'Flipped classrooms' seen as new teaching tool
When classrooms are flipped, the sage on the stage is more likely to be seen on the screen.
The goal, fans of the process say, is developing students who yearn to learn.
Flipped classrooms are a way to take advantage of students’ growing use of technology by turning traditional ways of teaching on their head.
Typically, teachers use class time to present a lecture on the topic at hand -- whether it’s differential equations, the Civil War or Shakespeare – fulfilling the traditional role of the wise person who stands in front of the students and tells them what they need to know. Then students go home and work on lessons that show they have mastered the topic.
But when schools flip the usual order of things, students use their time at home to watch the teacher’s lectures -- as often as they must to learn the material -- typically viewing them online or via DVD. Then they come to the next class period to work on problems, getting help from the teacher or working collaboratively with their fellow students.
At Barat Academy in Chesterfield, where flipped classrooms have taken root since the school began in 2007, the whole object is to take advantage of students’ natural inclination for technology to help them learn how to learn.
The flip is one of many techniques the school uses to get through to every student, said President Debby Watson.
“The idea is to have enough tools to hit the sweet spot for every kid,” she said.
“In 200 years of education, what we have been doing is not working, so we have to try something new. If you are at the point that a kid is not getting it, he is very glad that you have more options so there is one where the light bulb goes off.”
Adds Angela Astuto, the director of curriculum who also teaches Advanced Placement English to 11th graders at the Catholic college prep high school:
“With the sage on the stage, students can sit back and soak it in. It’s easier than being asked to work all day.
“Some students balk at this at first. Our job is to get them to see it as developing lifelong learning. We are forcing them to become active learners.”
Become a Jedi
Since personal computers started becoming widely available in the 1980s, one application that has always been in the spotlight is education. From the early days, when students would play “Oregon Trail” to try to figure out how to survive a trip through the Wild West, educators have touted various ways that learning can be enhanced and extended online.
With the growing popularity of online video, that promise has become greater than ever. Students no longer have just their own teacher to watch and listen to if they want to master the intricacies of college algebra or plumb the depths of “King Lear.” Professors worldwide have recorded lectures and made them available at sites like Khan Academy and TED.
At this week’s conference of the International Society for Technology in Education in San Diego, educators were invited to take part in sessions where they can learn to become “a Flipped Teaching Jedi,” putting the power of the new technique to work.
Flipped classrooms have been around for a while, under various names, but they have taken off in recent years under the influence of two teachers from Colorado, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, who explained the concept this way in a recent article:
“The time when students really need educators to be physically present is when they get stuck on homework questions and need individual help. They don't need the teacher in the room to talk at them and give them information; they can receive that knowledge and content on their own.”
Astuto said that when Barat opened five years ago, it was dedicated to making the best use of technology, and the flipped classroom concept fit right in.
“You literally put the information into students’ hands,” she said. “Our students have so much more access to technology now. I can’t be the sage on the stage anymore. My role is to help them find information and be critical consumers of that information.
“We founded this school with that philosophy. The most important part of my time is not spent on how to take notes and how to take in information. My most important role is to help them learn how to use it.”
A family affair
The flipped classroom concept isn’t just being used at private schools like Barat.
Christopher McGee has used it as a sixth-grade science teacher in the Kirkwood School District, and when he begins a new job as a coordinator for science and social studies in Webster Groves this fall, for grades kindergarten through eight, he plans to spread the gospel there as well.
McGee said he saw the value in the approach about two years ago, when he saw that his sixth-grade students were having trouble with a basic physics concept that previously had been taught to older students.
“I was really concerned that as sixth-grade science teachers, we were moving the concept of force and motion from the seventh- and eighth-grade level down to the sixth grade,” he said. “I was worried that the students didn’t have the cognitive ability and the number skills to understand how it would work.”
Looking around for novel ways to get the ideas across, McGee said he found on Twitter teachers who were using the flipped approach, and he discovered it was a good way to impart basic information.
“There are so many algebraic concepts,” he said, “things like using a formula. When you’re 11 or 12 years old, you’ve never seen a formula before. How do you pull out concepts and details from problems?
