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My Journey Towards A Flipped Classroom

March 13, 2014

“…there ain’t no journey what don’t change you some.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

One of the highlights of my sabbatical has been this blog, which I created back in September to help me cogitate about the pedagogical topics I was exploring.  As I tell my students, writing can be a fantastic way of constructing knowledge.  It forces the mind to slow down, which provides the opportunity to see connections between different pieces of information and to get a better understanding of a topic and your opinion about it.  As this year has progressed, I’ve gone through a series of paradigm shifts about the flipped classroom model that have refined my thinking about this new way of teaching, and I’ve written three blogs that captured my initial excitement, my resulting concerns, and then my thoughts from my visit to Dan Welty’s flipped classroom.  Yet the biggest aha! moment occurred one Friday morning at a school where I was subbing.  It was fortunate that my schedule had two long prep periods, so I was able to sit down and dive into my reflections about the model.  While this occurred more than a month ago, I still remember feeling a mixture of excitement and concern almost as if there was a tug of war going on between how I used to teach and this new approach.

I began by thinking back to the time in grad school when I first conceptualized the various models of teaching as a tool belt.  As I remember it, I was sitting in a methods class one morning, and we were talking about different teaching methodologies.  As I processed the material, it occurred to me that if teachers were mechanics or carpenters whose job it was to shape their students, then the various teaching models were their tools.  If that were so, then the collection of tools a teacher possessed to help different types of learners could be seen as a tool belt.  It would therefore be the teacher’s job to find the proper tool to best present each topic to match the needs of each student.

Then I thought about how my tool belt had changed dramatically during the last 17 years because it’s not only about which tool best fits the learner or the topic but also which method suits the teacher’s strengths. As a new teacher, the tool I relied on most was the lecture, which I thought of as a hammer. I would use the lecture to drive home (pun intended) the concepts I was trying to explain, and the force of the hammer was my passion for the material and the students. I believed the more excited I got, the better the students would understand. But as is often the case when you are hammering in a nail, too much force leads to its own share of smashed thumbs, and I wasn’t as great of a teacher as I wanted to be.

Then I discovered a new curriculum publishing company called History Alive, which had just opened up the road in Mountain View, California. After embracing their multimodal style of instruction, which was heavily influenced by Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, I began to design student-centered lessons based on the strength of my students’ visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning styles.  Instead of relying so heavily on my trusted hammer, which suited my needs, I utilized the flat head, Allen-head, and Phillips-head screw drivers that suited theirs.  As you might expect with a handy man who has just made a trip to Lowes, my dexterity to create/shape my lessons to fit my students made a marked improvement.

Now that I saw the value of differentiating my lessons to match the modalities of my learners, I continued to refine my approach in order to reach each student and improve the quality of my classes.  I started doing more project-based learning to engage more of my students and give them opportunities to use their individual strengths to enrich the learning for their peers.  I discovered response groups when I realized that instead of asking one student a question I could ask the entire class. To help those students who processed best by working independently, I modified the way I utilized the Think, Pair, Share strategy to give them additional ways to chew on the material.  I adapted my homework assignments to allow for differences in processing speed and ability by providing more choices to solidify their understanding outside of class.  As technology became a bigger facet of the classroom, I incorporated different programs and applications, such as Inspiration and Glogster, to help students to show their understanding.

Then I got a job at Carroll School, whose sole mission was to teach students with dyslexia.  I remember being blown away from the moment I began working there. I hadn’t made it through my first LFA class (Language Focus Area  – designed to work on a specific aspect of learning – in this case writing and revision), when I realized I was going to have to take differentiation to a whole new level.  Not only did I have three very different types of learners in front of me (can you imagine only having three students in a class and feeling challenged), but thanks to their detailed neuropsychological and speech and language reports, I also had more information about what each student needed to be successful than I had ever had before. Additionally, I was tasked with developing their academic skills such as reading, writing, and executive functioning, and I wondered how I would make all of that happen during each period.

It was then that I started experimenting with the flipped model (before I even knew it existed) by using pre-made videos to present content to students at home, so I could work with them individually and in small groups to develop their skills or build their knowledge in class.  I toyed with the idea of making my own videos but was just too busy completing my work as an admission officer to really find the time.  It was that lack of time and the desire to hone my craft, as well as the needs of my family, that ultimately lead to the sabbatical.  Finally, my mind had time to process (amusing that I have to leave teaching in order to think about teaching), and I discovered the flipped classroom model.  Here was a new, shiny, and powerful tool to play with.

