During World War II, Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste!” The pandemic created a crisis for the entire world, blew the doors off education, and forced educators to think of how to teach our young people differently. Educators were challenged to create learning spaces in which students virtually connect and develop habits to help keep them on pace with their learning. Fortunately for Huntley High School, the groundwork for developing the skills to learn outside the classroom had already begun with blended learning.

The concept and implementation of blended learning began in 2011 at Huntley, and the pathway we pioneered has gained national recognition and now involves more than half of the school’s 3,000+ student body. Blended learning leverages technology to transform the traditional classroom experience into a continuum of learning that combines online learning and face-to-face instruction. In it, courses typically meet—as a whole—two or three days a week, with the remaining days offering students flexibility in deciding how best to use their time, from working online, meeting individually or in small groups with the teacher, working ahead, or catching up in their courses, or even leaving campus to nap. 

For example, in math, students may watch videos of a certain lesson online and complete work that does not have to be done in the classroom. The teacher is still available to students during the blended time, but the lesson is something that the teacher believes the students can do outside of the typical learning environment. Teachers get to choose which part of the class is taught online and which part of the class is interactive with the teacher. That way the class time can be spent in face-to-face discussions, robust interactions between teachers and students or students and students, and hands-on activities or labs. This innovative approach allows for increased differentiated instruction and ownership of learning. In other words, it gives students more control over the time and place for learning, more closely mirroring the type of schedules they’ll encounter in college and the workplace. 

Finding Their Way

The pandemic required students to take ownership of their learning and challenged them to create an effective learning environment, despite the challenges they faced. In March of 2020, families across the nation first started to grapple with getting students connected to the school and to the classroom—adjusting to platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, and more. Once they understood the platforms, they had to find the rhythm in which to connect. Many schools had to determine how to make it to the end of the year, giving as little schoolwork as possible because all were adjusting to the hurdles of everyone being quarantined. By the time families began to figure it out, the school year had ended, and it was time to prepare for what was next. 

Schools began to work through the question, “How can we capitalize on the personalized learning environment to allow students to be successful in the coming year?”

The goal of blended learning and this personalized learning model is to ensure that a student’s time in the classroom and level of one-on-one support are directly informed by their mastery of content. Students also have the freedom to go in and out of this pathway based on their own learning needs. The resiliency that students displayed during the pandemic was incredible. Like so many generations of Americans before, they have taken the challenges they inherited and made them into something great. When the in-person classrooms our kids had been accustomed to learning in closed, they made their own. And they learned. 

They learned about themselves. They learned how to learn in new ways. They learned how to get to where they wanted to go when the original route was closed. They learned how to take the tools around them and build a new pathway to their destination. The personalized approach to learning did this for them. It allowed them to discover the best approach to learning that was most comfortable for them. 

Building Stronger Learning Outcomes

Overall, the blended learning program has proven to enhance communications skills, increase digital fluency, and strengthen self-motivation. It has been described by students as the single greatest preparation for college they have experienced in their academic careers. Our blended learning pathway stands as one of our district’s hallmark efforts to promote 21st-century learning strategies that serve all of our students. 

Most Huntley students take at least one blended course, but no teacher or student at Huntley is ever required to participate in a blended learning model if it does not work for them. All blended classes are offered in a traditional capacity as well, for students who do not feel comfortable in a digital environment. 

However, blended learning is not only the most popular modality for teachers and students; it also correlates to stronger student learning outcomes, according to Huntley’s data. The cumulative GPA among graduates who took at least one blended learning class is 10% higher than that of their peers (tracked since the early days of blended learning at Huntley). Additionally, students in blended classes have scored an average of 5% higher on the ACT than other students since 2013. 

As principal, I believe that the social-emotional benefits of blended learning are just as impactful. For example, let’s say a student has an English test later in the day and blended classes earlier in the day. That student may not do work for those morning classes and instead study for the test that day. Stress—the social-emotional component—factors into this choice. For some students, it’s stressful enough being in the school building with 3,000 students coming and going. But, if our students’ education is blended and they can find a quiet space to work or take a break—to be able to step out of the chaos and decompress—the student’s stress decreases, thus putting them in a better and more open state of mind for learning. 

Marcus Belin is the principal of Huntley High School in Huntley, IL, and a 2021 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year.