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February 11, 2021

Navigating the Concurrent Classroom

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Instructional Strategies
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The concurrent classroom—also sometimes referred to as "hybrid" instruction—is emerging as one "solution" to get students back on campus while also providing families the option to continue learning online. This flexibility comes at a cost. Simultaneously meeting students' needs in two different learning landscapes—in classrooms and online—presents myriad challenges for educators. Yet this is the situation many teachers find themselves in.
I spend my days supporting teachers, so my approach to the concurrent classroom is solution-oriented. I wish there was solid research in the area of instruction that combines online and in-person instruction to point to or best practices to draw from, but there aren't, at least not at the K–12 level. Some experts point to the Hyflex Model, which has been used at the post-secondary level, as evidence that the concurrent-classroom arrangement can work. Yet there are significant differences between students at the K–12 level and college students, most notably in their self-regulation skills and the ability to work independently.
So, how can K–12 teachers mitigate the challenges presented by the concurrent classroom? Let's explore some of the challenges, and I'll share advice based on my work with teachers over the last nine months.

Challenge #1: Management issues and lost minutes

In an episode of my podcast, The Balance, organizational development expert Linwood Paul told me, "Routines rule all." I found myself nodding as he talked about the power of routines in our lives. Routines give our days structure and increase productivity. They are especially valuable for young people, who are more likely to feel relaxed and safe in an environment where they know what to expect. When students arrive at a physical or virtual classroom where there is a consistent routine, they do not expend unnecessary energy worrying about what they'll be asked to do. Instead, they can focus their energy on learning.
I encourage teachers to start every class with a welcome routine. If they dedicate the first 10 minutes of every class to a consistent welcome routine, they can eliminate many of the management issues that plague teachers and reduce lost minutes at the start of the class. In addition, a solid welcome routine provides teachers in concurrent classrooms time to receive their online students into the virtual conferencing session. Teachers greet the students who walk through the classroom door with a "hello" or a smile, but it's easy to neglect these critical relationship-building moments with our online students.
Teachers can also capitalize on this welcome routine at the start of class to engage students and gather useful data. Teachers can present students with a spiral review, retrieval activity, goal-setting task, writing or discussion prompt, or a new and unfamiliar problem or question designed to pique their interest and encourage critical thinking. The possibilities are endless, so a welcome routine won't get boring if we vary the tasks.
Just as beginning a class with a routine eliminates wasted time and gets everyone on the same page quickly, ending class with a concluding task can provide closure and again present the teacher with an opportunity to collect informal data and learn from their students. Teachers can end the class with an exit ticket designed to gather formative assessment data to gauge the lesson's effectiveness, collect feedback about the students' experience, encourage reflection, or engage students in a self-assessment activity. The information we collect from students in a concluding task helps us understand what is working and what needs to be modified or improved as we design future lessons.

Challenge #2: Inequality of teacher attention

Inequality of teacher attention is a natural product of having students in the physical classroom while another group attends class online. If students who attend class in person can raise a hand or verbally request help, they will always command more of the teacher's attention.
To address this, I recommend that teachers select a single avenue for all students to ask questions or seek support. Remind, ClassroomQ, or the messaging system inside a learning management system can provide students with the same method for communicating with the teacher. That way, the students online do not feel the teacher is neglecting their needs.
I also advise teachers to carve out time to conference with individual learners (whether online or in person) about their progress. I know the knee-jerk response to this recommendation is, "I don't have time." But we make time for what we value. The human side of teaching is the work we do that technology cannot replace. With everything happening in our world, we need to focus on connecting with our students. The educators who understand the power of connection and design and facilitate learning experiences that create time to nurture their relationships with students will have the most success navigating this challenging moment in education. In a concurrent classroom, this also helps online learners feel included and gives them a chance to raise issues they may be facing.

Challenge #3: Feeling torn and ineffective

"I wish I could focus on one group of students at a time." I frequently hear this sentiment from teachers navigating the demands of the concurrent classroom. Teachers who have traditionally planned whole group, teacher-led lessons that move the class, as a unit, through a series of learning activities are finding it nearly impossible to hold their students' attention in the concurrent classroom.
The challenges associated with whole group instruction are not new, but they are exacerbated in the concurrent classroom. If the teacher plans to present the same information the same way for all students, I encourage them to record it in a video. Video instruction puts students in control over the pace at which they progress through the new information. They can pause a video, rewind it, or rewatch as many times as they need to understand the content.
One of my favorite strategies for designing a lesson for the concurrent classroom to address this feeling of being torn between the needs of the online and in-class groups is what I call the "flip-flop." The flip-flop is essentially a simplified version of the station-rotation model, with just two stations. This gives teachers a structure they can use to focus on one group at a time.
Teachers still begin with a welcome routine and end with a closing activity, but they dedicate the bulk of the lesson to this two-station rotation composed of a teacher-led station and an alternate online or offline independent work station. It's important to note that in a socially distant or virtual classroom, we must think of a "station" not as a physical location but rather a "learning activity." Instead of physically rotating, learners shift from one learning activity to another.
The flip-flop design makes it possible for teachers to work with one group at a time to meet their specific needs more effectively. The group of learners who are not working directly with the teacher will enjoy more control over the pace at which they progress through alternate station activity (typically independent or small-group work). If the teacher provides that teacher-led learning experience for the online group first, he or she can decide whether to keep those kids online working collaboratively in breakout rooms or release them to work asynchronously for the alternate station. Tasks that lend themselves to social interaction and human connection should be pulled into synchronous time so students can access peer support. By contrast, those tasks that benefit from the learner controlling time, place, and pace should be reserved for asynchronous learning, whenever possible.

Challenge #4: Lack of Student Engagement

Instead of being frustrated by a lack of student engagement, we need to identify the factors that can negatively impact student engagement and address them. Students are more likely to disengage if tasks feel too easy or too challenging, if the pace is too fast or too slow, if the work does not feel relevant to their lives, or if they do not feel connected to their teacher or a learning community. So, what can teachers do to increase engagement?
First, differentiating the learning experiences to meet the diverse needs of students is critical in hybrid-learning situations. A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning is bound to alienate students because it does not acknowledge learner variability. Teachers need to consistently collect formative assessment data and use what they are learning about their students to design differentiated learning experiences to meet them where they are at in their learning journeys.
Second, prioritize student agency in the design of your lessons. Choice is a powerful motivator—and can be particularly effective in online settings. Choice boards, choose-your-own-adventure learning experiences, hyperdocs and playlists invite students to make key decisions about their learning and, as a result, increase their engagement.
Third, focus on building and maintaining a learning community. A community must be nurtured over time, so relationship building has to be an ongoing priority. Starting class with a check-in activity, engaging students in discussions about texts, topics, and issues, and encouraging collaboration and teamwork on shared tasks online and off, will strengthen a learning experience over time and create group cohesion.

Mapping New Instructional Landscapes

Educators are being asked to navigate new and unfamiliar teaching and learning landscapes. No one has this all figured out. But some best practices and solutions are starting to surface. To address the challenges created by the concurrent classroom, teachers need to establish consistent routines, connect with learners, build strong learning communities, and blend online and offline learning to shift students to the center of learning.

Catlin Tucker is a Google Certified Innovator, bestselling author, international trainer, and keynote speaker. Catlin is currently working as an education consultant and blended learning coach while pursuing her doctorate at Pepperdine University.

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