Some thoughts on rotational learning.

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Oh, hey, blog. How you been?

One of the things I enjoy most about reading others’ blogs and tweets and Google+ postings is that I get a glimpse into what other schools and classrooms are up to. In the tech coaches world, there are plenty of fascinating things being shared and a lot of important questions being asked as we start the new school year. I thought I’d write a bit about rotational learning.

Rotational what-now?


Our district has embarked on another year of implementing the PA Hybrid Learning Initiative. In its initial stages, we implemented the model in middle school classrooms, and last year we piloted in grades 1 and 6 in our three elementary schools. This year we’ve expanded to grades 2-5.

We decided as a district to refer to it as “rotational learning,” rather than hybrid learning, since that term can invoke feelings of tech-dominated learning environments, and we’d prefer not to think of the model in that way.

Rotational learning is, quite simply, a method of managing a classroom in three learning stations, through which students rotate during a block of time. For us, at the elementary level, it’s during Language Arts (120 minutes) and Math (90 minutes) blocks.

Direct Instruction – The teacher meets with a small group of students who have been grouped according to their academic data and delivers a lesson targeted to their needs.

Collaborative Station – Students work with one or more peers on an activity or project. This collaborative project usually builds upon content learned during direct and/or asks students to problem solve and work through concepts they’ll be learning in their direct group. It likely also incorporates content from science and social studies.

Independent Station – Students work independently on a learning task, including interacting with digital content providers.

Friends, this isn’t earth shattering. It’s not new. Especially in elementary-land. (It’s been marketed well. Districts in our state are all over it. Because education. Because edtech. Because profits.) We know the power of small group instruction, because we recognize value in establishing personal connections with kids and designing instruction to best meet their needs. This model attempts to provide a framework to organize the rotations and help districts understand how to organize the use of the technology they’ve provided to classrooms. (I do believe it is causing more a shift in what instruction looks like in our secondary classrooms, and I do believe it’s making a positive impact.)

One summer a few years ago, it was announced our intermediate students would be 1:1, and the laptop carts showed up in classrooms, with no preparation or teacher development on what a 1:1 learning environment looks like. Those laptops remained in the carts for quite some time. No one is comfortable handing out devices to every student in the room and expecting magic to happen. Many schools are encountering similar scenarios. The devices are coming in… now what do we do with them? What should we do with them?

We are very fortunate that we are able to provide a variety of technologies for student and teacher use. We also try to provide “people” support.

  • Kindergarten classes have a COW (computer cart on wheels) to share, some buildings have access to a computer lab.
  • Grades 1 and 2 – 1:1 Chromebooks, expanding to grades 3-4 in years to follow
  • Grades 3-6 – 1:1  PC Laptops
  • Our teachers have laptops and classrooms have Polyvision interactive boards and audio-visual setups.
  • We use content providers and services such as ST Math, Achieve 3000, Reading Eggs, Raz Kids, Edublogs, GAFE, IXL, and Defined STEM.
  • We have a large technical support staff, and this year one technician is stationed directly in each elementary school, which has been fantastic. We have an elementary tech coach (me, I rotate among three buildings) and a secondary tech coach who serves grades 7-12.
  • We contract with our local IU to provide days of coaching to every elementary team each month. This looks like the IU coach spending time in classrooms, talking with teachers and kids, providing feedback to teachers, helping them brainstorm ideas for projects and activities and brainstorm solutions to issues that arise.

What are we finding? (These are my thoughts from an elementary perspective).

Rotational learning #wins:

  • Reduction in the amount of whole-group instruction time. Does whole group instruction have value? Of course it does. But to use it all day, every day… you might as well guarantee  you’re losing 50% or more of your kids as you enter your 8th minute of lecture. And does every student in the room need to hear the content you’re sharing in whole group every lesson, every time? Not likely.
  • Allows for teacher flexibility with how the model looks, based on the needs of their classroom. This may mean adding a fourth or fifth rotation (some teachers add a Writing station, some actually do 6 rotations for shorter periods of time to keep things moving along). Our teachers are champs at this. They’re not feeling pigeon-holed by a model, they know their kids best, and they’re making it work for the students in front of them each day.
  • Lots of motion. No one is sitting still for 45-60 minutes at a time.
  • Students take ownership over schedules, transitions, roles they play, and their assigned devices. Many teachers incorporate leadership roles for kids like “computer captains” and “switcher” to help keep everything running smoothly in the classroom.
  • Requires thought into how technology is used in the classroom. What role will it play during direct instruction? During collaborative projects? How will students engage independently? How will we know if it’s making a difference?
  • Realizing that collaboration is hard. Kids (and adults) don’t inherently know how to be productive members of a team. This means that we spend time teaching accountable talk, establishing group roles, modeling positive group interactions, teaching kids how to problem solve and resolve conflicts in a group, and more.
  • Incorporate a coaching model to support teachers through this process. Preferably, use coaches that have classroom teaching experience as well as instructional technology integration experience.
  • There are no pull-out groups for kids. All instruction happens in the general education classroom. Support specialists, Title teachers, learning support teachers, etc. run intervention groups and specially designed instruction in the classroom. (This is actually the model we moved to before using rotational learning.)

