Showcasing the “Flipped” Classroom

Have you ever just wanted to hit pause on your teacher? Have you ever needed to rewind? On the other hand, have you ever been so bored–during a repetitious, tedious lecture–that you wished you could skip ahead to the more complicated stuff? These are a few of the reasons why Amy Merchant and Beth Ann Bell, both Upper School math teachers, started “flipping” their Algebra II classes this year.

Image credit: stonybrook.edu.

Their students do homework at school and listen to lectures at home. Bell and Merchant make explanatory videos on their iPads, post these lectures on the app Show Me, and hand out guided note packets, which follow along with the video. The students are then assigned to watch the video, however many times they need to, as homework, and they come to class with their notes and hopefully a decent understanding of the lesson. While some teachers may provide this type of lesson plan for their students occasionally, Bell and Merchant do so on an everyday basis.

Merchant said, “we try to keep [the videos] at 15 minutes. Now, sometimes they may go a little longer but that’s our–” “Sweet spot,” added Bell, finishing the sentence. “So a student that’s accelerated—that gets it after the first example—they have the ability to fast-forward, see…did they get the right answer… And their 15 minute video is even shorter, so it allows them to kind of work at their own pace. They can pause, rewind, or go have dinner in between.”

A freshman in Bell’s math class actively watches a video and takes notes.

Some educational professionals, like Andrew Miller, an educational consultant at ASCD, the non-profit Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, disagree with video learning. “That’s not how all of us learn,” Miller said. “How are you engaging your kids?” He says to teachers like Bell and Merchant,”Just because you flipped your classroom doesn’t mean your students will watch the videos.”

Yet Bell and Merchant’s students have to and do watch, because after the video they’re given practice problems, which should take around 15 minutes as well. These teachers have taken the traditional class structure—a lecture, followed by example questions—and flipped it with the homework. If a student isn’t engaged in the video or doesn’t take proper notes, then they won’t be able to get the practice problems correct. Therefore, Bell and Merchant can tell who has and who hasn’t done their homework.

Dusey Hyman (’18) shows her classwork.

Former high school teacher Jonathan Bergmann, co-author of Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day, says to teachers wondering whether or not to make the switch: “You need to figure out the answer to the question: What’s the best use of your face-to-face instruction time?”

Bell and Merchant believe that they can maximize their class time by assigning lectures as homework, and many other educators agree. Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur talks often about his experiences with lecturing, and he explains how his teaching perspective has altered. Once he realized that his students weren’t really thinking about the material—they were too focused on memorizing the laws and formulas—he changed the way he teaches.“You don’t learn by listening, you learn by doing, and, in a sense, this brings the doing back in the classroom.” He “flipped” his classroom as well, but he did so in a different way. With his new class style, his students read and annotate their textbooks as homework, and he helps them work problems in class.

One thing Mazur stresses is peer learning. When faced with a confusing problem in class, the students are allowed to discuss the problem with their classmates. They compete to find the correct answer, and Mazur only helps them when they don’t know where to begin or get lost. More often than not, Mazur has found that students can explain better to their peers why a certain answer is correct. “Once you understand something, you forget the difficulties that a beginning learner has,” Mazur explains, giving an example situation where Mary and John are figuring out the answer to a problem. If Mary understands, she ”…is more likely to explain it to John than Professor Mazur in front of the class. Why? Because she has only recently learned it. She still knows what the difficulties are that the beginning learner has. Whereas Professor Mazur… has learned it such a long time ago; to him it is so obvious, so simple that he would no longer understand why somebody doesn’t understand it.”

Merchant and Bell agree to an extent: “Think of all the times when you’ve gotten stuck in the middle of your math homework where it would be really nice to ask your teacher a question; [our students] have the ability… They’re doing their homework with us in the room, with their peers in the room,” said Bell, and Merchant also mentioned how “they do sit in groups and they can work together on that too, and we’re walking around, helping, and trying to get to everybody.”

New trends in teaching come and go, but flipping seems to be a sustainable and successful idea, because it can fit multiple class settings. According to the Flip Teaching website, “flipping” is an umbrella term; it has many uses and definitions. Byron High School in Minnesota started using the technique in the fall of 2010; after the recession of 2009, they couldn’t afford new textbooks. Teachers put in long hours to have their textbook-free math classes, their flipped classrooms, ready in time for the 2010-2011 school year, and their hard work paid off. In 2011, Byron won the Intel award for high school math. Rewarded for their innovative educational efforts, the Byron Math Department is also celebrated by the student body.