So, as I sat there in the faculty room working on this, I began to wonder why I was getting so excited about the flipped model.  It occurred to me that my own paradigm has changed.  When I started teaching, my primary goal was to teach 100% of the learners, 100% percent of the material.  That’s still an important goal, but I also want students to leave my class with so much more than just the knowledge.  I want them to leave with skills that will not only help them learn in the next class or the next grade but in life as well.   It’s also my mission to improve their self-confidence and advocacy skills so they are empowered to take charge of their own learning.  It was at that moment that the light bulb came on.  If direct instruction is the hammer and project-based instruction is like a screw driver set, then the flipped classroom model is like a dremel. It’s not as powerful.  Instead, it’s more suited for fine-tuning like the individualized work I want to do with my students.  Sure, I can still lecture, but now I will carry around a smaller hammer.  Sure, I can still think in terms of learning modalities, it’s just that the flipped classroom model makes it possible to individualize my approach.

Yet, as I sat there on the couch in the faculty room watching the snowflakes fall, there was something I just couldn’t accept or that didn’t seem quite right about my dremel idea, which confused me.  I really liked the dremel metaphor because these handy tools come with accessory kits containing dozens of different sanders, grinders, and polishers to complete any job you wanted.  How could I have a problem accepting that?  Then it occurred to me that the dremel wasn’t powerful enough.  It lacked the impact of my trusted hammer.  How could I inspire students if I wasn’t able to convey my passion?  So, trying to improve my understanding, I asked friends for other types of tools that were more powerful to see if I could find a better fit.  As I awaited their responses, a second light bulb went off.  The discomfort I felt was arising from the part of me that didn’t want to let go of my trusted hammer.  Small and precise weren’t its thing; instead it wanted something big and powerful.  As I pondered the discordance, I realized that at this stage in my career it was no longer enough to just inspire.  Instead, what I really want to do is fine-tune my approach to meet the needs of every student in my class.  If I focus on their superpowers instead of mine (my first blog was about superpowers), I will be able to develop their strengths and reduce their weaknesses.

So, as I think ahead to September and my return to teaching full-time, I am excited.  I took this year to develop professionally and I have.  While I have learned about various topics from better homework, to standards based grading to the genius hour, the one that I think will have the most dramatic impact on my style of teaching will be the utilization of the flipped classroom model.  I don’t intend to give up all my other tools.  I think that was one of the reasons why I struggled with the model/dremel in the first place.  I appreciate what the other tools bring to the table and have worked hard to develop their effectiveness. I originally saw it as an all or nothing proposition, but now I see the flipped classroom approach as a welcomed addition.  Think of how much more time I will have to spend teaching students how to write and research and study and organize themselves if I deliver some of the content outside of class.

  1. Endre Polyak permalink

    The introduction of the flipped classroom in every educational institution would guarantee real education instead of just memorizing from textbooks and lecture notes.

  2. Endre – Thanks for the comment! Learning is more than just memorization. As teachers, we need to make the distinction between what must be known vs, what can be found on the internet. My son spent a week in geography class memorizing the names of countries and geographical features of Southwest Asia. Why spend all that time when 1) most students won’t retain it and 2) they can look it up on the internet? We need to spend more time getting students to think and make connections to truly enrich learning.

    • Endre Polyak permalink

      The role of education must be to prepare the student for taking part in life by giving the best of their knowledge to their fellow man. The student must learn to see the connections in life, that everything he/she does has consequences which strike back on the giver.

  3. David, I found you on Twitter and read all your posts related to the flipped classroom. My two favorite lines were these:

    1) ” I know I will be spending the rest of my career figuring out ways the best ways to utilize educational technology” and

    2) “…my primary goal was to teach 100% of the learners, 100% percent of the material. That’s still an important goal, but I also want students to leave my class with so much more than just the knowledge. I want them to leave with skills that will not only help them learn in the next class or the next grade but in life as well. It’s also my mission to improve their self-confidence and advocacy skills so they are empowered to take charge of their own learning.”

    Keep on blogging!

  4. DQ–I was just thinking about the flipped classroom last night, when a fellow parent brought up how useful his kids find Khan Academy videos when they get stuck on HW. So many kids have great difficulty with math hw at home. It strikes me that anything teachers can do to maximize “instruction” outside of the classroom so they can maximize students’ efforts to do the math inside the classroom–with the teacher present to assist/guide is in everyone’s best interest.

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