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My Visit to Dan Welty’s Flipped Physics Class

March 4, 2014

Prior to visiting Dan’s physics class, we had an exchange of ideas on Twitter based on my concerns about the Flipped Classroom model (here’s my blog about it): 1)  Would students with alternative learning styles have difficulty accessing the content on the videos? 2)  Would I still be able to share my passion for history with my students? 3) How could I connect the material to the students’ passions during online lectures?  Those were the questions I wanted to learn more about during my visit.

Dan welcomed me into his classroom.  The desks were arranged so the majority of the lab tables were facing each other to create pods of four students and each student had an iPad that came from a cart in class.  My Takeaway: Small groups are one of the keys to the flipped model.  If the point of flipping in to give teachers more time to work one on one with students in class, then you need to put students in the position to help their fellow students when the teacher is busy.  By creating small groups, it gives students opportunities to own the material and think about it in different ways in order to help explain concepts to others.

Dan began the class by quickly reviewing the three types of problems the students had worked on the night before in regards to Coulomb’s Law, but he didn’t do the entire problem for them on the board.  Instead, he just gave an introduction to each problem and wrote out the first steps of how to solve the problem.  Then he broke the class into groups of two and assigned the various groups one of the three problems to finish.  My Takeaway: What a great way to check for understanding.  By reminding them about the types of problems without showing the answers, he really forced the students to think critically from the beginning of class.  And the review wasn’t passive, it was active and forced each student to test their knowledge and contribute.

Then he told the class that when they were done he would come and check their work, and then they could start working on creating a similar problem for the class to do.  My Takeaway: I thought this was a key point.  With all the one on one instruction of the flipped model, I had my concerns about kids staying on task but by always assigning the next step, it gives faster working students something to do when they have finished the first step and keeps them engaged.  

The groups got right to work.  Some students finished quickly and raised their hands to have their work checked.  Some of the groups had difficulty getting the correct answer and raised their hands for help.  If Dan was free, he gave them a quick thought to try to get them back on track but since he would only be in one place, he really relied on the the kids to become the teachers.  If a group couldn’t find their way, they could ask another set of students for help.  My Takeaway: I thought this was great because it made the students the teachers.  If a student had difficulty understanding a problem, her partner can explain how to solve it.  Not only does it empower the students, but it takes away any of the shame that comes when students have difficulty in class.  

During this time, all but two students were engaged.  The one set that wasn’t was sitting in the front row playing flappy wings while they waited for the teacher. My Takeaway: Some doubters of the model might say – see there’s a student off task!  Yet the fact that he had 12 other groups working independently is pretty good.  Plus, those that were working were not learning passively as is often the case during lectures, but instead they were collaborating to actively construct knowledge.

Once all the students finished their problems, Dan had the students log into and upload their problems so that they were all on one PDF, which the students then downloaded and started working on the problems their peers had created.  My Takeaway: What a great way of reinforcing the concepts.  As I thought about it – it occurred to me that what Dan was doing was a lot like money laundering.  By taking himself out of the equation (so to speak) and having the students create real world problems – he changed the students paradigm from “The teacher wants me to do this” and replaced it with peer instruction that focused more on the learning than the teaching.

As students were solving the problems – Dan again went from group to group helping where help was needed.  My Takeaway: As I sat there observing, I was impressed.  My concerns with the flipped model were that students with weaker receptive language skills might have difficulty with the videos.  However, the time bought by not lecturing in class allowed Dan to troubleshoot the information with the students in different ways.  And I also worried about not being able to transmit the passion for the material, but clearly this model would allow me to do that on a more personalized basis.  Instead of using one or two students and weaving their passions to draw them into the subject matter, I could make connections with ALL my students as I worked with them individually.  Giving positive feedback is important to me because I’m a  teacher who believes in challenging my students, but there is a method to my madness. I want to challenge students so that they can become more self confident.  During a class, I might be able to give a pat on the back in some way shape or form to maybe a third of the class.  “Good job Rebecca!  I really like your thinking here.”  But with the flipped model, I can have encouraging interactions with all my students during the course of the class period while at the same time assessing how well each of them understood the material.

