What ‘Flipped’ Classrooms Can (and Can’t) Do for Education

ipadlectureNot too long ago, many teachers would have been horrified at the thought of their students watching them on YouTube. But in the world of “flipped” classrooms, students watching online videos of their teachers is a key part of their instruction. Tyler Johnstone, an algebra teacher in Folsom, CA, is one of the growing number of educators who have integrated the flipped model into their classrooms. Johnstone posts about four video lectures a week to YouTube. Students take notes while they watch the lectures and are usually assigned a few problems at home to reinforce the concept, but most of the actual work is done in the classroom, where Johnstone can help the students comprehend the material further.

Because their homework is often more engaging, Johnstone has found that almost all of his students are watching the assigned videos on a nightly basis. What’s more, Johnstone has found that his students often re-watch his videos, even getting their parents to view them as well.

“Even though I only teach 70 kids algebra, some of my YouTube videos have been viewed like 100, 150 times,” says Johnstone. “Obviously the kids are going back and watching it again, and I’ve even had some parents tell me they’re watching so they can help their kids at home and see what they’re learning.”

Like Johnstone, teachers across the country are flipping their classrooms using online video instruction or DVDs of lessons to reverse what students have traditionally done in the classroom and at home to learn. Instead of spending class time listening to a presentation, students watch teacher-created videos and blog posts at home, and then spend their class time doing problem-solving sets and hands-on work. Since students do much of the traditional “homework” in class, teachers are able to help the students on an individual basis and maximize their understanding of the material.

Daniele Massey, who teaches at Vilseck High School in the US Army Garrison at Grafenwoehr, Germany, is also finding success with the flipped model.

“The flipped strategy allows me to individualize instruction for all learners, including ability level, needs, and learning style. It is so easy to modify once the foundation is built,” says Massey.

Since the parents are on active duty, many of Massey’s students face an additional strain due to life on an army base. Massey has found that the flipped method allows many of these students to feel comfortable in the classroom, and even provides them with the opportunity to remain up-to-date with their classwork during prolonged absences.

For Johnstone, Massey and many other educators, the flipped strategy works for them, their students and parents. But many experts caution that some educators may want to proceed cautiously. Like other buzz-worthy trends, flipped classrooms may not amount to much if the technology by itself is held up as some sort of cure-all for the classroom.

“Just because you’ve flipped your classroom, doesn’t mean your students will watch the videos and it doesn’t mean you’re engaging your kids,” explains Mike Kaspar, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association.

Kaspar points out that flipped classrooms still rely heavily on lectures, which is not as effective as hands-on learning. Many teachers who opt for the flipped strategy haven’t necessarily pursued a student-centered approach to instruction, essentially leaving lectures front and center

“In the hands of the experienced, well-trained teacher, who knows how to use the technology to truly engage students, it has real value,” says Kaspar. “But look past the bells and whistles and be realistic about what flipped classrooms can achieve. Sometimes a lecture is still just a lecture.”

In addition, because the flipped method relies on technology, it’s essential that students are able to connect to the Internet at home. Both Massey and Johnstone are fortunate to teach students who can readily access their videos, so transforming their classrooms has been a relatively smooth process. Obviously, many low-income students do not have ready access, causing many critics to worry that flipped classrooms could end up widening the digital divide and the achievement gap.

Johnstone cautions fellow educators to be aware of the day-to-day challenges and unforeseen obstacles. He recalls that one night YouTube blocked up and kept him from posting the video lecture for that night. Another time he had a student whose Internet conked out at home, so he created a DVD of the videos for the student to watch instead.

“It requires the teacher and the students to have some patience,” says Johnstone. “It’s a brand new idea, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

The flipped classroom model also tends to heavily favor problem-solving courses over more reading and writing-oriented ones. While it’s hard for English or History teachers to create video lectures because of their source material, some of them have approached the flipped classroom method from an inquiry-based standpoint. This entails flipping the responsibilities of classwork to the students, which helps to engage them on a one-to-one basis by getting them to solve their own questions through the use of technology.

Another issue that both teachers have had to confront is time management. For Johnstone, a 15 to 25 minute video lecture takes almost three times as long to create. While he wants to continue making videos, Johnstone is hoping to create a discussion board model so students can help each other comprehend their lessons from home.

“It would be better for me if students can help each other at home,” Johnstone says. “I think a more interactive approach among the students would be great.”

Like Johnstone, Massey has noticed a large uptick in the amount of parents who are now participating in their students’ work.

“Once parents are able to ask and understand the process they realize that their ability to help is more impactful,” says Massey. “I have more parents that watch the videos with their students than not – maybe not all the time and not the whole video, but more parents help with ‘homework’ now than before.”

While Massey and Johnstone are making their models more engaging and collaborative for students, many educators who are interested in flipping their classrooms may need extra training before they can successfully implement the approach.

“Technology is not the answer, and it’s not the enemy,” says Mike Kaspar. “Teachers must be provided with rigorous professional development to learn how to make strategies like flipped classrooms work in the classroom. This has to be about more than students watching YouTube lectures at home. Bad pedagogy is bad pedagogy whether it’s flipped or not.”