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Blended Learning 101:  What, Why and How

blended learning

The first time I heard the term “blended learning,” I thought it had something to do with tracking or how children were grouped into classes. Turns out, I was completely wrong. Blended learning is an instructional approach that gives teachers the ability to direct less of the learning, handing some of that responsibility to students instead. At first, accomplishing an instructional model that relies on students doing different things at the same time seems like a near impossible challenge to meet, but with a little practice, blended learning can become one of the most useful methods in any teacher’s toolbox. 

What is Blended Learning?

The technical definition of blended learning sounds a little intimidating at first, especially to anyone who is wary of combining teaching techniques simultaneously in a classroom. When students engage with this method, they experience a mix of online learning and more traditional instruction. If this idea is overwhelming, that is because we often plan lessons to include students doing the same thing at the same time. With blended learning, differentiation is a natural byproduct of an approach that by necessity has some students working on laptops or tablets while others might have books or paper materials. Any teacher who experiments with this model will immediately see the need to be highly organized both in the physical setup of the classroom and with logistics, like how the daily agenda is put together. Sometimes station rotations are the best way to implement a blended model, while other times kids may be in two separate parts of the room doing different activities and stay in those zones for the duration of the class period. The possibilities for how to set up a blended learning classroom are as endless as they are intriguing in their potential to help students with a variety of learning styles be successful. 

Why Is Blended Learning Important?

When an instructional approach works well, both teachers and students stand to gain several benefits. In my 2022 book, Teach More, Hover Less (W.W. Norton & Company), I emphasize the importance of helping students make their own meaning of what they learn. In traditional, teacher-directed classrooms in which students experience the same content at the same time, it can be hard for all students to be successful because they have limited options for how they access learning. In a blended model, there is some degree of choice. On certain days, for example, students might be given a list of tasks that need to be completed and then have the chance to complete one or two of them that day, and then others on a different day. While this flexibility may seem like a small change, being able to select how we work is important for all people, not just kids. Adults also like to make choices for what we do first (or how we do it) depending on our own personal proclivities.

In addition, creating a blended space also opens more opportunities for teachers to work with a more responsive focus. Suppose one group of students is reading quietly in one part of the classroom, another group is working with an online curriculum activity, and a third group is collaborating on a project. The teacher can use this time to either conduct small-group instruction for students who need attention, or perhaps even have meetings or conferences with individual students to provide targeted support. Another option would be for the teacher to rotate through the groups, offering assistance where needed. No matter what this time looks like specifically, blended learning models give teachers the time and space to work more creatively and closely with students in ways that help build stronger relationships around learning. 

How Do I Start?

To begin the process of experimenting with blended learning strategies, a great place to start is with a unit that is as familiar as possible. If a teacher is doing a new subject or presenting a new text, for example, it can be harder to also work with strategies that are just as new. Once teachers have selected which unit in which to incorporate blended models, it helps to look at a daily agenda. What activities do students do together as a whole class that might work better in smaller groups? What can be done independently, and what needs collaboration? And finally, which planned itinerary items work better online, and which necessitate more traditional class materials? Once teachers begin to make these determinations, they can reframe how lessons are carried out to differentiate their instructional models more. To gather new ideas, I highly recommend blended learning expert Catlin Tucker’s blog, which is chock-full of amazing ideas and resources that she updates regularly. In addition, Tucker has some helpful posts about how to physically set up a classroom, including this favorite of mine.

Years ago, a teacher I coached told me that in his opinion, differentiated instruction is just not a realistic goal. His feelings are understandable and relatable, but I had to respectfully disagree all the same. Like any other teaching technique we seek to grow more adept with, it takes time and practice to be skillful, but everyone can get there if they so choose. Blended learning may take some initial preparation on the front end of our planning process, but the benefits far outweigh any temporary frustrations. Just think – students who work with more autonomy make time and space for teachers to have more flexibility during instruction, and that alone should be a strong enough motivation to give blended learning a genuine try. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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