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The flip side of learning: New method lets teachers give students more attention

Updated: 2014-02-13T05:41:08Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Dennis Burkett’s advanced placement chemistry class begins already in progress — so it seems.

Many of his students had already absorbed his “lecture.” They watched that online at home or wherever.

The teacher takes a moment to scrawl with a marker on the old-school white board at the front of the class just to reinforce some ideas that he knows from their digital feedback need reinforcing.

And then he sets them loose.

In Burkett’s “flipped” classroom, these Olathe South High School students burrow back into what, in a typical classroom, would be their “homework.”

Instead of plying away at problems alone at home, they are working together, sharing ideas, team-solving at times. And Burkett ranges around the room dropping in to help groups and individuals who are stumped.

Just a few teachers are doing it in the school, but the sense is that the movement is growing to flip classrooms — putting the lecture-style instruction on video, often as homework, and freeing class time to do the problem-solving.

It can be noisy. It’s all about team conversations — which makes it easy for a reporter to get some real-time feedback on what students think about it. There’s no lecture to interrupt.

They like it.

They like the college-like syllabus with its menu of videos that Burkett has created, and the list of problem assignments that go with them.

Sixteen-year-old Conor Duffy likes the way they “learn time management,” pacing themselves through the work.

Lauren Eide, 17, loves being able to hit “pause” and “rewind” to review lectures. She feels like she is honing college note-taking skills.

She watched the video for Tuesday morning’s classwork on Sunday, knowing she’d be too busy Monday night.

Evan Eschliman, 18, watched even further in advance, using time at home during last week’s snow days to watch it “on my phone while I was making fried rice.”

Some, like Conor and 17-year-old Zac Heidrick, said they hadn’t watched the video yet, but they know it’s there, easily summoned and reviewed if they get stuck.

They see no better way to learn photoelectron spectroscopy.

The flipped classroom is one of those technological revolutions that simply make sense in most circles of the education world. The reason most classrooms still haven’t made this switch usually isn’t because educators doubt there is wisdom in it.

It’s more a factor of learning the technology, gaining comfort and being able to make the time to put one’s lessons into a video. It doesn’t fit every teacher’s style or strengths.

The benefits are still only intuitively assured. Research of the still-young practice hasn’t established a consensus on whether flipping classrooms leads to significantly higher student performance.

So school systems aren’t compelled to make such a switch. Most districts, like Olathe, encourage it, but let teachers decide whether they want to make the leap.

“It’s a grassroots movement,” said Olathe instructional resource teacher Natalie Drake. “It almost always starts with a teacher (who is trying to work through) some frustration.”

For Olathe East High School English teacher Lindsay Stephenson, it was the longstanding struggle of teachers to reach students at so many different points of understanding and know their unique needs.

The ability to give up the front-of-the-class lecture and spend the class time circulating student to student has made this “my most enjoyable year,” she said.

It’s been hard learning her way this year, she said. It will get easier as she compiles videos and simply gets better at it — but it has meant roughly an extra full day of work each week creating her flipped classroom lessons.

She started last summer and began to really see it work by January, she said.

The lectures, in bites as small as three minutes long, are there for students as they need them. Students are freed up in class to move at accelerated paces, or get extra attention from Stephenson, who gets to spend a lot of time with them, face to face.

She knows each student better than before, she said. And not just where they are in understanding how to write a persuasive essay.

“I know what car a student got for their birthday,” she said. “I know their eye colors.”

Although launching such a change in running a classroom may be daunting, the beauty of the flipped classroom is that it can be done, said Sara Hall, the director of the Center for Digital Learning at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C.

“It’s something a teacher can do right away if they are thinking about how to personalize their classroom,” Hall said.

There is no one way to do it. You don’t have to do it every day or every lesson. A teacher who gets started can make it another tool toward creating a class where differentiated instruction and project-based learning thrives.

Although the research on flipped classrooms may be unclear, the education community long ago was convinced about the power of personalizing instruction and project learning.

“Flipped classrooms is another way to get there,” Hall said. “And whatever way can get you there is worth exploring.”

Burkett said he’s learned along the way to take it easy on the number and length of his videos.

He’s explored the Web for software and applications that have made it easier to be more creative and build in feedback from students.

Stephenson has gotten better at using the flipped model to increase learning opportunities for accelerated students.

She’s also established ways to make sure students who lack some digital access at home have ways to watch her videos, such as by putting them on flash drives or burning them to DVDs, and even acquiring a portable DVD player to send home.

Other teachers in her school are starting to try it out, she said.

“Start simple,” she said she tells them. “Try one lesson… Once you get going, it will evolve.”

It will get easier, she tells those who want to try. “Just start.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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