I asked Merchant and Bell whether they thought their students like this style of learning. “We both have had pretty positive feedback from our students” said Bell. “We had one person first semester who was not really sold on it” admitted Merchant, “and I wouldn’t even say first semester”—she corrected herself with a laugh—“I would say first week. And I think, once they settled into it, it’s been fine.” She shook her head in almost disbelief, “only one [student] out of four classes.”

Deb Wolf, High School Instructional Coach for the Sioux Falls district in South Dakota, uses the “mastery” technique of flipping and she found that “self-paced became no-pace” for some students, so she had to set more deadlines. She found that when the pace of the class is not strictly laid out for students, some fall behind and never catch up.

With of their lesson plans online, it is largely up to the students to decide how intently they watch the videos and how wisely they use their resources. “We have a test tomorrow, and I talked to a student today and he said, ’Well, I know I need to go home and I need to re-watch the video on…’ whatever. So, they use those again to study or to refresh before quizzes and tests,” Bell said. Dusey Hyman (‘18), one of Bell’s students, agrees: “I do like the videos because, if you have a test and you don’t know something, you can just go back and watch that video.”

Also, when students are absent, they can easily make up their work. “They’re never missing ‘direct instruction’” said Bell. The students can also print the notes from class off of Schoology. She continued to mention the importance of alertness in class as well, “It is an adjustment for the students as far as just their mindset, because they’re doing new material at home for homework, so they really need to take advantage of their class time to be getting their practice and understanding and asking their questions, because the next night they’re moving on a lot of times.”

Souix Falls’ Wolf makes another interesting point: ”You can’t just hand the flipped classroom off to an ineffective teacher and say you’re going to transform the classroom… It’s not going to make a bad teacher a good teacher.” Flip Teaching emphasizes that flipped classrooms do not replace “the teacher with videos. On the contrary, the role of the teacher becomes more important and active.”

Flipping a classroom requires more work on the teacher’s end, so Bell and Merchant rely on one another for help with the work load. “I really enjoy it, and I think us working together is crucial because of the amount of work that we have to do,” said Bell. Especially with both of them adding new classes to their schedule—Merchant is now teaching Honors Geometry and Trigonometry, and Bell added Calculus to her course load—this year, the help is needed. Bell said, “you have to recreate and redesign your worksheets” to fit this class, and that requires more work. Bell and Merchant share worksheets, but they make their own videos. “Kids want to hear your voice. They want to hear their teacher’s voice, so we make our own videos… We’re not giving them like Khan Academy, or something like that.” Teachers tend to explain concepts in different ways, Merchant says, “and you get used to that.”

Khan Academy is a website started in 2004 by Sal Khan, with the goal of reinventing education. It includes videos and tutorials on a variety of subjects: math, grammar, biology, chemistry, physics, economics, finance, and history. Khan Academy is the largest, most well-known of the online classrooms; however, it is vastly different from what Bell and Merchant use. Khan Academy can serve as an effective resource for review. Merchant said, “It is a great resource for students when they need extra practice or would like something explained,” but it can easily confuse students. Hyman says “sometimes Khan Academy is just off somehow… it’s not always completely relevant.” She also mentioned how she likes “having [Bell’s] voice and how she can explain it to me the next day.” Hyman can ask Bell for clarification of an idea the following day, but it’s hard to get a lecturer off of Khan Academy to explain his or her reasoning to questioning students.

Bell writes the class’s daily plan on the white board.

Interactions in the classroom are a significant part of the learning process. “Talking and being able to talk to someone and work with someone in person is… I don’t know if that can be replaced,” said Bell. It is a balance, and “what we have found is that this has been a good balance; it has been a good fit for our students,” said Bell. “Right,” Merchant agrees.

Great teachers like Bell and Merchant are transforming education, because their students won’t necessarily remember Algebra II, but they will have had practice on how to direct their own learning. After math class with Bell or Merchant, a student learns to be flexible and in control of their learning. At the end of the day, we, the Collegiate students, are lucky to be at a school where the teachers are willing to put in the extra work and try new teaching methods on our behalf.

Photos by Dusey Hyman, unless otherwise noted.

About the author

Eva Whaley is a junior at Collegiate.