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Blending Middle School: A Powerful Time For Math Education

Using competency-based, student-driven learning to achieve math results

Middle school is a time of development, discovery and transition for students, as well as an exciting and powerful time for math education. Math starts to get more complex, and students must build connections between content. This web seminar, originally broadcast on September 22, 2014, featured blended learning expert Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, who shared research and findings from successful implementations of blended learning in middle schools across the nation, as well as lessons learned and best practices for blending middle school math.

Tom Vander Ark
Getting Smart

There are four factors that we saw in all the schools we studied that we think make blended learning particularly productive in the middle grades. First is the ability to meet the personal needs of learners by very quickly diagnosing their learning level, and also to diagnose some of the gaps in their learning and to address those on an individual basis. Second, middle grades are quickly adopting a competency-based approach where students can progress at their own level. In many respects, that’s going to be more challenging to adopt than blended learning. But we think it’s important that students progress as they demonstrate mastery and that they get more time when and where they need it.

Then we have game-based math. Products like DreamBox do a particularly good job of allowing kids to experience productive failure and supporting it with instructive feedback. We find that this builds a cycle of success and builds persistence in middle grade students. Finally, a lot of blends are surprisingly social. They often include a whole-group component. Some include peer tutoring and dynamic grouping, which can keep things fresh. But one thing that Joe and I want to stress is that the real benefit comes when a group of teachers are able to work together to create learning progressions in a blended environment school-wide. We like to think of blended learning as a team sport.

There are two basic models to choose from in the middle grades. One is a station rotation model, which usually happens within a classroom. And many teachers, particularly at the elementary level, have used a multi-modal stations model. Adaptive products like DreamBox Learning are most frequently used in a lab rotation setting because the products usually run on the local server. But recently DreamBox was made available on tablets as well, so we’re beginning to see more middle grade blends that are station rotation models.

Joe Trahan 
Curriculum Designer
DreamBox Learning

In the last year we’ve been fortunate to partner with Bellevue Schools, which is a district outside of Seattle. It’s encouraging to see the kind of culture and atmosphere that they have where students expect to be rotated. The students are accustomed to rotating through individualized work, to working with a teacher, and then going back and sitting on their computers and working with DreamBox for 15 to 25 minutes. It’s a model that students and teachers have become very comfortable with. It seems to be working well.

Tom: Schools have told us about a number of lessons learned when it comes to blending middle grade math. The first one is data. The exciting thing about adaptive learning systems like DreamBox is that students are getting continuous feedback from their experience, and it provides a wealth of data for teachers as well.

Joe: It continually assesses what the students are doing in a way that it is difficult for a teacher to accomplish when every student in the class is doing their own thing and learning at their own pace. DreamBox will immediately tell the student, “It seems like these are the mistakes you are making. Why don’t you start leaning toward this strategy to figure it out?” Meanwhile, it is also feeding that data back to the teacher. It gives that teacher the chance to see the exact concepts that individual students are working on and what mistakes they’re making.

Tom: That leads me to the second point. This might be the biggest challenge around blended learning: aligning supplemental products with the core. What we’re seeing now is that people are rethinking their core instruction as a combination of modular materials and, increasingly, all digital. In both of those worlds it’s important to make sure that the components are aligned and that you’re able to integrate the data and use data from multiple sources to improve instruction and to guide individual student progressions. Motivation is one of the big benefits of blended learning, because there are so many interesting and exciting ways to engage students. And it works well for most students, but for some it’s particularly important to pay attention to pacing.

A blended environment can require a 7th grader to be more independent than they were in the past. And so, having strategies to help them understand whether they’re making adequate progress can be important. Some blended models have created a little pacing meter on the desktop to help kids stay engaged and motivated. Maybe the most important lesson learned—a universal comment that we got from the schools that we interviewed—is that teacher support is critical. When introducing a new program, teachers need to feel comfortable using the tools.

Joe: We’ve had some school districts adopt DreamBox and at first they say “I don’t know what to expect from this. I don’t know how much to use this in my class.” We’ve said, “Have you had professional development in it?” And they respond, “Well, no. We didn’t think about that right away.” So DreamBox has put a lot of effort into making sure that we have a robust PD program. We are able to send a DreamBox employee out to schools to meet with teachers and administrators. It gives the teachers a full view of what DreamBox is supposed to do, how they should expect to interact with it, and how it can be most productive in their classrooms.

Tom: Another interesting observation is that a lot of people think that professional learning for educators should look a lot like learning for students. It should be blended. It should be personalized. It should be competency-based. So when adopting new tools like DreamBox, it’s also a great time for a school to rethink how its professional development works. We think every teacher should have an individual development plan and they should have their own digital learning playlist that they are able to access anytime, anywhere. They ought to be learning with their team at school, and they also ought to be part of a professional learning community online.

Joe: DreamBox offers a rigorous and engaging Pre-K through middle school math experience. This helps students make sense of math and improve their achievement either online or with an iPad app. We know that improving student understanding in mathematics with technology doesn’t just mean digitizing old educational practices and putting students on the computer for 10 minutes at the end of the class. DreamBox Learning engages students in rigorous math content that is aligned with standards, including the Common Core State Standards. We also use our Intelligent Adaptive Learning technology to create a personalized learning experience with ongoing formative assessment for each and every student. DreamBox Learning improves student understanding, by inviting and empowering students to think independently and to solve problems on their own. Students have to think critically, not just practice, and they develop math vocabulary and conceptual understanding through experience. The manipulations that students are able to do in DreamBox give them a chance to think about what they are learning.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to