Two years ago, the students in Sarah Tierney's fourth- and fifth-grade blended classroom weren't catching on to math well enough, and she knew it.
Teaching two grade levels in one room, as Tierney does in Centennial, Colo., is a challenge for any teacher. Tierney was teaching math the traditional way — lecturing and providing practice time at school, then assigning problems to be worked at home. But she found it hard to make sure each child was learning the material.
So last school year, Tierney turned math instruction on its head at Centennial's Franklin Elementary School, and this year the school's entire team of fifth-grade teachers joined her classroom flipping experiment. Their upside-down instruction model is showing benefits already.
Instead of listening to lectures at school and doing problems at home, students in a flipped classroom watch videotaped lectures at home (perhaps taking notes or working sample problems), then work through problems and exercises at school. There, the teacher can keep students working, supervise pairs or groups of students as they work problems, and work one-on-one with kids who lag behind.
The students absorb online lectures at their own pace each evening, repeating tricky concepts as needed. Parents can choose to watch along with their children as new learning concepts are introduced, improving their ability to help at home.
At school, the teacher's role is transformed. No longer a sage on the stage, the teacher becomes a guide on the side, spending precious class time working with students, spotting learning hurdles and helping students find ways to leap them, according to the Vancouver Sun.
The flipped classroom model seems to improve parent participation in student learning, and that's important, said Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education. Cator likes the way the model serves a variety of learning styles, too.
"These advancements in digital learning are as significant as when people first began to learn from books," Cator said. The flipping trend is growing fast around the nation, she said, but more research will be required to evaluate its effectiveness.
Flip that class
The Franklin teaching team assigns students to take notes on the at-home video assignments, so the teachers work with their students on listening and note-taking at the beginning of the school year. They continue to reinforce those skills and are seeing benefits in other classes, said Sheryl Goutell, a member of Franklin Elementary's fifth-grade team.
Catherine Merrill, a math educator whose daughter is in Goutell's class, likes the new way of teaching math, a subject she's passionate about. Merrill thinks the flipped instruction model allows more time for her daughter to process new information because she is introduced to new concepts while watching videos at home and has a chance to try them out and think about them before coming to class.
Merrill is impressed with the quality of the videos Franklin's teaching team created. The teachers came together during the summer on donated time to learn to use Camtasia screen capture software, which allowed them to add interactive elements to their lecture videos. Slides, videos and voice-overs are combined in ways that hold students' interest.
Parents have been unanimously appreciative of the flipping model's advantages, Goutell said, and she and the other teachers feel re-energized by their heightened interaction with students.
An added advantage is that students who are absent don't miss out on the teachers' explanations of new concepts. And, their parents get a sense for how much material is missed when a student is absent, making parents less likely to take students out of school on flimsy excuses.
Pros and cons
Cator can spot a few potential problems with classroom flipping, though.
She sees a need to ensure that student privacy and information security is maintained online and that students are kept safe from inappropriate websites.
She is further concerned that classroom flipping and other technology-driven trends might leave behind students who lack Internet access and computers in their homes. The teachers at Franklin said almost all of their students can access the Internet outside of school. The teachers make their classroom computers available before and after school for those who can't, and they let students use school computers during class time if needed. For students with computers but no Internet access, the teachers burn DVDs of the lectures.
Principal Greg Green found a way to improve achievement of students at Michigan's Clintondale High School through the flipping model, even though 75 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a poverty indicator.
In a January 2012 CNN story, Green described his school as a place where students were disruptive, unwilling to do homework and often absent. Failure rates were "through the roof," Green said.
The school secured a grant from a technology company and started flipping its classes in 2010. Some lectures for home viewing were recorded by teachers, others were accessed from websites such as Kahn Academy, a free online repository of educational videos. Early results at Clintondale are remarkable.
A survey of Clintondale students showed 82 percent could access the videos outside school, Green said, often via smartphones. Teachers also replayed video lessons while taking roll at the beginning of classes.
Larger studies of classroom flipping don't exist yet, Cator said, and the number of schools flipping classes isn't known. What is known is that classroom flipping is catching on in college classes, too.
On Oct. 17, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that California's San Jose State University replaced in-class lectures with videos for a difficult electrical engineering course and found median midterm test scores for students using the flipped format were 10 to 11 points higher than scores for students taught traditionally.
At Utah State University, statistics professor Camille Fairbourn tried flipping a basic statistics course after noting that students who took the class online were outscoring those who attended class in person.
Fairbourn's videos for home study include interactive quizzes that let students try problems until they get them right.
"It's meant to be a low-stress, low-stakes assessment that takes the panic out," she said.
Facts about flipping
In a flipped classroom, students watch lectures and do interactive activities online, getting introduced to course content outside of class. In-class time is devoted to discussion and problem-solving. Students often work together or with the teacher.
Mini-lectures and tutorials, viewed online or on mobile devices, introduce new concepts and reinforce old ones. Students view them when it is convenient for them.
Students can view lectures multiple times, pausing as needed. This feature is especially helpful to English language learners, students with attention deficits and students with listening disorders. (Parents of younger students can view the videos, too.)
In-class activities in flipped classrooms let students learn by doing and support development of academic and social skills.
Instructors can individualize learning for each student more easily in a flipped classroom. Class time is freed up so the teacher can move from student to student while ensuring that concepts are understood.
Teachers can create online materials for home study by simply videotaping themselves giving lectures at a whiteboard, or they can use software that combines slides, photographs, video, music, animations, quizzes and other interactive features. Software choices include Camtasia, Captivate, Softchalk and others.
Teachers are not replaced in a flipped classroom. They become more important as their interaction with students increases.
Source: Adapted from the University of Utah Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company