How to Get Started on Flipped Classrooms in Your School

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“Flipped classroom.”

As a high school math and science teacher, these are two words I hear on a fairly regular basis. “Flipped classroom” refers to the recently developed practice of assigning a short lecture video that students watch as homework and then using class time to complete example problems or group work that, in a “normal” classroom, would be assigned as homework.

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It used to be I cringed to hear these words, having had a bad experience as a student in a fledgling flipped classroom during college. However, two years later, the flipped classroom experiment is being conducted at a more widespread level and extends to grade schools and high schools as well as universities. More importantly, now that there is a broader precedent and larger bank of experience to draw upon, teachers everywhere have made significant strides in improving the flipping process to benefit themselves and students alike.

As a school administrator, you are in a perfect position to facilitate your school’s implementation of a flipped classroom. Whether your school is still pondering the flip, or you are just getting started with that process, here are some thoughts on how to make it all go smoothly and how to get the most out of the new arrangement.

Switch up homework and class time

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In the flipped classroom, what used to be a class lecture takes the place of homework, and what used to be homework becomes in-class work. The general sequence of events on a school day now should go something like this:

Homework

Remember a typical night’s math homework when you were in high school?

If you were anything like me, you no doubt had to read several pages out of the textbook (which only took a few minutes) and then had to attempt an extensive problem set or worksheet based on the material covered in that day’s lecture (which took a few hours).

Maybe you were a complete math whizz who could finish off a problem set in only a few minutes; or maybe you were an average high school student who got stuck in the middle of a problem and found yourself unable to complete the assignment. On a good night, you were able to get in touch with a friend who understood the homework well enough to explain it to you and help you finish the problem set. On a bad night, you came away from homework frustrated and confused.

A flipped classroom has the potential to do away with much of this frustration and add an extra challenge for those students who excel at the material already.

In most flipped classrooms, homework consists primarily of a short lecture video, perhaps prepared by the teacher herself and uploaded using school administration or learning management software or perhaps pulled from a site such as Kahn Academy. The video is often complemented by a reading and/or more interactive components such as worksheets, animations, and examples that have already been worked out.

As a teacher, I think the ideal combination would be a video and a textbook reading, both brief and both covering the same material. This would allow students the chance to see the subject matter from two perspectives, thus giving them an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the material and providing students who have various learning styles with different options best suited to their individual needs.

As they engage with the video and other components of the homework, it might be useful for the students to answer questions or prepare their own, write a short presentation, or briefly research a topic. This will get students thinking about the material before they come to class the next day and provide them with something to bring to the table during class discussion. This method also creates a “need to know” incentive for the students to watch the assigned video.

In any case, in a flipped-classroom situation, students should rarely, if ever, be required to complete traditional homework problems, and certainly not problems that could present a roadblock for them. Students who would like to push themselves a bit could perhaps have the option to attempt a short set of challenging problems.

Class time

If there’s one thing students always complain about, it’s lectures. A long, yawn-inducing hour of being talked at by someone who may or may not know how to present material in a clear, engaging manner is no one’s idea of a good time.

Again, the frustration of tedious lectures (and sometimes the necessity of writing them) is done away with in the flipped classroom. Having covered the material at their own pace the night before and having kept track of questions they need clarification on, students come to class ready to engage collaboratively and creatively with the material. Teachers also benefit, since they can condense what might have been a long lecture into a much shorter video.

Many teachers now have students use class time to complete what normally would be homework problems. Sometimes this takes a very structured form, with short, daily assessments that allow the teacher to track students’ progress, help those who demonstrate a lack of understanding, and hold students accountable for the homework. In this type of flipped classroom, students find themselves both operating as groups and completing individual work.

Other teachers take a more creative—and, to my mind, more exciting—approach. These flipped classrooms are filled with students conducting science labs, holding animated discussions, completing interactive projects, and perhaps hearing short lectures on the more practical, “real-world” applications of the material they’ve been learning about. Students are encouraged to bring their own devices into the classroom. Students who cannot afford the kind of technology necessary for this type of learning can be loaned laptops or tablets by the school.

Also keep in mind that there will usually be some topics that are simply too complicated, or perhaps too controversial, to leave for the students to work through on their own. Teachers can choose to handle these topics in person by presenting short, conventional lectures during class time.

Troubleshooting the Flipped Classroom

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Flipping the classroom is not without its trials and tribulations. Here are some ways to avoid or at least manage some of the problems your school might encounter during the institution of flipped classrooms:

Overworked Teachers

“Believe it or not, teachers have lives too.”

