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10 things I learned flipping my classroom

Up for a new challenge? Learn from another teacher's experience

In the spring of 2013, after attending several conferences and beginning research for my dissertation, I set out to flip some of the aspects of my classroom. The term “flipping your classroom,” coined by Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams more than a decade ago, has become a flexible term used to describe a number of different teaching techniques for turning instruction on its head. After five years, three grade levels, hundreds of students, and a lot of trial and error, here are 10 takeaways from my experiences flipping my classroom.

1. The title is misleading
The concept of flipping the classroom originally referred to the time and place of homework versus direct instruction. Rather than watch a lecture in class and complete homework at home, students would watch a video lecture at home and do the “homework” in class. While that might be interesting for a while, it does not really change much. Students are still learning via direct instruction, still having to work outside of school on their own time, and still receiving virtually the same pedagogy. To me, and many others, flipping is more about flipping the focus of the classroom from the teacher to the student. Once that has become your primary objective, everything else can follow.

2. Question everything
Schools hold many things sacrosanct—whether they’re mandated by districts or just a part of the student-and-teacher expectation. When I committed to flipping, I realized that it would only work if I were prepared to question everything. Things like late policies (“If it’s not in by Tuesday, it’s a zero”) and homework, and even traditional planning, all had to be brought into question. Students needed the flexibility to redo assignments if needed, turn in work a day or two late if life got in the way, and even have the option to work ahead or design their own projects.

3. Flipping the grading
One technique I have used in my classroom for years now is based on Bloom’s concept of Mastery Grading, as well as video-game leveling. Traditional grades are designed to be easy for the teacher and to mimic quality-assurance spreadsheets. Students begin at 100 percent and are gradually whittled down to their deserved score when, in reality, the opposite is true: Students build knowledge as they go.

In my class, students start at 0 and earn “Experience Points” by successfully completing each assignment until they ultimately reach their goal. If they fail to meet expectations on an assignment, they are not permanently punished for the nine weeks, but are able to fix their mistakes and resubmit, much like one might do on a level of Angry Birds or Candy Crush. This mastery-grading approach lets kids control their final assessment, rather than its being dictated by means, averages, and spreadsheets.

4. Homework is useless
While that may sound harsh, there’s truth in that statement. A student working hard for a 5 on AP Physics or a 1500+ on the SAT should be studying often, but otherwise, homework tends to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. If kids understand the homework and complete it quickly, they probably did not need it in the first place. If students cannot complete the homework or find it too challenging, it is not going to help them, either.

A flipped class is about designing the classroom so students have access to the content AND the practice at once, allowing the teacher time to work with students who would otherwise be stuck at home. Some call this the “in-class flip,” though I would just call it class. The person working is the person learning.

5. Just do it
Like many teachers, I was initially concerned I would face pushback when I started this system. It was tough to explain without having a practical example to point to, and I figured I might be cautioned to curb my enthusiasm, so I just dove in. I found a laptop cart that had not been used in several years, bought extension cords and power strips, and turned my class into a flexible computer lab. Students now had access to content, videos, and my learning management system (LMS) in class every day. My district has since gone 1-to-1 with Chromebooks and Google Classroom, making this much easier.

I made sure I was covering the required content and administering the correct common assessments, but otherwise, I invoked the art-of-teaching card as often as possible to change everything else. First, I was ignored, then questioned here and there, and now—five years later—it’s part of the mainstream. Whether it’s flipping or another new concept, only through implementation will you be able to see what works and what doesn’t.

6. Mind the neighbors
One of the biggest challenges for students in a flipped setting is figuring out how to set their schedules in a more open environment. While some naturally figure out how to manage their time, others struggle with the amount of choice and freedom and use the time to work on assignments for other required courses rather than your subject. It’s important to remember that, as a teacher, you have to work around the reality of the rest of the school. Your students spend the majority of their day outside your class, even if you feel everyone should use a similar system.

7. Integrate project-based learning
A natural extension to flipped classrooms is a project-based-learning approach. Rather than delivering content through live lectures or even video lectures, most content is best absorbed through reading or practice. This is different than simply giving an assignment at the end of the unit. Give students a task they need to research, learn, and teach themselves to complete. Not only will this lead to long-term retention of the information, but it will be a much more practical application of the information.

8. Be patient with the learning curve
Switching to a flipped system is a learning curve for the teacher and the students. For me, it was a matter of changing the way I graded papers and changing the way I worried about in-class conduct. Rather than marking up assignments on paper, I was now accepting work through my custom LMS and Google Drive. Handwritten annotation was out; longer, typed comments were in. While it was a net gain in the end, it took time for me to figure out how best to assess students in the new medium. Additionally, students needed to learn not only the new technology but the tools and techniques for managing their time. Since the class periods were now less formally structured, there was a clear learning curve in how to budget time and attention. It is a valid struggle, but necessary to produce students who truly can act, not just react.

9. Pick and choose
There are many different elements of flipped instruction out there. Some advocate daily videos, while others push for use of question-banks and online assessment. My version is more in line with gamification and a focus on self-efficacy and self-regulation; other versions are more focused on daily structures. To anyone considering this strategy, I would advise: Make it work for your kids, your content, and your personality. As long as the new focus is student-centered, you are on the right track.

10. Continue evolving
Flipped learning has evolved over the past decade and will continue to do so. I’ve had to make the switch from 3D Game Lab (my old LMS) to Google Classroom. While this has meant a loss of some of the mastery-grading gamification aspects, it has allowed me to be far more responsive in administering content and grading assignments. Flipped learning is based on technology that can change quickly and require adjustments.

Overall, the flip is less about the videos or the projects and more about a mindset. Giving your students as many options and pathways to not only learn the content but demonstrate mastery is what truly flips the control from teacher to student.

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