Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Assessing is Sharing

In response to last week’s post, @Carloper posed some great questions: what “mastery” are we measuring? If kids are learning in a more open environment, why do we insist on assessing them in a closed, traditional way?

I hated giving tests. It didn’t seem natural to have a room full of silent teenagers, and I spent my evenings squinting at their chicken-scratch handwriting in a classroom cluttered with papier-mâché mummies left over from the Ancient Egypt unit. I cherished any opportunity for student presentations, both to get them comfortable with public speaking and to experience being informative to peers – it also meant peer evaluations and drastically reducing my grading load. Science fairs and research expos were my favorite; students explored each other’s creations and asked questions about processes. Although my school was extremely conservative (teachers and students wore uniforms, and “inspectors” monitored student behavior and reported to the “general inspector,” the school disciplinarian, by whom I was constantly berated for taking my biology class outside), I probably could have incorporated more creative methods of assessment.

Turning again to Aaron Sams, we see that recent iterations of flipped learning incorporate process oriented guided inquiry based learning (POGIL) and promote a meta-cognitive element of “learning about learning.” POGIL’s roots are in chemistry, but it can be applied to other subjects because it focuses on process skills like collaboration (learning with others) and expressive writing. Since “whole education” is a major focus these days practicing the scientific method in history class would be fantastic. POGIL starts with a piece of information and some guiding questions, and has students use the scientific method to reach a conclusion. The more general the initial piece of information and the more open the guiding questions, the greater breadth and depth the students explore. And remember, this doesn’t have to start in the classroom!

Now, if we’re asking students to learn in groups and generate questions they then answer, it’s only fair to assess them in the same way. This is where the meta-cognitive aspect comes into play: students become more aware of what they know and what they don’t know when they have to share. We need a paradigm-shift here, as it would no longer be teachers assessing students, but rather students sharing what they’ve learned; we should call assessment “sharing.” Sams gives his students a choice in sharing their learning; they can take a test that he designs, or they can create their own way of showing their understanding and applying what they’ve learned. He’s had students make computer games and design art projects; as long as they can show that they’ve reached proficiency of a standard, Sams doesn’t mind what form the sharing takes.

You see, flipping isn’t another method to deliver content; it’s about empowering students in their learning – it’s about having students learn from each other and be curious about the world around them. Teachers provide a framework, and have students practice skills like deconstructing complex problems and applying smaller units of information to other problems. As a science teacher, Sams has students use programs like PhET (research-based interactive computer simulations), and Wolfram|Alpha (an online answer engine for computations), and even gives tests where students have open access to the Internet – just knowing how to Google isn’t enough; one must be able to filter the answers to find what best serves them. It’s the skill of knowing to access information when you need it.

Assessment Expression
What I find more interesting than types of assessment is how teachers express assessment. Most teachers grade on a scale of points, usually 10 or 100, and we express these with corresponding letters (A-F), sometimes with plusses and minuses to give even more wiggle room. We say our grading is uniform because an A means excellent and a B is satisfactory, after which come differing levels of unsatisfactory until you hit failure. What does this mean when we’re talking about proficiency in standards? Using these flipped tools allows for standards based grading (SBG) where it’s not about points, but rather about whether or not the student has proficiently met the standard. The culture around grading would have to change, since the goal would be to get all students in the A or B range. 

I think more teachers should take on the role of researcher, and try out new methods; after all, flipped learning started in a classroom. The learning about learning element should become part of teaching culture; you don’t know what you don’t know until you question. Of course, this always brings in the argument that students shouldn’t be guinea pigs, and that just 2 years of exposure to ineffective teaching can heavily affect student achievement. As researchers, teachers would have the responsibility to evaluate and change their methods as rigorously as they expect change and growth from their students. Seems fair.

As part of the Digital Education team, I'm looking at the philosophy, practice, and technology behind 'flipped classrooms'. Future posts will touch on evaluating existing products, implementation experiments, and other topics. Over the course of my flipped journey, I invite commentary and discussion on this practice. Please comment below or email me at Melissa.Romaine@nesta.org.uk.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What the Flip?

Flipped Classroom 
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.

Different Flips
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.

Why Not?
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!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Not Lost, Just Using a Different Map

I went to a launch last night, complete with a panel discussion, for a book about vocational education policies worldwide. When I walked in (admittedly half-way through), the discussion was dominated by talk of Japan's lost generation, the lack of Japanese presence in other parts of Asia, and how one Japanese policy maker -- a friend of one of the panelists -- thinks that Japanese youths are apathetic and don't have the drive to globalize the country.