As Dan worked with his students, I wandered around the classroom to see and hear what the groups were talking about.  What impressed me most was how on task the students were.  My Takeaway:  Even though Dan was half way across the room with his back turned, they continued to work on their problems.  When I heard talking, nine times out of ten, students were talking about physics and the problem they were trying to solve.  Sure the class was college prep, but there was something else to it.  They had experienced success and had bought into Dan’s way of teaching.  

I asked one student why she liked the class and she said, “I like making the videos that other students watch for homework.  They (the videos) make it more interesting, and I remember more of it.”  When she showed me the video that she had created with a partner, I could see why.  The students had used the iPad app Explain Everything to create a video.  To make it interesting to other students, this group tied in their love for Star Wars and used light sabers to help explain the science of negative and positive charges.  My Takeaway: One of my big concerns about the model was that it seemed like students wouldn’t have the opportunity to make connections between their passions to help them learn the material.  Clearly, that wasn’t an issue.  By giving students the freedom to use their creativity in order to make the videos more engaging, students had the opportunity to bring their passions into the learning process.

I thought that perhaps the reason why these students were so invested in the class was because it was college prep, but the next class was just as focused.  For this class, Dan solved one of the problems on the board for the students to actually see since they didn’t need to know the math but the kids still worked diligently throughout the period.  I thought it was cool that as Dan went table to table to help the students with the math problems, he was able to use a special marker to write on the lab tables so kids could see how to do the problem right in front of them.

During the second class, I checked in to see what the students thought of the flipped model of teaching.  Many of the students commented on how it helped them because they’re visual learners,  Another student mentioned that having access to the videos online helps them review for tests.  And one student talked to me about the challenges she had learning the material.  But then she smiled and said, “But when I don’t understand something I can watch it (a video) again and again.”  My Takeaway:  It was great to see that students saw the value in the flipped classroom model based upon their own learning needs.  When students are given a tool and shown how to use it, it’s incredibly empowering.

Recently in our town, many parents pushed back on a one-to-one iPad initiative, but if they could have witnessed Dan’s class, many of their concerns would have been answered.  The ipad was the vehicle for learning, and it was incredibly effective as a teaching tool.  While the class could have been taught using paper, the time needed to run down and make copies of all the problems would have really hindered the learning.  My Takeaway: It occurred to me that I spent the first seven years as a teacher just mastering the basic skill of teaching.  I had spent the next 10 years honing my craft to become a better effective students centered teacher.  But as I watched those kids expertly using those iPads  to further their own learning, I know I will be spending the rest of my career figuring out ways the best ways to utilize educational technology.  Actually, I will probably spend the rest of my career trying to stay current.  While not all technology is a difference maker, using the best applications can make all the difference to students.

While I walked into Dan’s class with concerns about the model, I left completely blown away.  Dan’s approach was the epitome of student-centered learning.  Dan was the guide on the side in the best way possible: when students needed his help, he was there.  Yet, the vast majority of the learning was initiated by the students, which made the class so much more productive.  By doing more, students learned more.  As a middle school history teacher focused on teaching skills as well as content, the value of such an approach is obvious.  Having the students work actively in groups gives them more opportunities to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the material (Bloom’s taxonomy).  It also provides me, the teacher, with the opportunity to work one on one with the students to individualize my approach to not only help them learn the material but to guide them in their practice of the vital skills I am teaching them.  I can tailor my teaching and give individualized instruction to ensure the proper balance of challenge and support.  The flipped model walked hand in hand with my belief in project based learning and in fact creates more time for it.


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One Comment
  1. Endre Polyak permalink

    Taking into consideration that these students were in the advanced group, I am wondering if this method can be successfully applied in the case of beginners.

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