Flippin’ Fantastic

I am both challenged and inspired by the principles of Mastery Learning and the Flipped  Classroom. As the COETAIL cohort video-conferenced (via Google Hangout – move over, Skype!) with Brian Bennett on this topic, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his  incredible personal journey and his insight. Here is a very young teacher who speaks like a seasoned vet, challenging me to re-think my whole approach to teaching. Not just re-think it – REVERSE it! On top of the fascinating troubleshooting process he negotiated with Jeff Utecht as they re-jigged the video connection to work around a Taipei typhoon (no less!), it struck me that his own story completely denied me the usual escape clause: “Well, that just wouldn’t work in my classroom.” He has, after all, developed his flipped classroom/mastery learning techniques in a Korean international school setting, and seems now to have successfully  transferred this to an American public school in Illinois. His pedigree certainly prompted me to listen closely as he shared with us an updated version of his EARCOS conference 2010 presentation.

On the one hand, the basic principles of reverse instruction seem to have evolved organically in my own practice. The idea that students do individual work at home (read the assigned novel chapters and answer the questions; read the textbook and take notes on a graphic organizer), and then spend classroom time in collaborative group work or some kind of dynamic classroom-only discourse … this makes perfect sense to me.

Instruction becomes the homework = CONTENT/CONCEPT DELIVERY happens at home.

Homework becomes classwork = PROCESSING & PRACTICE of these concepts happens in the classroom.

I can see how my classroom has turned around, particularly since this year we have adopted a new textbook for our new history course and, thank goodness, they don’t make textbooks like they used to! Our new Ancient Civilizations text from Holt McDougal is not simply a digital rendering of the hard copy, page by page. It includes multimedia presentations, videos, primary source-related materials, activity-maker software, interactive maps, tutorials, graphic organizers for reading comprehension and writing in a variety of genres, and other materials to extend the learner “beyond the text.”

In addition, it is becoming increasingly common for me and my colleagues to call on the MS IT Coordinator or the Librarian to create “how to” files (PowerPoints, pdfs with images, screencasts – all sorts!) for the classroom projects we undertake. Either the specialist or we, the classroom teachers, introduce the information, but now that we are several years into our 1:1 laptop situation, we have become used to the vast majority of our students being pretty tech-savvy, with just a fringe group of newbies needing the extra prompting. For most kids in our middle school classrooms these days, it would be a waste of time to take a laborious, repeat-each-step-after-me lecture on how to set up a blog, or use PhotoStory/MovieMaker/CamStudio.

With such rich resources, one question I have about the Flipped Classroom is this: When would it be appropriate to turn the vodcasting over to the students? In many cases, they would be re-creating something that already exists in a more professional form – either by our IT/IL Specialists or the textbook company! This is a wonderful problem to have, and it is a luxury of our full-scale adoption of technology for anywhere, anytime learning. In the meantime, perhaps I could start by adding a step to the homework – to the initial content consumption. Perhaps, I could ask students to respond to the homework lecture/instruction/reading via video. Although this could be just as readily achieved with a group discussion first thing in the next class…

In any event, I definitely like the importance that the Flipped Classroom places on teacher-student interaction – that this approach actually frees up classroom time for conversation and individual teaching/learning. It certainly flies in the face of concern that computers will take over from teachers. The emphasis is entirely on enriching the individual’s learning experience, not replacing one kind of learning experience (teacher-student interaction) with another (computer-student interaction).

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So, instruction is definitely in a state of irrevocable reversing for me. Although I can (and want to!) continue this trend of flipping homework and classwork, I know that the environment I am teaching in has set me down a path of reverse instruction that will naturally continue anyway. No worries there. And with a new schedule this year that has me teaching 45-minute classes instead of 95-minute classes, I am finding that class time is just evaporating before my eyes. So, in order to move from content instruction to launching into discussions and activity, I really need to set students up to read and prepare at home, ready for doing something with that  content in class the next day.