I’ve heard this whole “lost generation” in Japan thing a number of times, usually from Japanese politicians and experts. There are up to 1 million hikikomori or young shut-ins across the country, unemployment among recent college graduates is high, and yet something like 70% of recent college graduates have no desire to live and work outside of the country (according to a study quoted by the Vice President of Keio University at a panel discussion at the Japan Foundation in London). But some of the most creative and motivated young people I know are Japanese; the main difference is that they live outside of Japan.

For example, one of Burberry’s menswear designers is a 33 yr-old Japanese man who left his home at 16 and moved to London. Erickson Beamon has a successful jewellery designer who was born and raised in Yokohama, then left for London at 27; some of her products have been chosen by Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife for events such as the royal wedding in 2011. Another Japanese woman, a daughter of a family friend, left Tokyo at a young age to be a professional ballet dancer in the Israel Ballet Company. I have a handful of friends who were educated in the Japanese public school system, became fluent in English on their own, and went to the US or UK for university. Most are now studying a third language (German, Italian, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and Burmese) and working in insurance, fashion, and international development around the world. Almost all are women (a discussion point for another time, perhaps). Although all of their stories are different, the common thread is that they left Japan in search of opportunities.

Of course, this is an extremely small sample; I mean, these are just my friends! But hearing politicians and friends of politicians talk about how young Japanese people aren't motivated just drives me nuts. Blaming the generation does nothing; I think the fact that there’s a “lost generation” in Japan says more about institutional and de facto social policies than about young people in general. Why didn't my friends stay in Japan where their families and friends are? What does this say about the Japanese institutions that couldn't keep these amazing people in their home country?

The panelist commented that his policy-maker friend complains that not enough young Japanese are involved in international development. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs runs JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency), similar to the US Peace Corps, where volunteers aged 20-39 live in communities in developing countries for 2 years working on a range of programs. I met two volunteers in Machala, Ecuador; one was training car mechanics, and the other was working in the prenatal care unit in a hospital. They were both in their early 30s, and said that although JICA says you only have to be 20 years old to join, because you need to have a trade skill and learn to speak the local language, most volunteers are a bit older. I would imagine it’s very hard to convince people who are just getting their careers off to the ground, perhaps starting families, to leave everything and volunteer abroad for 2 years of their lives. At that point, it’s not a resume builder like the Peace Corps is in the States, but a resume disrupter. And the way Japanese society venerates career-consistency and corporate samurais, it’s no wonder everyone isn't jumping at the opportunity. (Quick comparison: The Peace Corps currently has 8000+ volunteers, JICA has on average 900 volunteers per year; the Japanese population is roughly ½ of that of the United States. )

I seem to have gotten a bit off topic, but my point is that there are creative and motivated young Japanese people who are products of the Japanese education system and culture as a whole; many of them just don’t seem to stay in a country where either their talents aren't recognized or they personally don’t fit in. Politicians who complain about the “lost generation” but don’t do anything to engage more people from within the Japanese population – creatives who don’t subscribe to corporate samurai-ism, mixed-race Japanese, or internationally educated/raised Japanese people – are just useless. And, I bet they’re wrong; I bet there are tons of driven young people in Japan, who are trying their hardest to believe in a country whose government doesn't even see them.

Grisafe, M. (16 Nov 2012). Can Culture Create Mental Disease? The Rise of Hikikomori in the Wake of Economic Downturn in Japan. Mind the Science Gap. 06 Feb 2013. http://www.mindthesciencegap.org/2012/11/16/can-culture-create-mental-disease-the-rise-of-hikikomori-in-the-wake-of-economic-downturn-in-japan/

Jones, Maggie. (15 Jan 2006). Shutting Themselves In. The New York Times. 06 Feb 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15japanese.html?pagewanted=all

Keio University, Office for Global Initiatives. (08 Nov 2012). Lecture and Panel Discussion on Globalization in Japanese Universities. Keio University. 06 Feb 2013. http://www.ogi.keio.ac.jp/english/news/nfnjs800000003yj.html

Peace Corps. (30 Sep 2012). Fast Facts. 06 Feb 2013. Peace Corps. http://www.peacecorps.gov/about/fastfacts/