them to suggest ways they might do this while working on the project
  • Organise remote teams if you intend to ask them.
  • Give them their student booklets

A script for all teachers facilitating learning through tutorials or supporting students who are working independently

When the students begin working on their projects

(Even if you continue with traditional learning activities, stick a copy of the following section or something similar on every teachers desk or on the walls of every learning space)

Essential check-in questions
1. What have you learned/noticed since last we talked?
Has this raised any additional questions for you?
3. What is your/your team’s next steps between now and the next time we talk?
4. Overall, are you/ is your team, red, amber or green? Explain your choice!  

Further questions to use as prompts during tutorials or when giving feedback

  1. Question their understanding and learning:
    • Why are you doing this?
    • What do you hope to learn by doing this?
    • What do you think you have to do?
    • How could you extend this further?
  1. Question the quality of what they are producing:
    • Do you think this is as good as you can make it?
    • What could be better?
    • Why do you think this is good enough?
    • Can you point out the criteria it meets?
    • Has it met all the criteria?
    • Give/agree action points for improvement
  1. Question the pace of their work:
    • Are you going to meet the deadline?
    • Is the quality of your work going to be jeopardised to meet the deadline?
    • Why aren’t you going to meet the milestone
    • What could you do to ensure you make it?
  1. Question the extent to which they are developing good habits of learning (this will depend on what they are focussing on in the project):
    • What could you do to improve the way you are working with the others in the team?
    • What could you do to avoid distractions?
    • What could you do to improve your time management and planning skills?
    • How could you make better use of the resources you have available (including ICT)? 

Towards the end of the project or extended task

  • Allow enough time at the end for the students to complete their work records (in their online or paper booklet) to show how far they have progressed in the project
  • Bring the class together or as tutorial groups online and ask the teams working on particular products whether or not they have met their target for the session
  • Ask some additional questions related to the project in order to check for understanding. 
  • Allow for time for the ‘informal’ ending
  • Set the final individual task to answer the driving question

Finally – Let’s not be afraid of PBL

The word ‘project’ has always struck fear into many educationalists.  “Pupils are not mature enough to handle independent activities for too long” they cry. “They take too long and the quality of learning/understanding is poor”.  

When it comes to PBL, there have been spectacular failures in schools up and down the country over the past 15 or so years, but also some real successes where carried out effectively.  

They are hard to organise (I always see them as an investment in time up front) and do challenge some teachers, but they are also a vehicle to develop and embed approaches to learning in young people, which will sustain them through life in what is increasingly proving to be an unknown future. 

I also believe PBL and the pedagogical practices contained within them will go a long way to saving our profession as we increasingly head towards an IT reliant future.   PBL draws out and makes explicit the essential skills in good pedagogical practice.   At times we are the subject experts, but this is not why we are regarded as professionals, it is because we are or ought to be, masters of pedagogy and its associated practices.  PBL encourages (In fact, I’d go further than that – it demands) this of us. 

In the third gripping instalment of this Blended learning series of blogs, I’d like to explore the fears that some in the profession have for PBL and discuss possible solutions, focussing mainly on how we personalise PBL to ensure everyone learns. 

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