Flipped classrooms put students in charge of learning

Students watch taped lessons at home, do 'homework' at school

Eighth-graders Logan Serbousek (left) and Taylor Fisher work through a permutation problem during an algebra class at Pr
Eighth-graders Logan Serbousek (left) and Taylor Fisher work through a permutation problem during an algebra class at Prairie Point Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 11, 2013. Six of the school's math classes are "flipped classrooms" where the students watch lectures on video and then use the class time to do assignments and work together on collaborative projects. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Some local teachers are bringing a whole new definition to the term “homework.” These educators are managing to actually go home with their students and help them complete assignments.

For learners and lecturers, that’s the beauty of the flipped classroom.

“My in-class time is much more structured toward students working together in groups, problem solving,” said Dan Sauser, a math teacher who flipped his precalculus class at Monticello High School this year. “If there are questions that arise, I can get them on the right track instead of them being at home and frustrated.”

The concept involves providing basic instruction, usually through short videos, outside of the classroom and allowing students to use class time for more in-depth inquiry and activities where teachers can serve as resources while students do the work, instead of after the fact.

“It’s better than a regular class because (those teachers) just spit stuff at us,” said Ashley Foster, 15, a ninth-grader at Prairie Point Middle School and Ninth Grade Academy.

“It seems like you actually learn stuff, and if you don’t get it, you go over it and actually get an understanding for it,” added Chris Oehlert, 15, another ninth-grader at Prairie Point.

Teacher praise

Students aren’t the only ones flipping for flipped classrooms. Despite the increased workload — “it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to make a video to two days,” Sauser said — teachers praise the practice.

“It seems like a much better allocation of resources,” said Laura Bader, a ninth-grade math teacher at Prairie Point. She rolled out the model for her algebra class this year. “We’re more engaged in the classroom. It’s more work, but it’s more enjoyable.”

Statistics for the number of flipped classrooms are hard to quantify, in part because the concept is so flexible and varies in such a way that it becomes “a matter of degrees,” said Tony Amsler, a technology consultant for the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, but the practice is becoming more prevalent.

“I think there’s a good reason why we’re seeing this emerge now,” Amsler said. “I think we’re at the tipping point right now where the technology tools are relatively easy for the teachers to use to create an instructional video, to store an instructional video and to distribute an instructional video ... Plus, more and more, students are accessing the web for instructional materials.”

Amsler said any of the core curriculum areas — math, science, English and social studies — could conceivably flip instruction, but math and science teachers seem to be the area’s early adopters.

Eighth-grade math teachers in the College Community School District researched and began flipping their classes in spring 2012, but this year the ninth-grade math staff joined in.

Technology helps

One thing that aided the adoption for Prairie Point instructors was the district’s implementation of a 1:1 computer initiative, in which all students in grades nine through 12 received their own laptops.

“Access for technology is an important question because video needs a good broadband connection. Dial up doesn’t do it,” Amsler said. “Unfortunately, in the rural areas of Iowa, some families are still faced with dial-up access to the Internet.”

Amber Bridge, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Mid-Prairie Community School District, ran into that issue when she flipped all of her classes following a one-unit pilot in fall 2011. She requested a few additional in-class laptops for the seven or so of her students who did not have home Internet access, so they can watch the videos before or after school.

Sauser burns videos to DVDs as a workaround for learners who can’t access the website and Prairie Point students can access the building’s Internet to watch the videos during their study halls.

Students in charge

Sauser and Jeff Zittergruen, a ninth-grade algebra teacher at Prairie Point, both said one benefit of flipped learning is that it puts students in charge of their own instruction. In a world of on-demand entertainment, where devices allow people to pause and rewind live television, students can now have a role in dictating their learning.

“It allows them to reflect if they need more reflection or push forward if they can work at a faster pace,” Sauser said.

According to Amsler, a district does not have to spend a lot of money to flip classrooms. Teachers have access to free websites, like Screenr and Screencast-O-Matic, that allow them to film and store their instructional videos. Some districts, like College Community, have opted to purchase software.

Bridge also made a deal with her learners; videos would stay under 10 minutes whenever possible. Most of the instructors don’t have their students watch videos every day, but an average of two to three times a week.

Taking that basic instruction out of the classroom leaves teachers with more time to fill in class and a little less order.

“You have to be very willing to relinquish what you might call ‘teacher control’ in the classroom,” Zittergruen said. “You have to be very comfortable trusting (students) and working with them to develop new routines.”

In short: flipped classrooms aren’t for the faint of heart. Sauser said he wouldn’t recommend it for new teachers and Bridge said the practice can lead to a little bit of classroom chaos.

“Once you start to do this, it changes how you structure the class,” she said. “It’s not about me in front of the class. It’s about what the kids are creating ... It kind of helps to empower their voices as well.”

Amsler is leading the agency’s first flipped classrooms workshop on Wednesday, April 17. Its popularity — there’s a waiting list — has led him to schedule another session this fall and a subsequent one in spring 2014.“It is another tool that teachers can be using to engage and excite students in the learning process,” Amsler said about flipped classrooms. “Whether everything is going to be flipped in the future, I don’t know, but certainly we are seeing some success with this approach.”

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