When it’s time for Paula Barr to teach her second graders about earth systems, you won’t find her lecturing in front of the class. Instead, she makes short videos for her students to watch at home or in the classroom.
“For example, when learning about slow and fast change [of the earth], I put together a series of video clips showing examples with information and pictures,” explains Barr, a teacher at Quail Run Elementary in Lawrence, Kansas.
When students get to class the next day, they show Barr that they understand the content, but how they show it varies. “Some students might say, ‘we want to show examples on Google Slides and compare and contrast the differences.’ Others might say, ‘we want to use Play-Doh and flood it and make a glacier.’ I ask them to do the work of learning, and turn them loose to produce something,” she says. “Whatever they produce has to prove that they learned about slow and fast change.”
The concept Barr uses is known as flipped learning, a method pioneered by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, former high school science teachers at Woodland Park High School in Woodland Park, Colorado. Flipped learning happens “when you move the direct instruction from the group space to the individual space, and the resulting group space is transformed into an active place of learning,” explains Bergmann, now a bestselling author and speaker on flipped learning and the chief academic officer at Flipped Learning Global Initiative.
This means that the vast majority of students’ homework becomes five-to-10-minute video lectures, made by the teacher. During class, students do pencil-and-paper assignments that would have been homework before, as well as small group work, hands-on experiments, and other problem solving activities, depending on the subject or lesson. Teachers spend more class time walking around the room, checking in with different students’ progress, rather than lecturing.
It’s a concept that’s catching on across the world, and it’s changing the way some teachers, students, and parents think about classroom instruction.
Increased Engagement and Changed Relationships
Six years ago at Quail Run Elementary, Barr saw flipped learning in action in a colleague’s classroom.
“Kids were collaboratively working…I watched them have discourse on different subjects,” Barr remembers. “I said, ‘wow, I want my second graders to look like that!’” She made changes on her own, and every year, more teachers in Barr’s district made the switch.
In New Zealand, Beth Lamb, who works across six schools as the professional learning and development facilitator, notices the difference too, in just one year.
“Staff are motivated like never before and constantly come to me with tales of exciting learning and moments of breakthrough,” Lamb says. “School leaders are amazed at the changes both in the depth of discussions in the staff room and that students are feeling so much more positive about their learning.”
Lamb says that flipped learning engages families, too. “Parents report now feeling connected to the school world as they, too, can see how and what is being taught. It lifts the veil surrounding the ‘what did you do today?’ question,” she says.
The method is also helpful for students with attention issues, says Bergmann. “In a traditional classroom, so much of teachers’ energy is used trying to keep students quiet, and [with flipped learning] that goes away,” Bergmann says. “There is more one-on-one learning so they are not as distracted.”
Bergmann says that teachers and students report enhanced relationships, due to less class time used for group lecture. As a former science teacher, Bergmann experienced this. “I was a good teacher before I flipped my class, but when I did, I got to know them so much better than before.”
Help for Students At Different Levels
When Trailblazer Elementary teacher Ann Yenne in Colorado Springs was assigned to a third and fourth grade combination classroom in 2012, she realized that teaching two different levels of math would be difficult. At the suggestion of her principal, she flipped her classroom.
Yenne began creating eight videos per week, four for the third graders and four for the fourth graders on different lessons, using the district-purchased curriculum and the Whiteboard app on her iPad.
“I take pictures of the pages for the lesson and take notes on them while I explain the content,” she says. “Students can pause, rewind, or re-watch content at their own pace… In class, students work on problems to reinforce the skills. They work collaboratively and in small groups with me, then check their answers in the teacher edition so that they can get immediate feedback on their progress.”
As difficult as differentiation in the classroom can be, Bergmann says he’s seeing it happen in flipped classrooms. Bergmann interviewed kids in a Chicago-area school that had flipped their Spanish class.
“Some kids had transferred in, and were lagging behind,” Bergmann says. “When I talked to them, they said ‘we like that we are not holding our friends back.’” The transfer students got to start at the beginning, thanks to the videos, while other students could move ahead. “It takes the stigma away,” says Bergmann.
With her students’ math homework, Yenne saw many parents who were confused by the way students were taught and unsure how to help at home. Flipped learning helps with this. “With these brief videos, students are able to independently access the content, and their practice is then in a setting where they have access to other students and the teacher to complete their work,” Yenne says.
According to Bergmann’s book, Solving the Homework Problem by Flipping the Learning, there’s much debate between educators and parents who feel students need homework to practice what they learn in the classroom at home, and others who think homework is a waste of time and harmful to children.
“It feels as if some teachers equate the amount of homework with rigor. But in reality, all their homework accomplishes is teaching students to resent and sabotage the love of learning,” Bergmann says in his book. “What if homework took less time, was more meaningful, more relevant, more focused, and students actually did it? I have seen how flipped learning ‘solves’ the homework problem. No longer is it the ‘H’ word, but rather an activity that prepares students to learn deeply and become active and engaged participants in the classroom experience.”
Challenges of Flipped Learning
When students have limited or no internet access, limited data, or just might not watch a learning video at home, flipped classrooms can be a challenge. Bergmann says that teachers and schools who are successful with the flipped method have come up with systems that work for their unique school population.
“Flipped learning is an easy method to get wrong,” Bergmann says. To help with this, he offers training through the Flipped Learning Global Initiative.
Setting up a flipped system is a lot of work. “The most difficult part is finding time to create videos,” says Yenne. “Teaching [students] the ‘system’ of getting instruction at home and practicing in school just takes some direct instruction at the beginning of the year, and some reminders along the way.”
Teachers should be well acquainted with a learning management system (LMS) such as Google Classroom, Pearson SuccessNet, Schoology, or Blackboard, and expect there will be technology hiccups.
Barr had been teaching for more than 30 years when she flipped her classroom just five years ago. “Technology was a challenge,” she says. “Once, I spent all weekend making videos only to get to school and find out that the Wi-Fi was down.”
Lamb says that students will need to learn the skill set of watching to learn, not watching for entertainment. “I always remind teachers to make it clear to the students that this is not Iron Man 3. It is critical for the learner that they are given and understand the reasons for watching content.”
Likewise, Barr says “not every child learns best through a video, and you need to get to know them well enough to know who doesn’t.” In these cases, Barr still does face-to-face instruction in small groups, and sometimes whole-group lessons if they’re learning a new concept that is new for everyone.
“I never tell people to look at [flipping classrooms] through rose-colored glasses,” Barr says. “It is a lot of work initially, but the hardest part is taking the plunge. You have to be willing to take a risk.”