Blended learning is big. In all kinds of ways, blended learning has transformed the state of education from its earliest moments (think apps for young learners) to its most monumental institutions (think edX). The advances have created new virtual platforms (MOOCs) and given educators in traditional systems ways to include and, increasingly, create their own content. Flipping classes and finding engaging content is easier than ever. Creating content and connecting with professionals in the field is almost as easy.  I’ve done this quite a bit this year, even giving my students choice over the content that they need on demand.

This creates a tension, however. If students can access exciting–and accredited–educational opportunities at home, why go to school? Why be restricted to physical spaces and strict schedules? As someone who has worked his career in private/independent schools, I am frightened by another question: if they can access all this content and all these field professionals for free, why pay $40K per year for it?

This has transformed the role of K-12 teacher and required post-secondary educators to think differently about their craft. Michael Godsey just published this piece in The Atlantic asking a logical question: “When kids can get their lessons from the Internet, what’s left for classroom instructors to do?” He seems to be between two models, as many mid-career teachers are. I am among them: schooled in traditional roles and rationales, yet invested enough in growth models–his own and his students’–to see that times and paradigms are changing. He also argues that change is happening faster than we might imagine; what may have appeared to be a 20-year project may be half that.

This is the point at which I would introduce a new model of blended learning.

Blended learning 1.0, a mix of video/virtual and real time instruction, is here. It has been for years. Nevertheless,  despite its tremendous promise, version 1.0 is still static and siloed in disciplines and discreet institutions, no matter how widely conceived each is. Version 2.0 is blended across disciplines and divergent ways of thinking. Version 2.0 blends not just the delivery mechanism but also the methodology. This is where trained teacher can have a significant impact in learning outcomes. What are the big questions? How to sequence them? How to help students see as many sources and perspectives as possible while learning to read for depth and detail? Giving students the tools (art, engineering, science) to notice and the fluency to name (languages, history, civics). Teachers working together across disciplines and in search of interesting problems/projects can do just this. What skills do markets demand? What big, messy problems can only be considered, let alone solved, in traditional boxes? What skills will students need to be able to work as members of teams engaged in this work and how can we educators prepare them? What skills do educators need to stay current and competitive in their practice? I don’t have answers to these questions but I do feel strongly that these are the ones to ask, not “Did we meet standard ‘X.Y.Z’?”

In this spirit teachers and students begin working together towards three functional fluencies. These themselves become blended fluencies: financial, technical, cultural.

While these themes and questions are never far from my mind, three stories from The Wall Street Journal a while ago supercharged my thinking. They were diverse stories–from paleontology on-demand manufacturing–but there were common threads:  discerning and cross-disciplinary thinking. The first was a story about a paleontologist with training in a dental laboratory, special-effects makeup and wig making at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. This diversity of experience breeds a unique skill set and a less-than-ordinary view. The second story was about how Adidas aims to get its cool back. Though it may not seem so at first pass, selling sneakers is as much about cultural fluency as it is style and success on the court. The third story was about model-to-manufacturing trends, citing advanced modeling techniques and increased manufacturing capability in China as drivers in the industry. There was in interesting twist in the story, where a vendor lost time by misunderstanding or miscalculating the impact of Chinese New Year celebrations.

These stories provide evidence that understanding global connections (culture) and industry trends (financial and technical) are keys to success in the world today. We should be educating our students with this degree of functional fluency. I would suggest that the best way to do this by blending delivery systems and keeping these fluencies in the forefront. In the manufacturing example: what if one understood the tech, the language and the culture enough to not lose time in production plus gain dual footholds in international markets? In the Adidas example: what if one developed footwear fluency, combining tech specs, style, sports culture indexed by region, language, larger fashion trends. Enrique Allen, cofounder of Designer Fund, said in a recent NYTimes Technology video, “I think there is really something special when when design, great technology and business all come together…” I came across another example more recently: that Apple’s plan to sell gold iPhones in China is working. This sort of design thinking founded in the fluencies and flipped/blended learning in the ways I suggest can really lead to a new view of education.

How do we get there, especially at the K-12 level? Here are some possibilities:

  • Design challenge: mock up and make something then pitch it in 2+ languages, cultures. Students would have to blend fluencies: financial, technical, cultural. How to pitch it? To whom? Where? Why?
  • “Space Invasions.” Create blocks where classes meet in different space or, even better, where classes from different disciplines meet together to try to solve a tough problem.
  • Pursue global collaborations like the ones offered through Global Stem Center. The project outcomes are secondary to the projects teams. Tools like Skype, Google Hangouts and, the new kid on the block, Periscope make this easier every day.
  • Create situations where students have to apply multiple approaches to solve a problem. If they think it’s a stretch, cite the horror make-up to paleontology connection. There is no shortage of issues–just domestically–that students could pursue: water shortages, conservation, clean energy, infrastructure, food deserts, etc.
  • Sell experiential learning programs domestically or abroad. These could be week-month-semester-year long programs. I have been intrigued by hybrid programs: sea-kayaking and intensive Spanish programs in Mexico; music and service in the New Orleans; urban development and diversity in a local community; biological research and hiking in a national park; cultural studies and French immersion in France.

In the end, this is what educational leaders and industry experts claim they are looking for: graduates schooled in design thinking, ready to collaborate across networks and even cultures, able to communicate effectively. Tony Wagner outlines these skills as his Seven Survival Skills. Perhaps with these skills in mind and driven by newer, more nimble ways to connect–with other learners and across content areas–our students can become leaders in these times.