Reflections on Student-Centered Learning Part 2—Educator Perspective

By Sarah hatton
December 18, 2015

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) hosted their annual Symposium in Orlando, FL in early November. Though I attended several thought-provoking and engaging sessions at the conference, those sessions that featured voices of the students and educators doing the hard and rewarding work to personalize learning stood out to me. I was struck by how closely aligned these student and teacher experiences are with what research tells us about the best approaches to teaching and learning.

Last month I shared insight and reflections from the student session. What follows is my roundup of reactions to Paula Barr’s insightful presentation. Paula is a second-grade teacher at Quail Run Elementary School in Lawrence, KS and the 2015 iNACOL Teacher of the Year. She is in her 34th year teaching, and this is her third year in a blended learning classroom.

Relationships (peer-to-peer and student-teacher)

Paula noted in her talk that blended learning requires collaboration. The classroom is intentionally not 1:1, and as a result the 25 must determine how to divide into productive collaborative groups to get their work done across the 10 devices and 2 collaborative workstations. At the beginning of the year students often pair or group up with their closest friends, but Paula found that it doesn’t take long for them to realize that those students might not be their most productive work partners. While some students work in groups and others alone, Paula is able to float from student to student. This time to working alongside a student, seeing his process, and listening as he explains the work gives her far more information about student learning than any test ever did.

Technology and Student Ownership

Though the classroom isn’t 1:1, students are actively engaged in technology and use it as a key to take ownership of their learning. Each student is given an email address and can use email to communicate with their teacher, their peers, and other school personnel.

Students are often so engaged in their schoolwork and projects that they will take work home with them. They can stay in touch with their peers in the evening and on weekends to share ideas about their work by using email. Their engagement in the school work and desire to take ownership of their learning is especially apparent on snow days when the students have emailed Paula asking for more content so they can continue to progress through their work.

Email also empowers students to share their learning with their families. As soon as a project is completed, students can email their family directly and share their accomplishments.

However, it’s important to note that all of this must be taught. Paula is intentional about building technology skills in her students. Though the students know how to use the tech—and often take the lead when troubleshooting needs arise—they still need to learn how to use tech for learning. Students also work to build their collaborative skills and transition from simply giving their partner answers to understanding that they are responsible for the other person’s learning.


In order to teach students how to use technology safely and responsibly, students are able to use the open Internet for their research, as opposed to an age-specific search portal. Paula noted that the ability to access texts at all levels pushes reading and writing skills. When students are interested in the content and engaged in their work, they are motivated to conquer hard texts—along with the help of their peers and teacher.

The class is still responsible to meet certain summative testing requirements, including end-of-week assessments and unit tests. However, these tests play a smaller role than ever before in helping Paula track student progress. Being in the weeds with the students—sitting beside them and hearing them talk through their work—is so much more valuable then the summative assessment data.

Preparation for the future

Paula spoke on the importance of giving her students the skills to succeed in their lives after schooling, expressing the desire to empower her students to walk out into the world and be able to solve problems and think critically. But for her second graders, there is important near-term future preparation as well.

Since Quail Run Elementary School is still in the process of converting to blended learning, her students have had to transition from their blended second grade class to a traditional third grade class. In this instance, Paula strives to help the students internalize skills they are learning in the blended environment and translate them to their future schooling. How does each student learn best? What tools can they use to find help when they are stuck? By engendering an academic mindset in her students, Paula helps to ensure that they are prepared not just for college and career, but to succeed in the rest of their K-12 education.

Advice for those who are just getting started

As someone who has recently transitioned to blended learning and is now a blended learning teacher/leader, Paula shared helpful advice for those who are just starting to transition their practice:

  • Start with just one topic area. Changing everything at once can be overwhelming.
  • Encourage transparency.
  • Invite your colleagues in to observe your practice when things are going well, but also when you are struggling.
  • Let students know when you’re trying new things, and if things don’t go well, don’t be afraid to let the students know that since Plan A isn’t working, it’s time to test out Plan B (or C, or D). Allowing students to see you take risks, try new things, fail, and persevere through that failure will help encourage them to do the same.
  • Parents will likely be hesitant at first, especially since personalized learning is often quite different from the education they received. Once those parents see their student begin to succeed, though, they will be more likely to support further change.
  • Enjoy it! Before Paula began her journey with blended learning, she was one of the older teachers at her school and beginning to look forward to retirement. Now her outlook is very different: “I can’t wait to keep going!”

I encourage you to revisit Part 1 of this post. Do you see alignment between the reflections from high school students and from this second grade teacher? Do these observations resonate with your own practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts about these two pieces and your own experiences @SarahLHatton using #SATCeveryday.

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