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Flipping the Script in K12

‘Flipped classrooms’ gain ground, as students watch lectures on video, mostly at home, then do what would be ‘homework’ in class.

Five years ago, a pair of science teachers at Woodland Park (Colo.) High School turned their pedagogical approach upside down. Rather than stand up in front of the classroom, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams sent their respective students home with videos of themselves lecturing. And rather than assigning traditional homework, work that most students could get tripped up on if they are not sure about a certain topic, the teachers gave students time in class—with their close supervision and help—to put their learning into practice.

Whether Bergmann and Sams were the first to practice what’s now called “flipped learning” is probably unknowable, but they’re among its loudest proponents, having spoken at national conferences and co-authored the book, “Flip Your Classroom.”

“We saw video as a very powerful medium, and we decided to start to make our own video lessons,” says Sams, who took a new position this fall as director of admissions at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. “This is something they relate to. It’s not to say we’re anti-reading; we’re both avid readers and we encourage our students. But we saw that our students were texting all the time. We could get cranky and say, ‘No texting.’ Or, we could give them our phone numbers and get into the culture.”

Although it’s hardly in mainstream use, the concept of “flipped learning” has spread considerably during the past five years throughout K12 education. It’s unknown how many schools or teachers use flipped learning now, but one measure of its recent growth is the explosive upsurge of users—from 2,500 to 9,000 since January—on the Ning social media site of the Flipped Learning Network, a national clearinghouse on the teaching methodology. “Is that a scientifically gauged measurement? No,” says Kari Arfstrom, executive director of the network. “Is it teachers who seek out our site and sign up for it? Yes. It’s an indicator of the level of growth and excitement out there.”

Flipped Clintondale SchoolsThe network’s research, based on a survey filled out by about 500 teachers, has shown that flipped learning is probably more common in junior high and high schools, although used as young as fourth or fifth grades, and more frequently used in science and math classrooms. Such vendors as Knowledge Delivery Systems also help increase teacher retention and effectiveness.

Most teachers using it have seven or more years of experience, which Arfstrom chalks up to their greater comfort with the “chaos” that can result from any scenario in which students are working independently in the classroom. “They have more experience to troubleshoot,” she says. “You really need to be more comfortable with your subject matter, too, because you’re going to have students working at various levels—a small group working ahead, another group struggling a bit and needing a little extra tutoring.”

Students sometimes test the apparent looseness of the new system, says Brian Bennett, a science teacher at South Bend (Ind.) Career Academy, an independent charter school incorporated through Ball State University, who is in his third year of teaching a flipped classroom. “It’s, ‘What can we get away with [in the classroom]?’ You have to set high standards [for behavior],” he says. “Some students are still struggling. They’re having to re-learn how they approach classes and learning.”

In a typical class period, Bennett might spend five minutes at the beginning talking about his expectations for the day. If students watched a video about density the night before, he might be expecting them to complete a computer simulation that demonstrates their knowledge during the class. Students then don headphones to keep the noise level down as they’re watching videos or listening to music, and they start working. “I’m moving around, student to student,” Bennett says. “I keep a clipboard with their assignments and objectives, so I can have conversations.”

Testing the Waters—or Diving In?

The methodology didn’t affect test scores either way but did enable teachers to cover an additional two weeks of material, on average, in the six fifth-grade math classrooms that took part in a pilot project in Stillwater (Minn.) Area Public Schools from September 2011 through January of this year, says Wayne Feller, technology integration specialist, whose district has more than 30 flipped classrooms.

“We covered more curriculum in the same amount of time,” he says. Post-pilot surveys showed that parents felt their students were doing better and had an improved attitude toward math, the teachers appreciated the opportunities for differentiation and wanted to stick with flipped learning, and students were “more or less enthusiastic” while giving “keen advice [to their teachers] on video creation techniques,” he says. The district has branched out into science classrooms and realized that those in his role are key to the process, Feller adds.