Rotational learning #fails:

  • When differentiation doesn’t happen. When the same direct instruction lesson is being taught to three different groups that contain kids with varying needs.
  • When no thought is given to the work happening in Independent, but rather content providers are just used as glorified babysitters. Similarly, when a teacher does not use data from said content providers to plan instruction.
  • Teachers and admin who are uncomfortable with noise. Quality collaborative stations are busy, busy places. Filled with conversations. Of course student voices need not overpower the voice of the teacher who is delivering direct instruction, but please let the children talk.
  • Admin who micromanage. Consider that this model requires teachers to triple+ the amount of planning they do to ensure they meet the needs of a diverse group of students. Let’s not nitpick the way we require them to write and format lesson plans.
  • Failure to incorporate student choice and voice into rotation activities.
  • Not involving parents and community members. Parents hear “hybrid,” parents hear “1:1,” parents think their 6-yr-old is sitting in front of a laptop all day, every day. (Hopefully) not the case.
  • Thinking that because we’re using the rotational learning model and our classrooms are 1:1, we’re doing something innovative.
  • Not providing teachers with enough collaborative planning time, or, failure of teams to capitalize on the common planning time that IS available in their schedules. Planning for rotational learning is no small undertaking. You need each other.

As with all initiatives, the majority of successes we experience with rotational learning can be attributed directly to the teacher and his ability to effectively plan, co-plan, instruct, create, assess, and manage. Teacher feedback has ranged from “this is so great, it makes the day go quickly, I love seeing students in small groups so often,” to “this is too overwhelming, we don’t have enough time to plan for collaborative,” etc. Students definitely seem to enjoy the variety it brings to the day, and our preliminary data indicates that we are helping our students make appropriate academic gains.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on rotational learning or similar and the types of things you’re experiencing and learning as you work with your students!



2 Replies to “Some thoughts on rotational learning.”

  1. Nice post Lyn. That’s great that you had your school personalize their approach to blended learning. Rotations are a staple of elementary level learning, so it makes sense to “upgrade” your practice using this model as a driver.

    Wondering…how are teachers handling the possible loss of autonomy in designing learning for one classroom of students? That was one of my favorite parts of teaching elementary school: Creating units of study that integrated many disciplines and connected knowledge and skills across content areas, yet was threaded around a main topic or concept. Related, has there been any drop in accountability of student learning by teachers, as students now have multiple instructors?

    Thanks for sharing!


  2. Hi, Matt! I really appreciate the feedback! Since we have begun to do so much differentiation in our elementary classrooms, you are correct the days of the “self-contained” model are gone, at least in our district. I, too, have fond memories of spending the entire day with the same group of students as a sixth and fifth grade teacher, having the freedom to extend time in content areas, involve students in thematic studies, etc. I appreciated the autonomy and the ability to spend so much time with the same group of students, which I found essential in creating a strong classroom environment and rapport with my students. I have spoken out about this as we’ve moved to more of a segmented schedule, one that, in my opinion, mirrors more of a middle school schedule at times. It has been a cultural adjustment for a lot of teachers (and parents), however the evidence is becoming clear that teaching students in targeted, small groups based on their specific academic needs is making a positive impact on student achievement. When I think back about my self-contained classroom days, there were times when I taught whole group and I certainly wasn’t best meeting the needs of all of my students. I have voiced objections to rigid segmentation of the elementary day, and the rationale that is shared with me for continuing in this manner is that students are making good gains, and currently, not all of our teachers are highly skilled in differentiating for all student groups in a full class. So it’s benefiting our students to work collaboratively as teachers to group students and deliver instruction. Hope that makes sense… it is definitely a shift in thinking in terms of what a typical elementary learning experience looks like. Thanks for reading, Matt!

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