Colleagues sometimes tell Randy Brown, a third-grade teacher in the Seattle area, that they’re worried his students are getting too much screen time. “I tell them, ‘I’m worried about all the seat time your kids are getting,’ ” Brown says. “My kids are up and moving around all day long.”

Brown had been teaching for nearly three decades when he decided to “flip” his classroom and deliver instruction through short videos instead of lectures, using the freed-up class time for more student-centered activities. “After 27 years of doing the ‘sage on the stage’ thing, and really seeing the ineffectiveness of that, I was looking for a better way,” Brown explains.

The flipped model is gaining traction with teachers across the country, and Brown calls it “the single most powerful overnight transformation in education that I’ve ever seen.” But what does flipped learning really look like in practice? What’s so great about these videos? And, if kids learn the material by watching computer screens, what’s going to be left for you to do?

What “Flipped” Means

“You move the direct instruction from the group space to the individual space,” through the watch-at-home videos, explains Jonathan Bergmann, one of the pioneers behind the flipped learning movement, and coauthor of Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Achievement. “And then, the resulting group space [in the classroom] is turned into a dynamic learning environment where the teacher guides students to apply what they’ve learned.”

For example, Kyle Aubrey, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Joseph’s Episcopal School, a private school in Boynton Beach, Florida, makes short (five-minute, maximum) videos explaining concepts like fractions, percentages, and exponents. He arms students with graphic organizers to help them take notes, and kids can replay the videos as many times as it takes for them to understand the content.

Then, when students show up for class, Aubrey skips the lecture and works with them as they apply the material through fun, interactive activities. For one lesson, he gives each student two miniature bags of M&M’s and asks them to calculate the percentage change in the colors of the candies between the two bags. For another lesson, he brings in restaurant menus, and students play the roles of waiters and restaurant customers, calculating sales tax and tips.

“When you make it real-world, they get more excited about it,” Aubrey says.

Like Aubrey, many teachers create their own video lessons (a practice Bergmann recommends, saying it draws on and reinforces students’ relationships with their teachers). Other instructors assign videos they find online.

Students typically view the videos over the Internet, either at home or during after-school hours at libraries and computer labs. Some teachers burn DVDs or load the videos onto school-issued devices like iPads if their students lack Internet access.

Brown splits his class into two groups and has one group of students watch a video while he works with the other group—and then they switch. “I’ve reduced the student-teacher ratio by 50 percent,” Brown marvels.

Key Benefits

Proponents of flipped learning say that the method’s secret lies not in the instructional videos, but in the extra time it gives teachers to work closely with students in their classroom.

“It has helped me develop strong relationships with my students,” says Delia Bush, a fifth-grade teacher in Michigan’s Kenowa Hills school district, just north of Grand Rapids. “Meeting with them in small groups, it gives me the chance to connect with each of them. I’m much more accurate now in knowing what the kids understand and what they don’t.”

Teresa Loch, an eighth-grade math teacher in Oak Lawn, Illinois, has found that flipped learning increases student engagement. For one, the model requires students to be responsible for their own learning, because they can grapple with the instructional videos for as long as it takes them to understand something (rather than sitting disengaged and passive in a lecture as the material sails over their heads). Also, students respond enthusiastically to the in-class activities, helping one another when they get stuck.

“It encourages students to teach and learn concepts from one another, where I’m just the guide,” Loch says.

Adam Johnson, an eighth-grade math teacher at Mountain Brook Junior High in Alabama, says his classroom was “boring” before he flipped it. Now, students compete in math relay races, checking one another’s work between each leg, and collaborate during scavenger hunts. Because students face the hard work of applying their knowledge in a collaborative classroom setting (instead of alone with their homework at the kitchen table), Johnson says they’re more willing to tackle challenging problems. “I’ve seen their confidence go through the roof,” he says.

Hassan Wilson, an eighth-grade science teacher at Friends Seminary,a private school in New York City, says that flipping his classroom “allows for true differentiation.”

“My students work at different paces,” Wilson says. “Years ago, when I wasn’t flipping, all the students were getting direct instruction at the same time, which meant that I was holding kids hostage if they were ready to move on.”

Even many parents are fans of flipped learning, because the videos allow them to see how concepts are being taught. When parents don’t remember how to do a certain type of math problem, they’ll often watch the video with their child and then use what they’ve relearned to help their child study.

“You are not just sending a video home for the student,” says Mary Sleasman, a first- and second-grade teacher at Biltmore Preparatory Academy in Phoenix. “Everybody in the family is going to be watching your teaching.”

Because flipped learning is so new, there’s still not a lot of research on the model. But anecdotally, many teachers say that it’s working for their students. Bush, of Kenowa Hills, says that her students scored higher on some of her tests after she flipped her classroom, especially those tests that assessed understanding of more challenging material. In Wilson’s classroom, the number of notifications he had to send home for struggling students dropped by half.

Aubrey saw his students improve their performance on standardized tests, as well as on other assessments. “Throughout the year, I noticed that they were performing better than they had in past math classes,” he says. “Even parents would come to me and say, ‘My kid really loves math this year.’ ”

How to Try It Out

If the idea of distilling every one of your lessons down to five minutes or less—and then recording them all—sounds daunting, you can relax. It’s okay to start small.

“Maybe it’s just flipping one lesson, or flipping a unit,” says Wilson. “That might be a way to get started.”

Some teachers flip lessons only occasionally. “I met a teacher recently, and she flips Mondays,” Bergmann says. “She just wanted to do it once a week.”

If you teach multiple subjects, you might try flipping the content area where you spend the most time lecturing. Some teachers see math and writing as natural fits for the flipped model, since both subjects tend to rely on lots of direct instruction and practice.

Wilson recommends finding other teachers who have flipped their classrooms and learning from them. But beware: The method can be addictive. “I haven’t heard any teachers say, ‘I used to flip, and now I’m going back to the traditional way of teaching,’ ” Wilson says. “It really sticks.”

Will Videos Replace Teachers?

Nope. (Really.)

Bergmann says that teachers actually matter more, rather than less, in flipped classrooms.

“What we need teachers to do is not content dissemination but to help students with the hard stuff,” he explains. “That makes the teacher more valuable. When you flip your classroom, you’re putting the best resource in all of education—the teacher—with the kid. They can take home the easy stuff.”

Aubrey says that far from phasing teachers out, flipped learning “gives the teacher more to do.”

“This allows me to do more teaching, to be more of the educator and the mentor, instead of the lecturer at the front of the classroom,” Aubrey says. “This is what we all got into teaching to do, to work with students and to see the lightbulbs go off, and see them get excited about learning.” 

 

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Photo: Roger Hagadone