School & District Management

Don’t Just Do ‘Station Rotation': 3 New Ways to Teach With Tech

By Liana Loewus — July 14, 2017 3 min read
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For a long time elementary teachers have used “learning centers,” in which students rotate between several independent activities. The practice frees the teacher up to pull individual students and small groups to work on areas of need.

It also serves as a classroom management tactic—teachers often set a timer and have students rotate when it goes off.

Blended learning—in which students get a mix of teacher-led and computer-based instruction—is basically a variation of this theme. When one or more of the centers is on an Internet-connected device, it’s frequently called the “station rotation” model of blended learning.

But is that the best way to serve students? A new paper by the Christensen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on innovation (and claims to have coined the term station rotation), looks at how a handful of teachers have modified the set-up.

Here’s what three of those classrooms looked like initially using station rotation and after making modifications (click on each to see a larger version):

No More Rotations

A 7th grade English language arts and world history teacher at Bella Romero Academy, a K-8 public school in Greeley, Colo., started using blended learning a few years ago with three stations: an online station where students took adaptive reading assessments, a reading station, and a writing station. The teacher, Mallory Mattivi, floated around the classroom.

“With an excess of choice and a lack of structure, not all students could manage to stay on track with the content,” the report states. Mattivi began sitting down with individual students to offer feedback and incorporating more peer collaboration. She gave each student a checklist of assignments they needed to complete by the end of the quarter. Now, instead of using a rotational model with “lockstep choreography,” she has “stopped rotations altogether in an effort to provide students the flexibility and choice to choose their own path through the checklists.”

Less Strict Schedule

The 4th grade teaching team at Bella Romero, overseen by coach Angela Jones, started with a uniform approach to blended learning. They each used three stations: 40 minutes of online learning, 20 minutes of independent or collaborative learning, and 20 minutes of working with the teacher.

They have since ended the fixed times, and now students finish their work at their own pace. They replaced small-group instruction with independent work. “That leaves each teacher available to roam the classroom and pull out individuals or small groups of students who need intervention the most,” the report says.

Setting Individual Student Goals

When she began blended learning, Diane Johnson, 5th grade math and science teacher at Orr Elementary School in Washington, started with a daily routine of doing a whole-group lesson, then having student move through three 15-minute stations. One station was online, another was math games, and a third was independent work. She pulled out small groups to reteach or give extra help.

To try to give students more independence, she began letting them sit anywhere they wanted and set their own goals. That turned out to be too much independence for some, so she reined it back in and returned to a modified station rotation model.

She’s since moved away from whole-group instruction and added a teacher-led small group into the rotation so she can work with students at their level. Johnson also made time for peer collaboration. And she’s added time each week to set goals with individual students. Now students rotate “with personalized goals on their mind,” the report says.

Just last week the RAND Corp. released a study showing that personalized learning is both promising academically and incredibly tough to implement. As my colleague Ben Herold wrote, the researchers cautioned that personalized learning “may not work everywhere,” and should be carefully considered before its put in place.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.