Highlands Blog

Flipped Learning

Bo Garrett
Few, if any, developments have had a more profound impact on education than the advent of the Internet and the resulting World Wide Web. Instant access to the world’s colossal body of collective knowledge has revolutionized every aspect of our lives. Over the last quarter century educators at all levels have worked diligently to utilize these developments to improve teaching and learning. Over the course of the last decade Flipped Learning has met with more and more success as it has turned education on its head.

So what exactly is revolutionary about Flipped Learning? It’s simple. In the Flipped Model, the work students traditionally undertook in class, they now do for homework in preparation for a much different classroom experience. Recently, the University of Vermont Medical School (UVM) announced that it would no longer utilize lecture in any of its classes. Dr. William Jefferies, UVM’s associate dean for medical education said plainly, “If we know there are methods superior to lecture, why are we lecturing at all?” Instead the school decided to flip its curriculum and move all of its lectures online. Of course UVM is not the first school to flip its curriculum. Online schools have been around for awhile now, but the model that UVM and many other schools are now implementing is different in one key respect. They use a blended model meaning the curriculum includes both online components and face-to-face class time. UVM’s shift to the blended format further constitutes the Flipped Model moving it deeper into mainstream practice at the highest levels of education.

Some of you may be familiar with Salman Khan, an inadvertent pioneer of Flipped Learning. Several years ago, while tutoring his cousins, who lived across the country, Khan utilized online tools to create instructional videos to explain and demonstrate specific mathematical concepts. Those lessons, which his cousins shared with classmates, became the foundation of Khan Academy. (If you’re not familiar with Salman Khan and his namesake academy, watch his 2011 Ted Talk and check out Khan Academy). However, the model doesn’t stop with Khan’s work. Flipped Learning created an opportunity for educators at all levels to scaffold their way toward a paradigm shift in education. Pioneers, like Jon Bergmann, a high school chemistry teacher, were also hard at work developing educational models that utilized technology. Bergmann and others discovered that by posting information online that they had traditionally imparted via lecture, they were able to use the additional class time to more deeply engage students in higher level learning -- hands-on applications, small group work, projects, and other collaborative exercises. In short, students were able to apply the knowledge they had acquired more quickly than the traditional model dramatically improving student engagement and learning.

While Khan and Bergmann were developing their ideas, Ashley Kizer (a former Highlands 4th and 5th grade science teacher) and I were devoting most of our planning time to come up with our own version of the Flipped model, which in its nascent state didn’t even have a name yet. As part of the fourth and fifth grade teaching team, Mr. Kizer and I explored application after application in search of the most conducive technologies to share our science and social studies lessons with our students. We burned CDs. We wrote RSS feeds and created podcasts. We started a YouTube channel. We even added tracks to iTunes for free. All of these processes required intensive post-production time, but we didn’t give up. We kept looking for the application that would free us from our editing woes. And just when we thought we had tried everything we discovered Ustream.tv. This platform enabled us to record our lessons in real time, stream them live while we were recording, and archive them for students to view whenever they wanted, as many times as they needed. The best part about Ustream.tv wasn’t that it was free, it was that the application was Web-based meaning students could access the information with any Web-enabled device -- smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. In addition, we could record lessons for students anywhere we had access to the Web. It was so easy in fact, that I began recruiting students to create videos for one another based on research about the impact of peer-to-peer instruction. By incorporating the two concepts I, like Salman Khan, inadvertently stumbled into a treasure trove of pedagogical discovery.

My revelation was so compelling that I decided to pursue it further focusing my research on student perceptions of online learning. More specifically, I focused on how students perceived their efforts creating and sharing lessons with their peers in a blended format. The findings from my research, which I completed in 2013, are well aligned with the findings from many other studies.

Foremost among those findings is the fact that students in flipped classrooms perform better than students in lecture courses. Study after study, including recent experiments from Stanford University, which supported UVM’s decision to flip their medical school, show multiple factors which improve learning. Students retain more information and demonstrate a better understanding of concepts. As a result they write more effectively and create higher quality projects. From a practical standpoint students in flipped learning classrooms are better prepared for class. The model meets them in their digital world where they are most comfortable. It empowers learners by enabling them to engage with the material on their schedule at a time and place most conducive for their own learning. Students also have the option of reviewing all or parts of the material when necessary. And lastly, parents of younger students also have access to the content, which offers a level of transparency and helps parents who want to be involved with their child’s learning.

The greatest gift of flipped learning is more time in the classroom. What teacher doesn’t want more time to interact with their students? By shifting content into online formats, teachers have less to lecture about. As a result, the time normally spent introducing information can be spent in more creative and effective ways. Teachers who practice the flipped model have more time to differentiate class time and meet more of their students’ needs. By grouping students according to their understanding of the material, teachers can employ stations, labs, rotations, flex time, and even a la carte options which offer something for every learner. Working in small groups improves collaborative skills. Finally, the flipped model provides learners with a wider array of formative assessments and encourages them to assess themselves which is one the most effective methods of retaining information.  

The Flipped Model is not a panacea. It has its fair share of shortcomings. First and foremost among them is the technology itself. Practitioners point to the fact that not all students have devices or access to the Internet. As technology becomes more ubiquitous this is less of a problem, but it is nonetheless frequently cited as an obstacle to broader adoption of the model. Even students with devices and access have issues. Managing their time online remains a significant problem in classrooms around the country, flipped and unflipped. Teaching our students best online practices is essential to reap the benefits of learning online. Some critics highlight the perception of an increased workload, i.e. more homework. It is true that poorly managed flipped classrooms can place an inordinate amount of work on students, but there is no evidence that the model actually creates more work. The nature of the work is such that it appears to be work that “should have been done at school” because it is the work that traditionally was covered in class. Which brings up a final common pitfall and that is the shift in cognitive load for students. The work managed outside of the classroom is different than the work in traditional classroom models and therefore should be approached differently from both teachers and students. No one wants to watch a 45-minute lecture live or online. So teachers must be creative and engaging in the formats they offer their students. A well designed flipped classroom accounts for these shifts in cognitive load and ultimately results in students who are engaged, empowered, and demonstrate deeper understanding.

When it comes to online learning we are far from saturation. As such our students will continue to adapt their learning practices to new technologies and applications. Supporting learners in these developments requires a continued shift toward methods and models that best accommodate all possible outcomes and prepare them for the dynamic world that awaits them.
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Highlands School, 4901 Old Leeds Road, Birmingham, AL 35213, (205) 956-9731
Highlands School's 'whole child' approach to education and commitment to academic excellence, creative expression, and leadership development prepare and motivate students in grades 4k through 8 to make a positive difference in an ever-changing world. Located in Birmingham, Alabama, Highlands School holds dual accrediation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Southern Associations of Independent Schools (SAIS).

For more information, visit www.highlandsschool.org.