The rise of digial technology in schools has been dramatic – few classrooms are now without an interactive white board, most schools have developed their own virtual learning environment, and many are experimenting by making iPads or similar devices available to students to use in class and at home. While many will praise its impact on teaching and learning, a legitimate question that some would ask is: does this technology really improve our students’ education? The precise impact of technology can be difficult to isolate but one way I believe teachers could use technology to actually improve all student learning is through a flipped classroom.
A flipped classroom is one where learning traditionally undertaken as classwork is done at home and work that is traditionally done as homework is done in class. The lesson is delivered to students as homework usually via a video or other resource prepared by the teacher and the lesson time is spent applying the understanding gained at home.
This year, I have been experimenting by flipping some of my lessons with my lower 6th physical geography classes. I have been recording 10-15 minute videos and posting these on our school’s virtual learning environment. Students are directed to watch these and make detailed notes. The lessons have a warm up activity questioning students about what they learned and I check the video notes that they should have completed. The main classwork builds on the homework and the type of activity will depend on the nature of what is being learnt: a student may need to apply the understanding perhaps in a practical experiment, or by answering an exam question in an unfamiliar context. Alternatively, it could be a structured debate – especially valuable where the content taught in the video is contentious. Students can also peer assess each other’s work and peer teach new elements to each other – they could even produce their own instructional videos. During the lesson I am free to circulate and offer help to students where it is really needed. I can direct those who are struggling and challenge those who are excelling. Where common misunderstandings arise I can step in and teach that section again to those who need it.
Even after a relatively short time in using this approach I am convinced that there are a number of tangible benefits that make it worth pursuing further – these include:
Learning autonomy: giving students control over their learning motivates them and it ensures that students learn key ideas when and where they are ready to learn, not when a timetable rigidly determines it. When in the classroom they can work more independently and seek help where necessary. In a traditional classroom model, a student may not be ready for learning in a particular lesson, perhaps because of lack of sleep, hunger or problems with their peer group. As a result that student may miss a key concept that was only available at that moment. This gap in understanding may then undermine their subsequent learning. Furthermore, when they get home and need to apply the content they missed in the lesson, they are really stuck. There is no one on hand to help them proceed.
Differentiation: students can learn the key content at their own pace. They can pause, rewind and repeat a video to ensure they have understood it. The availability of the videos on the virtual learning environment also creates a tremendous resource bank for students when they come to revise material for examinations.
Catching up: students will inevitably miss lessons through illness or other commitments such as sport fixtures. The flipped classroom ensures that they do not miss out on key content and can catch up on missed activities with less impact on their overall learning.
Perfect delivery: As teachers we strive to explain ideas clearly but we can’t always be sure we have achieved this when we do it live in the classroom. By recording ourselves we can ensure that what we deliver includes everything we mean to say and we can communicate this logically and clearly.
Increasing student-teacher interaction: While initially this method may raise fears that the human element of teaching is being lost, in reality one of the key benefits of the flipped classroom is that the teacher has more individual contact with students as less time is spent on group instruction and therefore there is more opportunity to get to know each student and help them make progress.
How to start flipping
If you want to start flipping your own classrooms you will obviously need to invest time to set up your lessons in this way, not least the recording of videos. This is best done gradually; it would be very demanding to flip a whole course in a single year. For some subjects you can use video content that has already been prepared, for example from the Khan Academy or Educreations. I would however encourage you to create your own videos for two key reasons: Firstly, your students know you and trust that what you are saying is relevant to them so they will engage with the content. Secondly, however good other video suppliers are, you are always going to be able to give the emphasis in the places where you know your students need it and ensure that all elements of the video are tailored to the particular specification you are following.
There are a number of different ways to record your videos. I have been using a mix of three methods which all have merit:
Interactive white boards: Smart Boards have a function that records what you do on the board. If you plug in a microphone to your computer you can talk as you explain. This is an incredibly quick and easy method of producing videos.
Computer with Screen Recorder: on a computer you can use any of the free web-based screen recorders e.g. Screen-o-matic.com or Screenr.com to record what is going on, on your screen. I use a microphone to add narration and a graphics tablet to add hand written drawings and annotations during the recording. This method is great when you want to make videos from the comfort of your desk or at home.
iPad: tablet computers provide a very convenient way to record videos because you can write directly on the screen (a stylus is recommended) and they typically have built-in microphones. The best apps for this purpose seem only to be available for the iPad at present. ‘Explain Everything’ [see image] is an especially effective video recording app and there are also some free apps such as ‘Screenchomp’ and ‘Show Me’ which are great to get started on.
I am convinced that flipping classrooms is a fantastic way of utilising technology to improve our students’ learning. However, I am cautious about going ‘fully flipped’ (which is the case with a growing number of schools in the USA where the method is increasingly popular) as I can see that there is still merit in the traditional model for certain types of activity and with particular year groups. I also think it is important that not all student learning comes in bite-sized video chunks. Students do need to struggle with learning from more demanding resources if we are to prepare them fully for university and beyond. That said, if all of our teaching is delivered in the traditional way, we are missing out on an opportunity to ensure that all the core learning in our subject is understood by all of the students in our classes.
Further reading and viewing:
Flip Your Classroom – Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams – ISTE 2012