The flipped classroom model generated a lot of excitement initially, but more recently some educators — even those who were initial advocates — have expressed disillusionment with the idea of assigning students to watch instructional videos at home and work on problem solving and practice in class. Biggest criticisms: watching videos of lectures wasn’t all that revolutionary, that it perpetuated bad teaching and raised questions about equal access to digital technology.
Now flipped classroom may have reached equilibrium, neither loved nor hated, just another potential tool for teachers — if done well. “You never want to get stuck in a rut and keep doing the same thing over and over,” said Aaron Sams, a former high school chemistry teacher turned consultant who helped pioneer flipped classroom learning in an edWeb webinar. “The flipped classroom is not about the video,” said Jonathan Bergmann, Sams’ fellow teacher who helped fine tune and improve a flipped classroom strategy. “It’s about the active engaged stuff you can do in your class.”
The two teachers admit when they started flipping their classrooms they put everything into video form. Now, they’ve taken a step back and realized some things shouldn’t be in lecture form, and therefore shouldn’t be videos either. Instead, the two teachers have embraced what they call mastery learning, with an emphasis on students taking control of their own learning. Instructional videos are an optional part of a bigger move towards asynchronous learning.
“The best use of class time is to meet the individual needs of each learner, not driving the class with predetermined curriculum,” Sams said. So he and Bergmann decided to make watching the video lectures optional. The videos are available, but if students felt they could learn it better in some other way, they’re encouraged to do what works best for them.
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“One of the most important skills that any student can learn is where to go for information and resources,” Sams said. Instead of following a rigid curriculum, the two teachers decided on the key learning objectives of the class — the things they felt their students really needed to know –and structured the class around those. Then they offered students a menu of resources that included instructional video, some sort of practice and links to the corresponding section of a textbook. The teachers became resources and helped provide benchmarks to keep students on track.
The educators say this method is working for them because they’ve decided to make their classrooms mastery based, whereby “a student gets to the end of some learning unit and must pass whatever kind of assessment you have before he can move on,” Sams said — very much like competency-based learning. “There is no place for them to hide. They had to converse with me and tell me when they were ready to be assessed on something,” Sams said. When he taught in a more traditional way, Sams admitted there were students he hardly knew.
WHAT’S IT LOOK LIKE?
Working with a mastery-based model means students are not all learning the same thing at the same time. Bergmann said the first five minutes of class are essential to setting the class into productive motion by quickly assessing where students are and directing them to various stations around the room. ”Your class looks like organized chaos,” Bergmann said. “It’s very powerful.”
Students are scattered around the room learning a topic in their own way and teachers are walking around talking to students, answering questions and checking in on their progress. There’s no assigned homework, unless a student feels he needs to do some extra work to understand a concept. “The kids who are going to get most of my time are the kids who need it,” said Sams. “It’s the kids who are struggling or the kids who need me hovering over their shoulder.”
Sams and Bergmann soon realized that effective flipped classrooms didn’t include videos of science demonstrations. That’s the most exciting part of science and kids should get to see it up close. Since students were moving at different paces, Sams and Bergmann had to demonstrate the same thing multiple times. “We did demos for just a handful of students,” said Sams. “It was a far more intimate environment so we could converse with kids about what was going on.”
Disciplinary issues also diminished significantly. “When I was the guy up front, all the attention was supposed to be on me and it was really easy for a disruptive kid to pull the attention to himself,” said Sams. With everyone working on their own projects, one kid has much less power to disrupt.
ASSESSING WITH MASTERY MODEL
One of the most challenging parts of a messy, asynchronous classroom is that kids aren’t all ready to be assessed at the same time, and when they do take a test, they might not pass. Sams’ and Bergmann’s chemistry classes have formative assessments, constant checking in and talking about work with students on a daily basis.
The two teachers also spent two years building up a store of test questions in Moodle, a free learning management system that randomly generates tests. Those who fail the test can take another to prove mastery.
It took a lot of work to build up the system that now works smoothly and the process revealed challenges in the mastery model. “One of the dark sides of mastery is the demoralizing effect,” Bergmann said. He had students that he knew understood the material because of his daily work with them, but who couldn’t pass the tests. That’s a frustrating and demotivating experience for a student.
Sams and Bergmann turned to the Universal Design for Learning, a set of curriculum principles that maintains students need more than one way to learn information and more than one way to demonstrate knowledge. Following the second principle, the two teachers allowed their students to show they understood the material any way they wanted. Sams said he received songs, welding projects and even hand-drawn graphic novels. He admits those didn’t help the students take standardized tests, but they showed chemistry understanding, his main goal.
If this all sounds messy, it is. Sams and Bergmann are the first to admit that there are challenges, especially around grading. But, they’ve discovered a way to take flipped learning to another level, offering it as one option in a smorgasbord of instructional materials and letting students have the autonomy to choose what works best for them. Kids got behind, but the teachers checked their progress along the way and structured the course so that the most necessary information was in the first four sections, with nice-to-know material in the fifth section.
“We would rather our kids actually know 80 percent of the content, instead of being exposed to 100 percent of the content,” said Bergmann.