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Volume 27, Number 6
November/December 2011

Flipping for Beginners

Inside the New Classroom Craze


Since she began ‘flipping’ lectures and homework assignments, high school science teacher Shelley Wright has noticed something: the number of students failing her course has dropped from the usual three to zero. Departmental exam scores are higher, too.

Wright, who teaches grades 10, 11, and 12 at Cornerstone Christian School in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, is one of a growing number of converts to the practice of inverting—or flipping—the daytime class lecture, on the one hand, and nighttime reading and problem-solving homework, on the other. When Wright teaches, she introduces a topic in class through activities or groupwork, and then asks students to watch a related lecture from the not-for-profit tutorial creator Khan Academy or from the TED conference website for homework. Instead of filing into the class the next day for a lecture, students are prepped to apply what they’ve learned.

Because video lectures can be easily rewound for clarification, there’s a better chance that students will arrive the next morning at the same level of understanding, according to Wright and other teachers interviewed for this article. If not, the teacher is there to help them catch up, while the rest of the class moves ahead, usually working on a group project or assignment. To insure retention, Wright is beginning to require that her students take notes when watching videos.

Flipping for Beginners
Teacher pioneers in this new practice say that, when flipped, the standard instructional cycle looks something like this:

* Day 1 – Exploring: Students first explore the material with an activity building on prior knowledge. Ramsey Musallam, a high school chemistry teacher at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, uses this time to help students conceptualize the science behind a unit. In a unit on boiling points, for example, he begins by asking them to do a warm-up problem: How does the addition of sodium chloride affect the boiling point of pure de-ionized water?—and then to share answers. Students then do an “open-ended” (graded pass-fail) lab to further explore the concept, and present their findings to the class. Their homework: watch a video Musallam created, which introduces additional concepts, definitions, and more structured discussion of the material, along with problem-solving equations that will be used in class the next day.

Jay Hooper, who teaches AP Calculus at Centennial High School in Champaign, Ill., says that recording his direct-instruction lessons for viewing later gives his students more class time to build their understanding through collaboration and peer instruction—something Musallam also endorses. Hooper’s introduction may involve group problem-solving, in which they explore what they will learn more about in the video assigned for homework that evening. “I tell them, ‘I want you guys to talk about these problems; there need to be four different [people’s] handwriting on the paper you turn in,’” Hooper recounts. “Instead of my demonstrating something, and then repeating it 20 times, I can dig deeper into the conceptual foundation of the problem with my students,” he says.

*Night 1– Explaining:
Here, students watch and sometimes interact with some form of media online. Practices at this stage vary. Some teachers use third-party videos or their own creations made with various authoring devices to put their writing, drawing, and problem-solving on a screen. Wright, for example, is preparing to create some screencasts (a video recording of what the teacher draws or writes on a computer) using a smart pen called Live Scribe.

Musallam has created videos [Editor’s note: see video in his post of September 26, 2011] that include a screencast showing Musallam writing and drawing. Students are then asked to summarize the video in a few sentences or solve a related problem and to identify what they did not understand. They submit those responses via a Google Docs form the teacher created, accessible below the video. To create his videos, Musallam uses a Wacom Bamboo tablet with Jarnal PDF annotation software; for capturing screen images he employs ScreenFlow on his Apple Macintosh computer and web-based Screencast-O-Matic when working on other computers.

Hooper, the calculus teacher, also creates his own media. He works problems on a Genius G-Pen tablet, captures his output with Camtasia or (free) CamStudio software, and can then use any computer to place his output online. He also likes PDF Annotator to write on .pdf files he creates and posts online. Hooper embeds in his screencasts a graphing calculator, in addition to using popular visualization programs like Mathematica and GeoGebra. After viewing, students can then submit a question online about something for which they will need more explanation the following day.
Some teachers, like Robert Townsend at Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, Mich., use other media, such as a PowerPoint presentation that Townsend narrates, captured as a video using Camtasia software. Townsend’s PowerPoint about the Industrial Revolution mixes text with visual information, as he uses the cursor to point to key pieces of information while talking through each slide. He also emails students questions they must answer after viewing his video, and requires them to create a post about the topic at his Google Group. Because 75 percent of the students at his school are eligible for subsidized lunches, Townsend gives his social studies students a week to view the presentation in case they do not have a smart phone or Internet access at home.

* Day 2 – Applying:
In his chemistry class, Musallam pulls up his students’ questions about the video from the night before to examine trends in understanding. He then discusses questions many students share, and poses an application problem, setting up a competition among groups to solve it. A learning packet that students obtain online presents more problems, and Musallam shows how to solve one before class ends. Students may then take home another challenge problem from the learning packet, and study for a quiz the next day. After the quiz, Musallam begins a new unit.

Townsend focuses class time on helping his tenth-grade social studies students develop skills like making inferences from data and drawing conclusions about historical trends from sequences of events. Because students have a week to view the homework, exploration and application are woven through the entire week. A day might begin with a whole-class reading, followed by some reflective writing about one element of the unit. A skills activity, possibly in a group, rounds out the lesson.

Expanding the Model
Concerns about flipping range from questions about inequities in student access to the Internet to the additional time it takes to create videos for them to watch online. However, most teachers who flip say that with time and planning, these challenges are not insurmountable. And the idea is clearly catching on. Both funders and school districts are finding ways to support teachers in adopting the practice.

Google’s Faculty Institute recently awarded a $20,000 seed grant to California State University, to develop class-time activities and curricula that complement Khan Academy videos, according to CSU San Francisco math professor Eric Hsu, director of the school’s Center for Science and Math Education. This follows the $2 million that Google awarded last year to the Khan Academy to expand its selection of videos.

In Clinton Township, Townsend’s entire school has taken up the model this year after piloting it for two years in a few classrooms. There, wide disparities in academic performance between disadvantaged and more affluent students have persisted—until now. The school’s principal, Greg Green, attributes sharp reductions in both failure rates and disciplinary problems, along with increases in homework completion rates, to flipped instruction. Green also says students have done better on state math tests, with 10 percent more students reaching proficiency in the classrooms with flipped instruction. The high school is open for an hour before and after the school day ends and students can use computers there to view presentations if they cannot access them at home—one reason Townsend offers students a long lead time to complete the viewing. To assist teachers, the school is creating a library of videos to supplement online hubs like the Khan Academy, and corporations have donated screen-capture software and tablets. Green points out that in a department like mathematics, teachers with subspecialties are creating videos to share with colleagues who are teaching similar subjects, thereby saving teachers time. “Once we create them, we have them forever,” adds Townsend.

Dave Saltman is a writer and teacher in the Los Angeles area. He is a contributor to Spotlight on Technology in Education.