Dan Mahlandt, blog author, is the Principal of Valor Preparatory Academy of Arizona. He taught for 18 and served for 12 years as an administrator in a traditional public school. He created and implemented systems to convert traditional classrooms to hybrid models, led a transformation to CBE, served as Principal of an online/onsite at-risk school, and created a blended, full-time K-12 virtual district academy He has master’s degrees in Educational Leadership and Creativity and Innovation from Drexel University.
I am in my 32nd year in public education—with 18 years in the classroom, 12 years as an administrator, and 2 years leading a hybrid public charter school, applying all that I have learned in the previous 30 years. My former administrative position was in a traditional but progressive district in Pennsylvania. There, my job was to help transform typical teacher-centered classrooms into more flexible student-centered learning environments. Along the way, I built a full-time and part-time virtual academy, I created online/onsite labs for at-risk students, I ran professional learning through flexible learning cohorts of teachers, and I guided the implementation of competency-based models for learning. In all my experiences, the conversation always came down to how we use technology to deliver content and how teachers can spend more time building relationships and guiding students in applying knowledge in ways that challenge and engage them.
Two years ago, I left Pennsylvania to lead a hybrid school, Valor Preparatory Academy of Arizona. Valor Prep is a public charter and hybrid school for students in grades 6-12. Students have the flexibility to work part of the day on personalized learning, building skills and knowledge at home or school, both environments with the support of their teachers. They spend the other half of the day collaborating with peers in small groups activities and authentic project-based learning to apply knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems. Valor Prep provides a blend of technology-driven personalized learning and collaboration that is truly student-centered learning.
Hybrid learning at Valor Prep works because it leverages the strengths of both technology and teachers to create the best learning possible for all students. The model forces a school to ask the tough question of, “What are the strengths of our technology and our teachers, and how do we use them together to help students face the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow?”
Let’s start with examining the relationship between technology and the people in the school setting. Technology (at Valor Prep, we use digital curriculum from StrongMind) can offer curated, formative data for all stakeholders on student understanding and interactions with foundational concepts, as well as the need for intervention, remediation, and enrichment.
Teachers in our hybrid setting emphasize relationship building while challenging and supporting students. Those of us who lead in hybrid/flexible learning environments remind teachers all the time that knowledge is not kept by teachers, professors, or books anymore. Instead, the role of the teacher is to provide opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways.
In our hybrid school, we use technology to lay the foundation for learning with the robust, standards-aligned and research-based digital courses from StrongMind. A high-quality digital curriculum supports the basic premise of hybrid learning–let technology build the foundations with personalized learning and then let teachers build on the foundations by guiding and mentoring students in putting new skills and knowledge into practice while immersing them in solving relevant, real-world problems.
In our hybrid setting, student, teachers, and parents receive constant formative data about how students are progressing in the foundational aspects of learning. Our platform also offers teachers hybrid lesson plans that link the online content to deeper learning activities through independent work, collaborative activities, project-based learning, and teacher seminars. This has made real transformation possible, providing teachers with the gift of time to plan the synchronous time with students, using data to inform their decisions, and selecting from engaging activities where students use higher order thinking skills to independently and collaboratively tackle challenging questions and problems with direction and support from their teachers.
Hybrid learning supports the skills the top organizations in the world are seeking now. According to Edweek, traits like independent learning, flexibility, learning agility, adaptability, empathy, and resilience are in high demand. The blend of technology and collaboration in hybrid learning creates an environment where students can learn, practice, and master these sought after skills and traits, readying them for post-secondary learning or to earn a viable living wage after they graduate from high school.
Hybrid learning can also make a huge difference for teachers and help counter the crisis of a shrinking teacher workforce. A growing dissatisfaction by many teachers was exacerbated by the pandemic, with teachers leaving the profession at an alarming rate. The teachers at Valor Prep enjoy and feel supported in what they do because they focus on why they chose teaching as a profession. They wanted to make a difference in the lives of their students, prepare them for life after school, and feel passionate about the curriculum.
So back to the question of what are the strengths of our technology and teachers and why does hybrid learning work for Valor Prep students, teachers, and families?
It works because it leaves behind what we have traditionally “known” education to be and has shifted to what education can and should be. Our hybrid model empowers innovation, school leaders, and teachers to re-invent the system with student-centered learning that prepares our students to face the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow.
If you are considering a shift to hybrid or another flexible model of learning, I would love to share insights about how to make it happen in your school or system.