Almost every teacher I’ve ever had growing up has said this at one point to his or her students. I’ve probably said it to each class I’ve taught at least once. But, when a school decides to start flipping classrooms, it’s not the students who need this reminder.

It’s you, the school administrator.

Flipping a classroom initially takes a huge time investment from teachers. They have to hunt down high-quality videos that cover the material they need to present, or (even more time-consuming) they have to record their own mini-lectures. They have to create worksheets, assessments, and projects; set up Google documents or other collaborative venues; and seek out and practice those fun, interactive activities. On top of all this work, they must complete all these steps further ahead of time than in a normal classroom, since students will be making quick progress through the material on a daily/nightly basis.

The solution to this is twofold, the first component being the right software. Teachers can use their school’s administration software or a leaning management system (LMS) to facilitate and keep track of collaborative work, administer quizzes, and allow students and their parents to monitor grades.

The second half of the solution is simple: Start small. Everything becomes easier when split into smaller increments, so don’t try to flip the entire school at once! Start with one section, or just one unit within a section, and work your way up from there.

Slackers

As exciting and engaging as the flipped classroom should be, there are always going to be those students who don’t want to do any homework, even if the homework load has been greatly alleviated by the flipped system.

The key here is for teachers to establish motivation and accountability.

Students across the board want to know why they need to learn about something. The teacher’s response to this can be as pragmatic as letting students know that the material from the homework will be covered on a quiz—”pop” or otherwise—or that an upcoming project will draw directly on the homework videos. This way, students will feel a little bit of pressure to watch the videos each night.

However, I’m of the mind that students should be led to develop a love of the material and should find motivation in a desire to understand further ramifications of the subject matter. To this end, it is important that teachers demonstrate to their students, especially the older ones, how a particular topic fits into the course as a whole and how it can be applied to students’ present or future experience of the “real world.” This will also support one of the overall goals of flipping the classroom, which is to encourage students to take ownership of their own education.

As for accountability, many LMS systems such as Moodle and DigitalChalk include features that allow teachers to track which students have watched a particular video. If students are aware that the teacher knows who did and did not watch the video, they will be more likely to complete that part of the homework.

Lack of Access

Some students will not have access to a computer or the internet at home, potentially making it impossible for them to access the homework videos and other content.

Fortunately, there are several solutions to this problem. Probably the easiest solution is to create content that is accessible from a smartphone or other mobile device, since even many low-income students have access to these. Another solution is for students to take advantage of the free, public Wi-Fi readily available in many restaurants and libraries. However, time and transportation restraints might make it difficult for students to use these latter resources. A better solution would be to open up access to your school’s internet for students, a fix that would be complemented nicely by a school’s amassing a set of devices that can be borrowed by students or used on campus.

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But what about those (relatively few) students who aren’t allowed access to the internet? Believe it or not, there are still a few families in the U.S. who have made the decision to raise their children, especially the younger ones, without internet entertainment. While there are undoubtedly merits to this way of thinking, this can be inconvenient for teachers who assume their students will be able to access the internet for homework. Fortunately, there’s even a solution for this dilemma: Teachers can make DVDs of the homework videos and provide hardcopies of any accompanying worksheets or quizzes. While this may seem “old-fashioned,” this should provide a fail-proof way for students to access the homework.

In other words, lack of access should never prove to be an insurmountable problem for schools looking to flip.

It’s a Wrap

At the end of the day, the flipped classroom certainly has its critics. However, the benefits to many schools of a more dynamic classroom are undeniable:

  • Increased engagement of students with the material
  • Development of critical thinking skills
  • Creation of curiosity and love of learning
  • Accessibility of material for review at any time
  • Opportunity for more individualized instruction
  • Increased availability help on confusing topics

No wonder a 2014 survey revealed that 78% of teachers had experimented with flipping their classroom! By following my advice, you can help your school make the flip smoothly and successfully.

More?

What are your thoughts on the flipped classroom? Would you consider helping your school make the flip? What tips do you have for schools who want to start flipping?  Add your experiences in the comments!

Images by Abby Kahler

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About the Author

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Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman

During the school year, Helen puts her love of physics and people to good use teaching high-school math and science. During the summer, she blogs for Capterra, a privately held technology and online media company that brings together buyers and sellers of software. In her free time, you're most likely to find Helen reading or spending time with her family and friends.

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