Tales from the Road: The Epstein School & Three Common Denominators of Success

| By Gary Harstein

I travel around the country quite a bit, and am fortunate enough to be able to visit schools of all shapes and sizes. I love learning how each school, with different community demographics, enrollment levels, faculty configurations and philosophies, approaches the same issues in its own unique way. 

As more schools look toward blended learning as a vehicle for changing how learning happens, there are many considerations with which school leadership must wrestle. This is often the point where I step in; helping schools that are in various stages along the implementation continuum navigate their unique challenges. Some schools are simply piloting blended learning, while others are scaling up from pilots toward campus-wide integration.  Some schools are still struggling with basic technology integration; while others have pushed forward successfully with technology that is integrated so seamlessly that it’s almost invisible. By learning from their initial challenges, these schools apply the knowledge they’ve gained over the course of their trials and errors to adjust and improve. 

While we have many schools in our Network that are doing this well, there is one I visited recently that I believe deserves some special attention: The Epstein School in Atlanta. When I think about the best practices I see in exemplary schools, I can look at a school like Epstein and check off just about every item. 

Here at the DigitalJLearning Network, we work with faculty and administrators from our Network schools to provide some insight into at what successful blended learning can look like, and what it takes to get there. In thinking about commonalities I’ve observed, there are three things that are clearly evident in every successful blended learning environment I’ve visited. Epstein is no exception.

In this post, I’d like to share with you some of what I witnessed first-hand and Epstein. As you think about your own planning for blended learning, think about how some of this might look in your own classroom or school.

(To see pictures and read Epstein's piece about Gary's visit, click here.)

Understanding That It’s About Learning, Not Technology

On my recent visit to the Epstein School, I was thrilled when everyone I met, from the leadership to the faculty to the paraprofessionals, told me that they don’t implement any program if it doesn’t align with learning goals. In addition to blended learning, Epstein has a number of different innovative pilots and programs taking place. These include project-based learning, badge learning, and coding.  Yet in every case, the focus is on the learning.  The resources chosen to support these different initiatives - including any technology - are all based on the learning goals and students’ needs. Remember, blended learning is a means to differentiate instruction, help students become independent learners, and develop necessary skills and practices needed for college and beyond. Even though it uses technology tools, it’s about the learning first.

Vision and Ongoing Support: Top-Down and Bottom-Up

I like to use the old analogy of a “spider doing pushups on a mirror” to illustrate this concept. A truly successful implementation will be driven from both the top and bottom. For that implementation to be sustainable, it’s important that the vision from the top-down is clear and tied to learning goals. Equally important, it must be supported with enthusiastic commitment and championing from the head of school and the administrative team. Looking at Epstein as an example, the teachers involved in blended learning are enthusiastic and diligent. But they wouldn’t survive the challenges – the opportunities to fail forward and learn – if their administrative team wasn’t leading the charge. From the head of school to the teachers on the ground, it is clear to everyone that the goal is quality learning for all students. 

I sat in on a meeting where the principal of digital education and technology was talking with a group of teachers that is piloting blended learning. In addition to listening to teachers share stories from the “trenches,” the principal worked with the group to articulate a vision for their pilot. Bringing them into the planning process gave them a sense of ownership, nurturing the bottom-up drive to build a strong implementation. Sharing successes and challenges provided opportunities for teachers to support each other and even identify in-house expertise that was previously unknown.

Both top-down and bottom-up approaches require commitment from everyone involved. It’s easier for teachers to take ownership of that commitment when they know they have the support of their leadership.

Sustained and Ongoing Support on the Ground

No matter the reasons for implementing blended learning, the outcome is a change in the way learning happens, both in and out of the classroom. In most cases, this means a transition from an older, very comfortable teaching model, to one that requires a different focus and application of teacher expertise. Shifting to a more student-centered model is hard enough for new, idealistic teachers who may have had opportunities to learn this way themselves. It can be even more difficult for veteran teachers – many of whom have been very successful and are good at what they do – to adopt a new approach.

This is where we really have to differentiate between training and professional development. Training is an event; professional development is a journey. And it’s a journey that takes myriad forms. 

In addition to having an administrator who holds educational technology integration as a part of his portfolio, Epstein has dedicated faculty whose full-time job is supporting teachers on the ground with their implementations. At Epstein, the instructional designers and media specialists support the teachers in ways tailored to the needs of the individual faculty members. While they may provide larger, more general training sessions, the ongoing support happens regularly. The instructional designers support planning and identifying appropriate resources to help the teachers meet the desired learning goals.  This can take different shapes depending on grade level, subject and unit of study. The bottom line is that this provides scaffolding to help teachers become more confident facilitating learning in blended environments. It also strengthens the in-house expertise, and provides opportunities for developing new leaders on campus.

For training and professional development, schools may start with some workshops before a school year begins. However, if it ends there, chances are so do their shots at successful implementations. Change is seldom easy. But with good scaffolding and support – much like schools try to provide their students – teachers have the space to try new approaches and learn from the things that didn’t work as well as planned.

Schools implementing blended learning understand that it’s not about the technology; they have a healthy blend of top-down and bottom-up vision. They provide sustained, ongoing support and professional development structures, and they know that they must dedicate resources to support any change they want to bring about. 

I realize that not every school has the resources to bring on a full team to support the implementation of blended learning. But having a dedicated support structure in place is essential, even if the model and staffing look different. This may involve partnerships with outside consultants. It could also involve leveraging in-house expertise. However it’s done, a key part of planning for success is identifying how support will be provided in the long term.

While no two schools are identical, there are definitely some common areas, like the three highlighted above, that any school moving into blended learning needs to consider. Identifying how your school will approach them is a critical part of the planning process. When done well, it lays the foundation stone for building a community of independent learners.