Sunday, April 21, 2013

What the Flip?

When I first heard the term “flipping the classroom,” I thought it was a magical pedagogical phenomenon. I asked myself, “What does this term mean? What does this look like in the classroom? Am I the only teacher who doesn’t know about this magical flipping thing?” So, a year ago, I set out to uncover the mystery of flipping the classroom.  In a nutshell, the information I found at the time involved teachers using videos as homework and class time as review to delve further into student understanding. Over the course of the school year, I have heard many teachers inquire about flipping their classrooms and wanting information about it.  Often, their questions seems like they are asking for a magical, secret formula that will transform their teaching overnight. I have often had the impression that some people think that learning how to flip your classroom is akin to going behind the gates of Willy Wonka’s factory. Oh, how I wish for such a magical formula.

In my quest for this magic formula, I attended a few educational technology conference sessions about flipped classrooms. I was sure to come up with the exact recipe for success to transform my teaching. One particular session at the Annual CUE conference provided the epiphany I was seeking. The session was by Ramsey Musallam who is well known for his innovative way of using flipped teaching in his chemistry classes. I went into the session expecting a magical formula and came out without one. Sounds bad, right? But, it was actually beyond amazing. Through his session and classroom examples, I learned that there is no one formula for success with flipping your classroom. It is really a mindset—one where your goal is how to get your students to think for themselves. His session made me realize that I was bored with my own teaching and if I was bored the kids must be bored. I felt free to try something totally different. Even with Ramsay’s phrase of “discovery is messy,” I was undaunted.

I returned from CUE and switched up my science teaching. Instead of my formulaic notes, hands on labs and then a test, I flipped it around. We were beginning our study of water and erosion so I gave each group a tub of sand and pebbles and we went outside and they “played” with sand. Not exactly. I told them to build a mountain and pour water on it and watch happened. They did this over and over again and they were transformed back into the toddlers they once were. I heard “oohs” and “look at that” and “let’s see what happens” as they all got messy with sand and discovery. I didn’t have to directly instruct them on what happens to water as it moves over land since they saw it first hand.

Over the next two days, I had them create a Comic Life comic about a leaf or a twig’s journey down a river to the ocean. Over two days, every student was engaged in telling the story of what their twig or leaf observed as it moved down river to the ocean. They found pictures to match their text and told the story in the first person as if they were a really smart twig or leaf. As they worked I was able to walk around and read their comics and assess their understanding. They were proud and excited to discuss their journey. In three days, we accomplished a much deeper level of thinking and creating than we normally would have with my traditional instruction.  So, is this “flipping the classroom” or is it just a matter of semantics? For me, flipping the classroom means the freedom to change things up to increase student engagement.

Since that lesson, I have continued to front-load student exploration of concepts and get messy with discovery. All of this has made me think more of my own parents’ education and the schooling that happened in the one-room schoolhouses of long ago. I thought about how in my parents’ schooling, especially through 8th grade, they never had homework. Their homework was usually household chores and playing outside. Both of my parents are smart, resourceful, and great critical thinkers. They didn’t have PowerPoint notes or YouTube videos to teach them. Instead, they used the world around them in their neighborhood to extend their learning. When I was a child, I remember going to my mom’s childhood home in the summers and making mud pies and playing in the dirt for hours just like my mom had as a child. I was learning about soil and erosion the same way she had. I was just being a kid and kids are natural explorers of the world around them. Why don’t I tap into that more? I have begun to question whether that worksheet homework is a valid replacement to playing and creating.

So, even though I wish I could say there’s a magical method called “flipping your classroom” that makes your teaching life fabulous, it simply isn’t true. The truth is that you are free to change how you do things, especially at our charter school. Maybe it involves assigning a brief video for homework to then discuss in class or maybe it involves front-loading a lab or conceptual discussion. Regardless of the semantics, flipping your classroom really translates to flipping your own way of thinking about your teaching.

Feel free to flip it. It’s fun.

Jeanne Feeney

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