Elizabeth HS FlippedSome of Heather Witten’s fellow teachers at Elizabeth (Colo.) High School in the Elizabeth School District have followed her lead in implementing the flipped classroom, which she began in her upper-level Spanish classes in 2011-2012, but it hasn’t been required schoolwide. “I’ve been very lucky with the support I’ve had from administration and at the district level,” she says. “There is some definite fear among the other teachers. They’re afraid somebody is going to make them do it. A lot of teachers say, ‘That would never work.’ ” Witten once was sharply questioned by a colleague wanting to know why her students are out in the hallway talking, reading and playing on the internet. “I asked, ‘Are they speaking Spanish?’ The teacher said, ‘Yes.’ ”

After starting with one civics teacher and then expanding to about six classrooms, Clintondale High School in the Clintondale (Mich.) Community Schools took the flipped classroom model schoolwide in 2011-2012. “We needed to look within ourselves and say, ‘What do we need to do to meet these kids’ needs?’ ” says Principal Greg Green, who has sent videos about basic fundamentals—batting stance, throwing techniques and the like—home with players on his son’s travel baseball team to maximize practice time. “It’s information, whether it’s teaching bunt defense, or teaching a math skill,” he says.

The results in the Clintondale (Mich.) Community Schools have been very encouraging thus far: The failure rate among freshman math students dropped from 44 percent to 13 percent in one year’s time, while juniors taking the state math exams improved by 10 percent over the previous year, Green says. Havana (Ill.) School District 126, which launched the flipped classroom this school year across the entire high school, “went from 0 to 60” rather than starting with a pilot based on the theory that “the early adopters will prove to the whole world that it can be successful if implemented with fidelity and rigor,” says Havana Superintendent Mark Twomey. “If you believe in something enough that you think it’s worth changing your entire system, put it in place in 100 days.”

Teachers participated in a two-day training session about how to create and upload videos and other online content, Twomey says, and they were required to build an online presence to communicate with students and parents. “Like any major initiative, we have teachers clear across the spectrum in the early phases,” he says. “Some have uploaded video series for the entire year; others have only maybe gotten to the point where they created a couple of videos.

“Technology is how they learn today,” he adds. “All you have to do is watch kids in their free time. They always have some sort of electronic device in front of them.”

Issue of Access

Schools with large lower-income populations have been experimenting with ways to deliver content before or after school in the library, on students’ own mobile devices, on hardware available for checkout at the school library, or on burned DVDs for students who have DVD players but no internet access at home.

Flipped Canada schoolThe flipped classroom has been invaluable for students who get little homework help at home—and sometimes have to watch a younger sibling while mom or dad works an evening job, Green says. “We’re starting to figure out how to set up a school that sees at-risk kids and the obstacles that face them,” he says, noting that 75 percent of students in Clintondale are on free or reduced-price lunch. “They just need more support while they’re in school. At 3 o’clock, their school day is done. They have to survive. That’s the reality of it.”

Seven years ago, probably 20-25 percent of students at Woodland Park had no internet access, says Bergmann, who is now technology facilitator at Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth, Ill. For those with computers but no internet, they put content on flash drives. For those with DVD players but no computers, they provided DVDs. “It’s an important issue, but it’s solvable,” Bergmann says. Sams adds that some students were able to watch the videos before they left class, many had smartphones no matter what their socioeconomic status, and he had a standing order with his colleagues to donate their own desktop computers. “We need to provide equitable access,” he says, but “it’s not an insurmountable hurdle.”

Even in cases where students simply can’t get to the videos at home, they can watch them during study hall, or before class in the library, Arfstrom says. “It’s becoming much less of an issue than it would have been a few years ago,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons flipped learning is trending, because access outside the school is so prevalent.”

The added potential for one-on-one attention in the classroom could improve prospects for lower-income students, says Mike Dronen, district coordinator of educational innovation and technology in Stillwater. “We think it’s going to be a big leveler for districts with high percentages of English-language learners and students on free and reduced-price lunch,” he says. In Havana, Ill., about 65 percent of students are on free and reduced-price lunch, and a survey showed that 30 percent of students did not have internet access, but the district has taken several steps in launching the flipped classroom schoolwide in its high school, Twomey says. They’re opening the library before and after school, they ordered thumb drives for students with computers but no internet, and they purchased 25 laptops with DVD players for students to check out.

