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Blended Learning Won’t Work Without a Strong Culture to Support It

Blended Learning Won’t Work Without a Strong Culture to Support It

Personalized Learning  |  Leaders  |  School Districts

Years ago, Anthony Kim, CEO of Education Elements, remarked to me that “Blended learning accelerates a good culture and makes it great, but it will also accelerate a bad culture and make it terrible.”

As I’ve thought about his observation over the years, it rings truer with time. When I’ve seen great blended-learning models in action, the culture in the classroom—and often the school—is crisp and clear. When I’ve seen poor or uninspired blended models, it is nearly always because the learning environment is littered with inconsistent practices.

The implication? Implementing blended learning won’t work without a positive and systematic culture to support it. Culture is especially useful—or toxic—in blended programs because blended learning goes hand in hand with giving students more control and flexibility. If students lack the processes and cultural norms to handle that, the shift toward a personalized environment can backfire.


So what is culture? And how do you create a strong culture conducive to student learning?

What is culture

In our new book, The Blended Workbook: Learning to Design the Schools of Our Future, Heather Staker and I use the definition from Edgar Schein, a professor emeritus at MIT and expert in organizational behavior. He defines culture as “a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.”

In other words, as a group works together to solve a problem, if it is successful then it tends to use that same solution—or process—the next time it confronts a similar problem. If what it tries is unsuccessful, however, then the group will likely search for a new solution. Over time, an organization’s priorities around what matters and processes for how to execute what matters become so internalized that they become a matter of habit—or culture.

How to create a strong culture

Fortunately, as we share in our new book, good culture doesn’t have to emerge from happenstance. Leaders can deliberately build the strong culture they need by following six steps:

  1. Define a problem or task that recurs again and again.
  2. Appoint a group to solve the problem.
  3. If the group fails, ask it to try again with a different process.
  4. If it succeeds, ask the same group to repeat the process every time the problem recurs.
  5. Write down and promote the culture.
  6. Live in a way that is consistent with the culture.

You can discern the health of an organization’s culture by asking, “When faced with a choice on how to do something, do members of the organization make the decision that the culture ‘wanted’ them to make? And was the feedback they received consistent with that?”

The rules for changing a bad culture and for shaping a strong culture from scratch are identical. Identify and define the problems that need to be solved in the new organization and then solve them. If the solutions are successful, then repeat them until the processes and priorities become reflex within the organization’s culture.

The types of problems worthy of exploration fall into a variety of categories, such as:

  • how the family and community will support a blended initiative;
  • how should students own their learning and monitor their progress;
  • and how should teachers conduct small-group and individual coaching sessions.

Within the last category, you might consider the norm for how a student who is working individually on a computer will get help when the teacher is engaged in small-group instruction.

The power of great culture

I had the privilege of spending time in the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, NY, this past academic year with its visionary superintendent Dr. Ken Eastwood. A longtime partner of Education Elements, the district has implemented blended learning across its schools in a thoughtful and deliberate way over the past few years. But what stood out to me wasn’t the technology in the buildings. It was the consistent culture in every single classroom I visited.

A frequent refrain from some district blended-learning leaders is that they cannot replicate charter school models with coherent cultures throughout all classrooms because in a district school, each teacher has significant autonomy to create his or her own classroom environment. Regulations and work rules, leaders say, inhibit the ability to create a school with one strong culture as opposed to, say, 24 distinct ones in each classroom.

Walking through Maple Hill Elementary School in Middletown blew that notion to shreds. From classroom to classroom the models were the same and the culture was strong, tight and consistent. Routines were crisp. Students understood expectations and, at all ages, could articulate not just what they were working on, but often why. I could never tell whether I was in a classroom with struggling or accelerated students. Each had a plan personalized to his or her needs with teachers who were working hard in small-group settings.

The principal, Amy Creeden, is often found in the classrooms supporting her teachers. In fact, support is a very ingrained part of the culture in Middletown. It was clear that the district developed a comprehensive, whole-district rollout plan for blended learning with considerable professional development and co-design sessions with teachers. Involving all stakeholders in the planning from the get-go was key, I bet, to creating a consistent culture that laid the foundation for the strong results the district has seen with students in blended-learning classrooms.

The risks of getting culture wrong

Culture is simply too important to leave to chance. In profiling Anacostia High School, a 697-student Title I school in Washington, D.C., that has long been one of the district’s most underperforming schools, a report by the American Enterprise Institute a few years ago highlighted the school’s efforts to move to a blended-learning environment. The authors wrote about how the students used netbooks with an online portal that gave them access to an array of multimedia tools for learning and on-demand assessments that provided immediate feedback. The report talked about how students could log in with unique passwords so that teachers could track each student’s individual progress.

And yet, the authors wrote, as they were observing a class, they saw that students logged in not with their unique ID but with a generic one. Some students struggled even with that, and it took them up to five minutes to enter the password. Rather than use the online assessment capabilities, the teacher used paper worksheets. And when one student struggled to understand a word, rather than use the computer’s dictionary or Google, she walked over to a bookshelf and took her time flipping through a dictionary for help.

This represents a classic example of a program where leaders have left culture to chance, rather than aggressively shaping it. Middletown helps us see the power of creating a crisp culture that pervades the school. But for every Middletown, there is an Anacostia that has not paid as much attention to the culture as it should.

Our book is intended to support educators in creating a constructive and concrete culture—a topic that otherwise often feels challenging and vague. Leaving culture to chance is akin to risking the outcome of your blended-learning model and the opportunities afforded to the students served. Culture happens on its own or by shaping it. Our hope is that leaders take the time to shape it and make it a good one--because the success of your blended program likely depends on it.

The Blended Workbook Download the first chapter and discount code

About Michael B. Horn - Guest Author

Michael Horn speaks and writes about the future of education and works with a portfolio of education organizations to improve the life of each and every student. He serves as the Chief Innovation Officer for Entangled Studios and as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions. He is also the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank. Horn is the author and coauthor of multiple books, white papers, and articles on education, including the award-winning book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and the Amazon-bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. An expert on disruptive innovation, online learning, blended learning, competency-based learning, and how to transform the education system into a student-centered one, he serves on the board and advisory boards of a range of education organizations, including Education Elements, the Clayton Christensen Institute, the Robin Hood Learning+Tech Fund, and the LearnLaunch Institute. He also serves as an executive editor at Education Next and is a venture partner at NextGen Venture Partners. Horn was selected as a 2014 Eisenhower Fellow to study innovation in education in Vietnam and Korea, and Tech&Learning magazine named him to its list of the 100 most important people in the creation and advancement of the use of technology in education. Horn holds a BA in history from Yale University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

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