In my first official teaching job I was a swimming teacher for kids aged 4-12 at a summer program in Japan. Terms like “classroom management,” “student-centered learning,” and “collaborative learning” did not exist in my vocabulary, and “flipping the class” meant doing somersaults underwater. Discipline was never an issue, and homework was competing with friends to see who could hold their breath the longest. I didn’t know it as such then, but differentiated learning was everywhere: some kids practiced standing dives into inner tubes or showed peers how to start by kneeling, while beginners focused on getting comfortable in the water (“it’s just a big bathtub!”). I was either in the water encouraging kids to jump towards me, or jumping in to scoop up kids who ran out of steam mid-lap.
When I became a classroom teacher in Ecuador I wanted to keep the peer-learning attitude I’d seen in my swimming classes, so the first thing I did was put everyone in groups. Actually, the first thing I did was accidentally threaten to kill my students if they were tardy; there’s a funny story about that. After I assured my students that I wouldn’t be hacking them to pieces, I laid out the plan for the academic term: by the end of the term, each student would give a presentation about some aspect of X. To get there we’d cover certain topics and do activities in class, but they had to do the reading and think up questions for homework. How many of you had to read at home and come to class with questions? This is the main idea behind the “flipped classroom.” For something that’s billed as revolutionary, it has a simple foundation.
To be clear there’s no “right” way to flip a classroom, and there are different stages of flipping. Aaron Sams, a high school chemistry teacher and one of the driving forces behind the flipped philosophy, describes the 6 versions that he’s gone through since he first started, but let’s start with two.
What many understand to be THE flipped classroom is having students listen to pre-recorded lectures at home, and then come to class prepared to tackle worksheets and participate in analytical discussion. This way the teacher can answer questions about the topic at the beginning of class, leaving more time for lab work, problem sets, and group work. Teachers can help struggling students while everyone else is working in groups and focusing on each other rather than on the teacher. The weaknesses in this model have to do with ensuring kids actually listen to lectures for homework, and the fact that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. Teachers don’t really know if students are understanding concepts until they give tests at the end of the unit (summative assessment). Enter iteration two: Flipped-Mastery.
Flipped-Mastery incorporates “testing” into daily activities (formative assessment) so teachers can see how their students are doing before the end of the unit. Khan Academy exemplifies this model with the integration of analytics: teachers can see which students are mastering the content, which are struggling, with what, and then guide these students to accomplish different tasks based on their understanding. Sams likens formative assessment to a GPS/SatNav system: when you’re driving along in your car, the GPS/SatNav tells you when to turn right or left, and when you miss a turn it “recalibrates” to find you a new route to your intended destination. Formative assessment allows teachers to see the same process, and redirect students who may have taken a wrong turn to get back on the road to master the intended content. This is where real differentiation comes in, allowing students to proceed at their own speeds: independent learners thrive, there’s more time for collaboration, students can support each other through peer-teaching, and teachers can interact with every student, every class period. This also means that students can’t go on to the next stage without a complete understanding of what they need, making sure they don’t get shuffled along curriculum. Successive models of flipped learning incorporate more autonomy for students, and shift the teacher’s role more towards “activator” or “advanced learner” alongside the students.
So if flipping the classroom means more time for hands-on activities, individualized attention for kids struggling with concepts, and encouragement for more advanced students to push ahead, why the resistance from teachers and parents to the approach? Some teachers have asked how to ensure that students actually watch videos for homework; how did you previously motivate students to do homework? Others say that flipped learning isn’t the end, but rather a means to an end; what do you think? If you have an opinion or experience you’d like to share about flipped learning, please either comment below or send me an email at Melissa.Romaine@nesta.org.uk.
As part of the Digital Education team at Nesta, I'm researching the philosophy, practice, and technology behind "flipped learning." I'll be writing a series of posts in a blog on their site defining, discussing, and asking for questions regarding the practice. If you have an experience, opinion, or question about flipped learning, please share!