Bennett tries to ensure that students have time to watch videos in class if they would prefer. “I don’t require that to be done at home,” he says. “They have a pile of other things to be worrying about when they’re not in school. I’m not flipping the time when things happen; I’m flipping the responsibility and the leadership.”

Ability to Differentiate

Educators say that flipped learning can greatly increase a teacher’s ability to provide differentiated instruction given that students work at their own pace in the classroom—and teachers can provide more challenging work for those who are breezing through.

Bergmann says he and Sams moved to what he calls the “flipped mastery class,” in which students move through the content at a flexible pace, after first trying to keep everyone on the same page. “That, clearly for us, is where the magic happened,” Bergmann says. After insisting that all students get through all five units of chemistry, he and Sams realized that the fifth unit was not essential, but more of a “nice to know” that would only be important if a student became a doctor or engineer. So they required all students to complete the first four units and then left the fifth unit for extra enrichment for those who learned more quickly. “That was a huge win for us, and we thought the whole thing through,” Sams says. “Amazing things happened with those kids [who finished early]. They would slow down and help their friends, or they would get ahead.”

Students—including special education students—having difficulty with concepts can pause and rewind the videos to give themselves extra time to parse out what a teacher means. “That’s one of the most powerful things about these videos: that students who process slower, can process slower,” Bergmann says. “We had one kid each year in Colorado who watched on fast-forward because he was one of those students who could process that fast.”

Sams adds that special ed teachers are among the loudest advocates for flipped learning because of the pause and review capability. Arfstrom says that a special education student watching a lesson on double-digit multiplication “can watch that video as many times as he needs.” Those who still don’t grasp concepts can pull the teacher aside the next day, she adds.

Slower learners can be afraid to interrupt a teacher in a lecture, for fear of being seen as less intelligent, Feller says, while brighter students quickly become bored. The flipped classroom also can help ELLs, especially since the videos can be equipped with closed-captioning so they can see and hear the English at once—and for the hearing impaired, he says. “The teacher who no longer necessarily has primary responsibility on lecturing about how to do math on that particular day, can also do much more powerful things with individual students, with regard to understanding where the roadblocks are happening, as they are happening,” Feller says.

Video 101

Simple resources exist even for teachers who are not video-savvy, says Sams, who recalls that after he and Bergmann did flipped learning for a couple years, other science teachers became intrigued. “Not everybody did. It wasn’t universally accepted,” he says. “It wasn’t mandated. The administrators gave us autonomy.”

While most students seem to prefer seeing their own teachers in the videos, some like to have options on which videos—and some teachers do, too, particularly those who are new to the profession or their subject matter and lacked the time to make many videos of their own. For them, online resources like the Khan Academy and TED Ed come into play. Bergmann and Sams have advised TED Ed, and Bergmann says the site is “creating high-quality videos, and they’re also creating a platform for teachers to use.”

In Stillwater, teachers have worked to pool resources so they could create video tutorials for one another, Feller says. “The flipped classroom, when done in isolation, is a lot of work,” Feller says. “But when done in a network, there’s the pooling of resources, and more importantly, pooling of wisdom.”

Teachers in Stillwater have not made much use of online videos, Feller adds. “There’s nothing wrong with those resources,” he says. But in-house videos align better and more closely with the district’s curriculum, and students prefer seeing their own teachers. Witten favors teachers making their own videos—partly because it cuts through parent concerns that “you’re not teaching my kid”—but she adds that the Khan Academy and others can be “good backup” as alternative sources.

Flexible Assessments

Bergmann and Sams also provided flexibility—within reason—for kids to prove they had learned concepts, enabling them to generate alternative assessments. “We were real loose on this,” Bergmann says. “We said, ‘You prove it to me in some other way. The creative kids, these are the kids who built robots.

“It was really, really cool to see what they came up with,” Bergmann continues. “We still questioned them to make sure they understood the objectives,” and didn’t game the system, he says. “They spent more time on [their own assessments] than they ever would have done otherwise.”

Sams’ two cents of advice to district leaders: don’t micromanage. “Don’t let your teachers be afraid to try things out. Give them the autonomy to meet the individual needs of their students. Give students flexibility and teachers autonomy and the test scores will work themselves out.”