Saturday, April 09, 2016

Flipped Classrooms

At West Point we were taught using the "Thayer method", which involved doing our reading and our assignment before coming to class for instruction.  There is some benefit to that method, to be sure, and as someone who excelled academically under the Thayer method I am exceedingly aware of those benefits.  On the other hand, it doesn't take much thought to divine the shortcomings of such a system.  Within the highly regimented Corps of Cadets those shortcomings can be mitigated, but that is a special set of conditions indeed.

Today one of the many fads in K-12 education is the "flipped classroom"--students watch videos at home in advance of addressing that material in the classroom; who knew that West Point would be so far ahead of its time?!  The author of this article is certainly in favor of flipping, but I have my doubts:
The first two weeks of flipping my classroom were a disaster. Some students didn’t watch the videos, often because they didn’t have regular Internet access at home. Others completed assignments faster than their peers, which required me to spend extra time modifying my lessons for them. One day, my department chairperson dropped in for an observation and, in her report, described my class as “semi-organized chaos” and “lacking structure.”

Clearly, I needed to adjust the model. I started uploading the videos onto flash drives for students without home Internet access. I had a second classroom computer installed so students who had been absent could catch up. And I implemented a peer-tutoring system, giving faster-paced students the responsibility of assisting their classmates. Micah was the first to volunteer, exclaiming, “The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.”

Our clunky flipped classroom became a thriving learning environment. Students began asking more meaningful questions and embracing more challenging problems, while I became a floating facilitator rather than an “information dispenser.” My students’ final-exam pass rates nearly doubled from the previous year.

The English teachers at my school routinely lament that students don't read their assigned novels outside of school, that at best they read today's version of Cliff Notes.  One of our teachers told me this week that out of his few US History classes he had 10 students who didn't turn in a research paper, just didn't turn one in at all!  And remember that I teach at a relatively high-performing school!  So when I hear about having students watch videos outside of class, I wonder how to make that happen.

I also have some philosophical problems with flipped classrooms.  One concern is that I'm not sure I that I should have title to a certain amount of a student's out-of-school time every day.  Another is more pedagogical in nature: if education is a social process rather than a fill-their-head-with-information process--and darned near every teacher will tell you that it is--on what basis do we believe that students will learn from having a video talk at them?  It's the same concern I had about the I Can Learn program (written about briefly here) so many years ago.

Also, how long are these videos?  If I want to teach how to crank out an answer to a specific type of problem, I could probably make most of my lessons fit into a 10-15 minute video.  But I'm just going to say it: I'm a better teacher than that.  Sometimes I derive things so students can see that a formula wasn't created from thin air.  Sometimes a single student question will lead to a fascinating tangent that helps understanding or even just helps maintain interest.  Sometimes I bring in real-world applications that help drive instruction.  And sometimes the material I teach is just too advanced to be addressed in 10-minute snippets each night.  There are occasions when I teach "bell to bell".

This is very much a disagreement about the "guide on the side vs. the sage on the stage" model, and it's clear that I come down on the latter side.  I'm not saying that having having videos posted is bad--I myself link to Khan Academy videos--but expecting students to watch them prior to class each day is not what I would choose for my primary method of content delivery.  I would like to see actual, verifiable, valid studies on this topic, not just anecdotes.


Wm Sears said...

From your quote: "And I implemented a peer-tutoring system, giving faster-paced students the responsibility of assisting their classmates."

Did the teacher pay these students for their labour? Would he or his union tolerate this kind of unpaid labour himself? At university we hire students to assist in laboratory instruction, but they are paid for this service.

BB-Idaho said...

My oldest daughter was a chemistry professor at West Point back in
2002-2006. You didn't happen to take analytical chemistry from a
young woman did you?

Darren said...

I graduated almost a generation before she got there :)

Ellen K said...

Our district has been pushing flipped classrooms for three years. My observation is that you can offer students every kind of online access, video, program or text and if they don't look at it, they will still fail. Some of my best students hated it the most. The worst students simply ignored the entire process. This is just another fad right up there with New Math and Whole Language that will fade after too many kids fall through the cracks.