BUT: here comes the other hand.  It is the Mastery Learning element that really hounds and confounds me. At this point, the 24/7 access has not necessarily led to increased differentiation in my classroom. Student learning has not yet become personalized. Performance objectives are not yet the standard of assessment in my classroom. Certainly not anywhere near as much as Bennett illustrated with his own model of teaching. For the most part, I still have students working all together at a pace I have set for them, in the order I have set for them, and it is only to a minimal extent that there is choice for the topic, type, or medium of assessment.

I buy into on a theoretical level. I want to do it. And I am envious of how quickly it seems that Bennett was able to switch his organization and approach to enable it. I know I can be easy on myself and just start with baby steps. That’s what kindly teacher mentors have been saying forever about change in education. Just make a start. Just do it!

But I am daunted by the thought of setting up all the procedures. I know that I want to provide the opportunity for learners to take responsibility for their content. And I know that kids will probably be almost as challenged by the idea as I am, because they can no longer just get by “playing school” as Bennett described it. I like the idea of “flipping” to  provide time for learners to explore, explain, and create meaning of the content.  It means I can focus on providing context instead of providing content. Starting with the objectives of a unit and working backwards to create the activities which will give the students the opportunity to show their mastery – objective-based assessment self-evidently empowers students to take charge of their learning.

But it is definitely going to take a lot of planning to implement this in my history classroom where standards and benchmarks are not so black and white, and learning is enriched through more of a shared journey – discussion, debate, multi-party simulation, etc. And then it’s going to take some really slick time management strategies to walk around talking to every single kid (1:1 interactions) – working ahead/behind, helping to keep them with the rest of the class as needed, but giving time to go back and practice or surge ahead in their own good time. To a point. Because I will still need to follow the school’s grading schedule, of course.

Nevertheless, Bennett shared some highly practical points that made this approach seem more concrete and do-able. He said that his units took about 3 weeks and that he prepared about 3 assignments per week for students to complete. To avoid procrastinators waiting until the last day to suddenly come up with assignments, and overwhelm the teacher with the sudden surge of individual consultation time that this would necessitate, he tells students they can only get one objective checked off on the last day of the assignment.

Bennett gives himself some leeway with quizzes; some are completed orally (one-on-one) while others are written. He has a bank of questions with which to quiz students, and some students will only need a few – because they get them right without hesitation or prompting, while others will demonstrate simply that they are not yet ready for the quiz. (He has developed a nifty rubric for this purpose: for a full score, for example, students would need to respond concisely and accurately – without prompting by the teacher – using unit vocabulary fluently in the discussion, etc).

Meanwhile, other students are working on other projects. Students can frontload or backload to meet weekly expectations, but Bennett does chase up kids who complete less than the required amount per week. Because he is keeping track of everything on a one-page Excel spreadsheet (see image) that he keeps with him as he circulates in class, he is able to keep tabs on everyone – that being a total of 100 kids at the moment (just like me!) with about 5 kids that he reckons he works intensively with (i.e. resource students who have IEPs).

In fact, I was particularly impressed with Bennett’s point that this highly personalized Mastery Learning approach ensures that teachers really talk to ALL students … because, if we are honest, we would probably have to admit that there are students in our classrooms who are not actually getting the individual attention that good teaching calls for – for one reason or another, an act of deliberate or unconscious omission. This point hit home for me.

One of my colleagues asked a good question as the video conference wrapped up. What are the characteristics of things that work well flipped? It was generally agreed around the room that the subject material would preferably be algorithmic in nature. Discrete information, concepts that students can pick up quickly, and review independently. But, once the subject territory becomes more philosophical in nature, the videos may well be less powerful as teaching tools. Too boring, maybe. Simply not so flipping fantastic.

Interestingly, on the site devoted to the “Flipped Classroom and Pre-Vodcasting” concept, described as the “brainchild of Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams who are pioneers in the field of using vodcasts in the classroom,” they list specific subjects for which “flipping” is particularly appropriate – and it does not include the Humanities: “Thus far, teachers and students using the Flipped Class model have been very successful in mastering science, mathematics and foreign language. ”

YouTube Preview Image

So, how often is Bennett, a science teacher, still traditionally delivering content? About once a week in biology. But he is not doing the talking. Students are – sitting in desks facing each other. He calls it “the forum.”