“I went into it with ideas that were pretty low-tech, and explanations that were pretty simple and straightforward. I got a lot of feedback from the kids – do this, don’t do that. It’s been spreading throughout the Kirkwood district, and I have five teachers in Webster Groves, one who is already doing it and four who are interested.”
One interesting byproduct, McGee said, was that the students were not always the only members of the family who were watching the video explanations of the concepts he was trying to teach.
“Parent-teacher conferences have been significantly different,” he said. “Every parent knew my voice, how I talk and how I explain things. A lot of the families would watch the videos together, playing them while they were cooking dinner or something like that. It became a family thing, and I became part of the family.”
Teaching the teachers
While flipping the classroom spreads virally, as things do online, it also is becoming established in the curriculum at the schools that teach teachers. Helene Sherman, associate dean for educator preparation at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said that any method that is effective for teachers to get their ideas across to students is something that teachers need to know.
“We want our students to be aware of strategies for teaching any subjects,” she said. “Our teacher candidates need to engage their students in different ways from what they did in the past."
Viewing lectures ahead of time can help teachers succeed, she said.
“That way,” Sherman said, “what is done in the classroom during the precious time that is spent together is truly on concept and not on trying to get students’ attention. They are already engaged because they have already done some of the work in a different setting.”
She said that while some applications of computers in the classroom may have been short-lived fads, approaches like flipping are likely to stick around because they have a more solid foundation.
“The ideas that come and go aren’t really based on research or on actual student experience,” Sherman said. “Flipped classrooms have been researched by psychologists and those who study instructional strategies, so they are supported both by the research and by the students in the classroom.
“We’re incorporating students’ desire to work more independently, to be more engaged with social networks. So this strategy has two things going for it – the research and the fact that it is something we have noted working with students in several settings, not just something that is an abstract notion.”
One problem that the teachers and Sherman noted is the so-called digital divide – concern that not all students have the access to the computer necessary to watch lectures online at home.
McGee said he has worked to solve that problem by making lectures available not only via video but also through a guided reading, a two-column packet that annotates a lecture or textbook with more detailed explanations. Some students who did have access to a video used that technique anyway, he said, because they found it easier to understand the concepts involved that way.
“They chose what was best for them,” he said. “That was a great opportunity to have a discussion about learning styles.”
Sherman noted that in some cases, students can go to a library to use technology they may not have at home, but she admits that can limit the effectiveness of the flipped concept.
“The digital divide is something we all struggle with,” she said. “The challenge is how do you make this universal.”
Reaching all students
Sherman and the teachers who are enthusiastic about flipped classrooms like the ability the technique gives teachers to reach all students, from those who catch on right away to those who are having a rough time – “differentiated learning,” in the special language of education.
“That is a continual goal for all educators to address,” Sherman said. “How do you make sure that you are reaching students who have certain needs in a group setting? It is very difficult to address students who are at grade level, above grade level and below grade level, all at the same time.”
Asked whether struggling students are less likely to watch the lecture at home, Astuto, at Barat, replied this way:
“If a student isn’t motivated, that student isn’t doing homework at night either. If you’re a struggling student, you’ve probably been struggling for years. We’re helping to give you the skills you need.
“If I’m a math whiz, while you’re asking all of your questions, I’m bored out of my mind and ready to move on to the next five concepts. If I’m a struggling student, I need reinforcement. I can come in the next day and say, ‘OK, Mr. Smith, I followed you up to this part,’ and he can give me the help I need. Mr. Smith is able to meet me where I am and take me to where I need to be.”
And the two will be able to meet by taking advantage of a skill and a habit most students already have.
“We’re teaching our students to be lifelong learners,” Astuto said. “They are already doing it. They can go online and figure out how to hit level 15 in Angry Birds. We want them to be able to learn other kinds of information as well.”
“Everything they use already has an ‘i’ in front of its name,” added Watson, Barat’s president.
She said that the flipped concept provides a badly needed answer to an old puzzle.
“We’re still teaching math now the same way we did 50 years ago,” she said, “and the kids who don’t do well are voted off the island and told they’re not good in math.
“This has the potential for revolutionizing education. It will be outstanding for education in our country. It’s going to bring the cream of the crop of teachers to the top and give students access to them.”