Don’t Make Your Classroom Flip, A Flop
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2017
By Meagan Gillmore
Teachers constantly look for ways to make best use of their limited class time. That’s one reason why many teachers have taken to “flipping” their classrooms in recent years.
“Flipped” teaching involves changing when and where students receive instruction. Instead of sitting in class listening to a teacher talk and then going home and practicing those concepts— think of the hours spent completing math problems after the final bell rings—students learn about concepts at home and come to class ready to practice them. They may discuss what they’ve learned in groups, solve problems on a chalkboard so teachers can see their work, or complete assignments independently. When flipped teaching first became popular, some thought instruction on screens would eliminate in-class teaching. Today, many educators agree flipped teaching shouldn’t be the only method of instruction, and technology, like videos, isn’t the only resource teachers can—or should—use.
No matter what teachers use when flipping their classrooms, they agree it can create more time in the classroom. Catherine Veteri, a high school math teacher in Strathroy, ON, says she started using the method in her Grade 11 university preparatory math class partly because she realized students weren’t retaining information while they were writing notes. She gives students a virtual “binder” at the beginning of the semester with access to videos and lesson notes. There’s a video for each lesson. Students watch them at home then come to class prepared to practice what they learned. This has drastically slashed the amount of time she spends using traditional instruction in the classroom and allowed her more time to spend with struggling students. It also allows students to challenge themselves. Veteri says her classes have now tried the harder math questions in class, problems she previously did not have time to teach.
Lisa Floyd, a high school teacher in London, ON, summarizes the appeal of flipped teaching this way: “It really bothers me when class time isn’t being used efficiently.” Using videos allows students to learn and review information at their own pace, and they’re often more engaged than they might be listening to a lecture.
To get this extra time in the classroom, teachers need to put in the work outside of it. Veteri says when she first started using this method a few years ago, some parents thought she was working less. They figured, she says, because she was getting paid to teach, she should be teaching during class time. What they likely didn’t know is that she’d spent time each week during summer vacation making the videos, enough for each day in the course. Veteri makes all her videos because she wants students to hear her voice and see her commitment to the subject. Other teachers use videos created by colleagues.
Veteri says teachers may become excited about the idea of flipped teaching, but may hesitate to invest the time needed to make quality resources to do it well. She—and many other educators—recommend teachers introduce this method gradually. Prepare one unit in a flipped style, or even just a couple lessons in a unit. Many teachers may only use flipped teaching for a few lessons in a unit. Some educators caution against introducing entirely new concepts through flipped instruction. Instead, teachers should use flipped teaching methods, like videos, to provide context for the new material teachers will discuss at school.
Beginning small is important because meaningful flipped teaching involves more than just changing what teachers or students do. It requires challenging how teachers and students think about learning.
Components of flipped teaching—independent and critical thinking, collaboration, connecting concepts taught inside the classroom to the world outside of it—have always been part of effective education. But the ubiquitous nature of digital technology means anyone can access information anywhere. Students no longer need to rely on teachers for information. This change “allows (teachers) to become a true facilitator of learning instead of a dispenser of knowledge,” says Garth Nichols, Vice Principal at Havergal College in Toronto. Nichols provides professional development online and face-to-face through the program Cohort 21. He often helps teachers use technology more effectively. He calls flipped teaching a “disruption” in education. Students don’t need to learn at the pace teachers set for them, and in some cases, they don’t even have to be in the same room as the teacher. Students who learn best visually may respond to videos better; students who are learning English can gain confidence by watching videos multiple times.
“When you allow students to learn at their own pace and place,” says Nichols, “you are giving up control of a traditional classroom.” In this model, teachers facilitate, coming alongside students, and helping them learn. This however, means that students need to take responsibility themselves. Teachers need to help them prepare.
Many of Colleen Lee’s students don’t know the Japanese word for “homework.” That’s because in her Japanese classes at Pinetree Secondary School in Coquitlam, BC, she doesn’t tell her students they’ll be doing homework. Instead, she tells them they’re doing preparation at home for what they’ll be learning in class. Sometimes, this means watching a video of her explaining a grammar concept, or a Japanese video. Other times, it means coming prepared to describe an object.
Homework, Lee explains, involves reinforcing concepts after class. Preparation “frontloads” learning so students come to school ready to learn. This makes students take ownership. If they aren’t prepared for class, they can’t participate with their classmates.
While some may have thought Veteri was going easy on students when she introduced flipped learning, they’ve discovered her students have greater responsibility. They have what they need to learn. Vacations and travelling for sports competitions can no longer be used as reasons for missing material.
Teachers, however, are still responsible for providing quality instruction. Jonathan So, a Grade 6 teacher in Brampton, ON, has used flipped teaching, in some format, for about eight years. At the beginning, his students watch videos at home. He has learned, though, that’s not enough. Students need direction, so teachers need to provide specific questions to answer or think about.
Quizzes can be built into videos to encourage student engagement. This also allows teachers to better understand students’ knowledge. Shorter videos work best; So tries to keep the duration of the videos to five minutes.
Flipped classrooms still require good classroom management. Lisa Floyd often has students participate in small group discussions for part of her class. They can have these discussions online, but she monitors them and sometimes participates to keep everything focused. Online conversations can’t be anonymous, and she discusses proper online etiquette with students.
The key to effective flipping, says So, is knowing your students. Practically, this means creating opportunities for all students to participate—even if they don’t have access to technology at home. Teachers can make their classrooms available for students to watch videos during breaks or before and after school. They need to consider if students live near libraries, or if they can use the school library. Videos should be enabled for viewing on mobile devices if students don’t have access to a computer. Veteri has given her students materials on a jump drive.
But flipping isn’t dependent on technology. It’s “more about purposely planning activities to do at home” than watching videos, says So. He asks students to find books about different cultures or look at pictures and describe what they’ve learned. He has taught students who asked their parents about their experiences immigrating to Canada. The class used these experiences to write a story the next day. Not all students have parents available to help them. So works with these students to find people they can talk to, like other teachers at school.
Teachers also need to respect students as people and realize they need to do things besides schoolwork, and away from screens. Leigh Cassell, a technology coach with Avon Maitland District School Board in Ontario, says she has seen students with “burnout” from too much time on screens. They don’t want to use screens sometimes at school because they use them so much outside of school, she says. Technology is used best when it helps connect students to the world around them. That’s why she recommends teachers have students use apps and digital platforms that people use outside of the classroom, like Google or Apple products. She founded the Digital Human Library, a not-for-profit that helps connect teachers and students with experts—all vetted—via videoconferencing.
Flipped teaching extends learning outside of the boundaries of regular school hours. If teachers want students to keep learning, they need to teach in a way that motivates students to learn. “If (students) aren’t buying into what we’re doing in the classroom, they’re not going to buy into what we want them to do at home,” says Cassell. Students need to value learning, regardless of where it happens. Teachers need to respect students’ voices and listen to them. Sometimes, that means tweaking a video. Other times, it means turning it off and listening while they talk.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.