I hope that’s the subject of his next EARCOS presentation, because anything with his name on it would get my attention now. In the meantime, I should work with the #flipclass hash tag to follow more teachers using a flip model. More for me and you can be found at The Flipped Class Ning site: groups of people by content area and discussion forums for collaboration and idea sharing.


A Glimpse into the Future

I did the simplest thing in class yesterday. It was genius – by which I mean that I had just experienced one of those “A-ha!” moments, when, for a moment, I saw with great clarity exactly how a tech tool could enhance my teaching…with ease!

I wanted to introduce our next novel study to the class: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. We read this novel primarily to explore its themes and what the author wants to teach us through those themes about the state of our society. As both a Grade 8 English and Social Studies teacher, I wanted to make a connection to our current study of Ancient Greece. Socrates was the obvious dot to which I wanted to connect Bradbury because Socrates advocated critical self-reflection and the rigorous questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions. Two of his most famous quotes indicate the goals of his philosophic introspection: “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

As serendipitous as it was that I was concurrently introducing Socrates and Bradbury, I did not want to take up a lot of class time with this point. So, how could I make the connection brief, yet engage students in the exercise (rather than just standing up front and telling them point blank, and then having many of them miss it or instantly forget it).

At this juncture, my mind alighted upon one of Tom Daccord‘s little gems, as shared with Social Studies teachers at a recent middle/high school workshop. Fusing this with the “million dollar job” activity from Jeff Utecht’s August 28 Course 1 intro day, I had the makings of a cool little exercise.

First, I told students to use the window of class time they had once they were finished and had submitted their Ancient Greece section quiz, to find out more about Socrates. I encouraged them to go to any online reference tool they liked to use to do a 5 minute skim-read with the purpose of identifying Socrates’ main philosophy. Then students were to summarize his main teaching point in a single sentence – it could be a quote from the reference site, or one of Socrates’ own, or a sentence composed by the student. While they were at this, I took the next step:

By filling in the blue form boxes at TodaysMeet - a matter of a few seconds – I had created almost instantly a simple space on the web for a synchronous conversation at www.todaysmeet.com/socrates. I projected the webpage with this simple URL, and students joined me, also in a matter of moments.

I told students to cut and paste their sentence into this chat. Once individuals had finished this step, I told them to watch as more sentences were added, and review those already submitted, with the goal of looking for trends – what ideas came up most? In this way, every student was engaged with the task, and every student reported to the class. And it all took at most 10 minutes.

Finally, I scrolled through the transcript of the chat and elicited from students the words and phrases they could see were repeated most often. The rationale was that any one individual might have misunderstood what she/he had read or been simply a bit off the mark in describing Socrates’ critical ideas, but that probably overall the classroom crowd would have correctly identified the key ideas, so we could boil down the chat input to those basically cross-referenced points.

Sure enough, key words like “question” were repeated, and one or both of the quotes I had hoped they would stumble across, stood out from the list of sentences. In a matter of collaborative moments, I believe the students had gained a clearer picture of what Socrates stood for through a process of social meaning-making enabled by a Web 2.0 tool. And, also, by me. Connectivism on multiple levels.

With the connection iterated, and an essential understanding for the novel study deeply etched along my students’ neural pathways, now they could all turn their attention to reading and self-reflection with Bradbury. It had all been so very simple, student-centered, self-differentiating, publicly accountable, high interest, and easily replicable.

Erik J and Chris F will be sharing details in their blogs about the joint Course 1 Project that we undertook to enhance our Grade 8 English curriculum with a GoogleSite-based discussion and file-sharing, with a VoiceThread activity thrown in. Putting this project together took quite some consultation but we are satisfied that the tech tools we’ve added will certainly enhance our Literature Circle discussions of Fahrenheit 451. I’m sure our efforts will reap rewards for the students in terms of personalizing and internalizing the author’s thematic lessons through collaboration.

But my favorite result of this process so far was that light-bulb moment for me in the classroom, when I saw that it doesn’t all have to be blood, sweat and tears. Technology tools offer instant gratification for old digital immigrants like me too!