A few weeks ago, a bold group of Cary Academy students stood in front of a group of 80 public and private educators from across North Carolina and said: We have a voice.

We are capable of thinking deeply about our own education, they said, and should be a part of the local and national conversations about academic achievement and educational reform.

Rather than just complaining about the issue, our students exercised that voice by hosting their own conference on the subject, attended by teachers, administrators, policy makers, and scholars.

The Cary Academy Blended Project

A strong theme throughout the conference had to do with taking advantage of pedagogical strategies that enhanced student learning. One group of students who had a lot to say on the subject were those taking some of our new blended classes this year. A dedicated team of upper school teachers has spent the last six months developing and launching eight new courses that “blend” online and face-to-face teaching strategies. The key components of the Cary Academy blend are that the courses must involve some student choice in time, pace, or place of instruction.

During their panel presentation, our students spoke very enthusiastically about what they called the “time shifting” that is going on in their blended courses. They report a great deal of satisfaction in having some control over when and where they do parts of their coursework. You can see this flexibility exercised in the library, the hallways, outside, or at home.

This may sound insignificant at first, but in reality it is a very big deal.

Don’t believe me? Take a few moments to read the sobering account of the experiences of a teaching coach who shadowed students in her school for two days. Her major takeaways:

  • “Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”
  • “High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.”
  • “You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.”

Now, at Cary Academy we like to think that our students are not quite as passive as the norm. Walk into any random class at CA, and you’re likely to see students working individually and in small groups. The teacher is likely moving around and supporting students as they need it. Much thought is given to group and individual learning opportunities. However, within this context, students still have limited choice. By the very nature of our current system, there is an element of control in a traditional classroom that can contribute to students “feeling like a nuisance.”

When we began development of our blended classes, we started with the assumption that the rigor and quality of work would be at the same or higher level than our standard courses. But with students having more control over place, place, and time we expected they might be more engaged in their learning and able to perform at a higher level. Early anecdotal evidence across all of our courses is positive.

This year I am co-teaching a blended Global Leadership class with Upper School Principal Heather Clarkson. We meet our students once a week in a traditional class setting. We also use the flexible time to meet with each of our students individually once a week, to check-in on their personal goals and development as leaders. Each student has chosen an outside “leadership coach” and they meet with them several times over the course of the semester. Coaches are business leaders, academic leaders, religious leaders, and entrepreneurs. By leveraging the flex time, we are able to break down the classroom walls and get our students connected with others in the real world. In addition, our leadership students are taking the online portion of the class with peers at schools in Brazil and India. This week they began an online simulated climb up Mt. Everest to practice some of the teambuilding and communication skills we’ve been working on in class.

We are still early in our blended pilot project. While we are encouraged by the positive feedback from students, our Blended Learning Team is still refining what we do. We are supported in this effort by experts at NC State’s Friday Institute of Educational Innovation. They are helping us develop blended course standards and evaluate our classes against the Cary Academy mission. Importantly, and in line with what students said at their recent conference, student feedback is critical to the evaluation of this new model for instruction.

We are very proud of risk that our student took to host their own conference this October and exercise their voice in an important social issue. In December, Cary Academy will play host to another conference on blended learning, and students will once again be an equal partner in those conversions.