Part 3: Using Blended Learning to Build a New Culture of “Gritty” Kids!

“Adversity builds character” is something I have to keep telling myself every time  the helicopter mom in me wants to swoop down and rescue my children from everything, from too much homework to social issues. Letting my children, within reason and within supportive frame, learn to find their wings and fly has been the best thing I could have done for them. As teachers, how often do we allow students to find their wings and fly within our supportive frames ? Do we let them experience challenges in the range of optimal academic challenges as mentioned in Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory  and force them to stick with learning a concept till it’s mastered?

In this blog post, I’ll explore that concept of stick with-it-ness in relation to blended learning and mastery-based learning. Blended learning can help us deliver on this promise to build this new culture where students stick with stuff, develop grit, and learn HOW to learn… for life.

Just like a bird learning to fly, we’ve all been new learners  to something– learning to do something we have never done before. Hopefully, unlike birds, we are rarely thrown off the tree and hope the wings work. In fact, in most learning experiences, we start at a point with the intention of progressing through a number of points and moving up as you develop mastery.  For example, if you started a martial arts class today you would join the lowest belt and regardless of your age, you would begin at your skill level and once you showed mastery, you would climb the belt ranks. Michael Horn interviewed Scott Ellis of The Learning Accelerator in “What Education can Learn From Kung Fu” in which Ellis uses Kung-Fu as an analogy for thinking through what mastery-based learning would look like in our K–12 schools. If you were new to martial arts, you wouldn’t be placed automatically with your age group, you’d be placed with your  skills level group, nor would you be expected to stay with your skills group for a fixed time. If you did well, you would move up to the next skill level.  

So what does this have to do with blended learning?

A few weeks ago I started assessing  whether eCredit is truly living up to Christensen’s definitions of high quality and where we are as a district in regards to blended learning. I spent time in my 2nd blog post exploring in detail each definition of blended in context of our district’s eCredit Recovery. Here’s what I’ve learned and how grit fits in.

One of the components of high quality blended is a blended model learning where learning is mastery-based. What would happen if we required students to master concepts before being passed on to the next grade? What would we teach them other than the fact they learned the concepts? We would teach them a different mind set about themselves as learners, we would teach tenacity , grit and perseverance. Unfortunately, education is built on a culture of passing kids on even when they have failed (and we wonder why kids don’t know how to take charge of their learning). So while I thought I had cracked the code with building autonomous learner skills in eCredit as a way to build self-directed behavior, I was really missing a key ingredient, that of “perseverance” and the key to fueling the autonomous learner.

It is a given that the population we serve in credit recovery tend to lack a positive mindset, perseverance, and grit and as a result have ended up in credit recovery and, because they do not have that grit factor, they lack that self-directed ability to get through online content. “Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007) refer to grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (p. 1087). They emphasize this long-term quality, noting that “gritty” individuals will work steadfastly on one significant goal over a prolonged period” (In Farrington et al,  21). I wonder this: while teachers in the eCredit program are doing those great things such as: building relationships, community,  modeling study skills like note taking and modeling habits like goal setting and having students put those things into practice in the belief that we will help them become autonomous learners and start taking ownership of their learning, teachers are faced with kids who have never experienced learning like this before. Teachers are working with students who have been pushed along since they first started failing in elementary and have never been asked to stick with something long enough in order to develop that sense of satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a goal and succeeding.

Most of us have had those students whom we feel we have supported in every way possible… But have we put everything in? Have we done all that we can do? I believe we haven’t worked on tenacity and endurance, and failed to equip students with a toolkit to use to face inevitable challenges. It is easy as a teacher to ignore the non-cognitive skills and some may even argue whether that should be their responsibility given all that they have to accomplish in a school year. In our blended learning environments, teachers use technology to diagnose, to intervene, to conduct small group instruction to model goal setting, positive mindsets with each individual child because online learning when leveraged effectively can free the teacher to individualize instruction for every student. When a school or teacher sets up online learning just right, learning online will yield tenacious learners.

So I sit here today fascinated with teaching adolescents to become learners, with teaching non-cognitive skills and intrigued with building that into our eCredit model. My dream is to have teachers embed researched based non- cognitive activities, those related to goal setting and positive mind sets in our after school blended A La Carte credit recovery environment in order to teach students to persevere and become learners who are self-directed. I envision a high-quality blended learning model that includes components of mastery-based learning that will teach the habits of perseverance by placing students in the real life situation of having to persevere mastering their learning in order to successfully recover their credit. In credit recovery we are already using the a la carte model where students work online and meet face to face with teachers, where students receive one on one instruction and data is used daily to inform how teachers will intervene. We build a sense of community and habits of learning to help students become self-directed learners.  Yes, blended learning models can be used to build a new culture of gritty kids!

My plan is to prepare our eCredit teachers to develop Grit– to work with students to persevere through mastery-based learning. We will design intentional activities to help students reflect on themselves as learners and set and reach achievable goals as well as develop positive mind sets so as to increase students’ perseverance and thereby develop student agency and self-directed learning. In my dream world, we would grow beyond eCredit. We would start with elementary schools, where each school would would have a blended rotation lab of some sort for students who need to stick with a concept a bit longer. Every elementary student moving into middle school will have mastered each grade level expectations.

How? Our online content is rigorous and engaging. It’s got tools such as allowing us to reset mastery, required completion until work is mastered, prevent students from progressing and require teacher attention when content is not mastered. With these online tools, we can enforce mastery-based learning in the credit recovery model, and students who have typically been passed on from year to year and have gaps that are many grade levels wide will be able to stick with growing their understanding of a concept.

And just when I thought I had it all figured out I paused when I started reading about the self-control in connection with perseverance. While research studies indicate that grit, an indicator of success, exists in students who lack self-control,  students who stick with “it” are having to get unstuck from the other distractions. Getting unstuck requires self-control. Distractions interfere with perseverance. The marshmallows in the famous marshmallow test that was used as the “treat” in a 1960’s study on delayed gratification, is today’s Facebook, Instagram, emailing, and for our learners, requires just as much self-control to put it aside and persevere through the work that requires attention:

              “  In essence, Twitter is the new marshmallow. (Or Facebook, or Foursquare. Pick your poison.) At any given moment, a host of such “treats” await us. Emails, social media messages, text messages — discrete little bits of unexpected and novel information that activate our brain’s seeking circuitry, titillating it and inciting the desire to search for more. Our ability to resist such temptations, and focus on the hard work of creative labor, is part and parcel of pushing great ideas forward” (The Future of Self- Improvement, Part I: Grit is More Important Than Talent).

Additional studies around  delayed gratification explore how much trust and confidence play into students who exhibit self-control and delay gratificationWith that in mind, coupled with the fact that students in eCredit have experienced a system that has moved them along regardless of mastery of concepts thereby robbing students of the opportunity to build grit and tenacity and stick with-it-ness of the learning until it is mastered, we as teachers working with at risk students have our work cut out for us in building trust, study skills, positive mind-sets, self-control in the hopes of developing perseverance and self-directed behavior. If districts, schools, teachers such as ours embrace blended learning and embrace blended models, we can  explicitly design experiences that teach non-cognitive activities (including factors that will support and develop student self-control) as well as expect learning to be mastered, perhaps we will build perseverance and in turn build self-direction for the online learner who will not only find success in mastering concepts but will find their wings to fly for life. 

Want to learn more? I just started browsing through these papers and I strongly recommend that anyone who works with children, learn everything there is on building grit. Here are a few I am exploring:

  1. Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners 2012
  2. Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology  2013
  3. School of hard Knocks “How Children Succeed”
  4. Children Succeed with Character Not Test Scores


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