Some innovative teachers are turning the traditional classroom model on its head in an effort to make instruction more valuable to their students.
This new teaching and learning style, often called “flipped” or “inverted” learning, makes the students the focus of the class, not the teacher, by having students watch a lecture at home and then apply the lesson with the teacher in the classroom.
With inverted learning, these forward-thinking educators say, students can absorb the material as homework and then practice what they’ve learned with guided help from the teacher if they need it. This new learning style not only makes class time more productive for both teachers and students, but also increases student engagement, increases achievement, and caters to all forms of personalized learning, say the teachers.
Although this style of learning might be termed “inverted,” perhaps it’s the current style of learning with teachers as the “sage on the stage” that is backwards.
“I experimented a lot with differentiated instruction and layered curriculum,” said Dan Spencer, a science teacher at Michigan Center High School and educational technology consultant for Jackson County Intermediate School District (JCISD). “One thing I began to realize as I did that was that not all students learn in the same way or at the same pace. Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, all students are forced to learn the exact same thing in the exact same time and in the exact same way. I wanted to find a way to change that.”
Spencer, who currently teaches three sections of chemistry and two sections of engineering every day as part of Project Lead the Way, typically has anywhere from 15 to 28 students in a chemistry class period. The school district is relatively small, with roughly 400 students in grades 9 through 12 in a lower-middle class community.
Many of the district’s students come from homes where their parents did not go to college, and many say they are going to college but few actually graduate from the next level, says Spencer.
For Spencer, a love for science came naturally, but he realizes this is not true for all students. He also realizes that interest in science is sometimes spurred by the teacher, not just the material.
“I know that very few of my students will go on to become chemists, physicists, or anything of that nature, but they should be able to leave my class knowing how to question, research, and test scientific claims regardless of what they choose to do afterwards,” said Spencer. “At the same time, I also feel that those students who do excel in STEM fields need to have classes that push them and challenge them with real-world problems, and not just memorized facts from a textbook.”
To help make that realization a reality, Spencer got a little help from his superintendent, David Tebo, who eMailed the entire high school staff an idea for a “flipped” classroom that came from two teachers in Colorado, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Samms.
When Spencer read the eMail, he knew that this was how he wanted to run his classroom.
“The main idea behind the ‘flipped’ classroom is for teachers to be available when students need them most. If I lecture for 30 minutes … in my chemistry classes, that would leave me about 20 minutes to assign homework and let students start on it,” he explained.
At that point, he said, students were left to their own devices to finish their homework and come back the next day for something new. What he found was that when students left his class, many either chose not to do the homework or gave up as soon as they ran into something that didn’t make sense.
“Then we would spend the next day going over questions instead of moving on. So what I was doing was using up valuable class time to lecture and then leaving them to figure things out on their own. That seemed like a very inefficient use of class time to me.”
Spencer began to create screencasts of his lectures using Camtasia the day before. Those screencasts then became the homework—and class time was for doing “homework,” or answering questions and doing labs/demos.
“I have now reached the point where, because of the screencasts, my students are all able to work through the curriculum at their own pace,” he explained. “Since I’m not lecturing in class, and students can access the information whenever they need, I can now spend that ‘extra’ time helping students one-on-one.”
Because many of Spencer’s students lack high-speed internet access at home, Tebo received a grant for Spencer to get a classroom set of iPod Touches, which Spencer checks out to students who need them.
Like Spencer, James Yoos, 2010 Washington State Teacher of the Year, teaches science. Specifically, he teaches two sections of honors chemistry, two sections of AP chemistry, and one section of bicycle maintenance at Bellingham High School in Bellingham, Wash.—a school known for its low dropout rate, high test scores, and multiple awards. He has an average of 28 students in each class, ranging from freshman to seniors.
Yoos, who prides himself on being a “hands-on” learner and teacher, began his career as a bench chemist for a small biotech company. Though he enjoyed the experience thoroughly, he found himself teaching.
“I decided on a career change that would let me pursue my passion, and I’ve never regretted it,” he explained.
According to Yoos, it’s imperative that students learn the thinking process that gets used in STEM subjects.
“We are entering into a new era in which proficient problem solvers that can communicate and collaborate are absolutely crucial not only for our country, but also our world. Students need guided practice in developing problem-solving skills. However, chemistry also requires a specific tool box of skills that they need to apply in problem-solving scenarios,” he said.
“There’s only so much time in the day,” he continued, “and I noticed that I was running out of time in class helping students practice and develop their understanding.”
Yoos explained that although lecture was necessary, not all of his students could be engaged through this process. Therefore, many students were trying to modify their inherent learning styles to meet the lecture format.
“It simply was not meeting the needs of my students,” he said.
Three years ago, Yoos decided to condense his lectures into 15-20 minute vodcasts that students watch for homework. They are expected to watch and practice with him when they are ready to learn the information. The power behind the vodcasts, he said, is that students only watch when they need the information or are inspired to learn more. Class time is then dedicated to practicing and using their preferred learning style. This may be small groups, hands-on, problem sessions, or conversations with Yoos.
“This allows them the space to ask questions for clarification and use each other as a resource to develop their understanding. I become the facilitator of their learning, rather than the dictator,” he said.
And students seem to appreciate Yoos’ understanding.
Rather than getting questions like “How do I do this?” Yoos hears more questions like, “I don’t understand how to do this specific step.” And “I saw this in the vodcast, but need clarification on this…”
“Richer questions from my students have allowed me to engage them in more advanced topics at a deeper level. Kids love it, parents love it,” he said.
Yoos emphasized, however, that this inverted style of learning does require that students “own their learning.”
“What I mean by this is that they [must] take responsibility for developing what they know. They can’t be passive recipients of knowledge–they must engage in order to succeed in this system … but that’s what we want for members of our society, isn’t it?” he said.
However, Spencer explained that this new learning style might take a while to get used to—for everyone.
“Many students are good at ‘playing school’ and going through the motions. Now that they have to demonstrate what they learn before moving on, some of them get quite upset when they scribble down a page of notes from a screencast without thinking about it and then are asked to redo it when it becomes obvious that they are just trying to work the system. Another complaint I have heard [from parents] is that ‘I’m not teaching them anything.’ Many students and parents expect the teacher to be the ‘sage on the stage’ and not a voice on an iPod.”
Yet, now that students have gotten used to the idea, Spencer sees changes, not just in student engagement and achievement, but in the way students perceive learning as well.
“One thing that I have learned is that students really resent ‘busy work’ now. If an assignment doesn’t directly lead to them understanding one of our unit objectives, it becomes obvious very quickly,” he said.
Yoos also warns that this style of learning is not for those looking for a quick fix:
“My greatest challenge is time. It does take time to set this up and build in the flexibility to meet the students’ needs. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of compensation for extra hours invested, but for me, the investment in our future is worth it.”
His advice to other teachers and schools looking to implement this learning is to “start slow—one or two vodcasts a month is plenty to whet your students’ appetites. Build libraries collaboratively, and don’t be afraid to make a mistake. It is through experimentation and modification that we hone our art of teaching.”
Currently, Yoos believes this system works the best for classes that need students to be able to access information for remediation. Math and language classes at Bellingham already have started to use inverted learning for these purposes.
“I feel that the typical factory method of education is on its way out. It has to [be],” concluded Spencer. “While it is convenient, it doesn’t produce the kinds of 21st-century skills necessary for kids to flourish after high school.”
However, Spencer does acknowledge that there are all kinds of teaching and learning methods that can be used to hold students accountable for their own learning, and learning at their own pace, besides “inverted” learning.
“I’d love to hear what others are doing, so please let me know!” he said.
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