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Turning the traditional classroom on its head

The controversial decision of Colorado high school teachers Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann to remove direct instruction from the classroom in the 2007/2008 school year was so successful that teachers across the world, including some here in British Columbia, have begun to follow their lead.

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By Nick Ubels (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: October 3, 2012

“What if we stopped lecturing?”

It was this question that inspired Colorado high school teachers Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann to completely rethink their approach to education.

Their controversial decision to remove direct instruction from the classroom in the 2007/2008 school year was so successful that teachers across the world, including some here in British Columbia, have begun to follow their lead.

They call it a flipped class, but it’s also known by other names: inverted classroom, blended learning or reverse teaching.

The concept is simple: in traditional classes, most of the time is spent on a lecture delivered to a passive student audience. In a flipped classroom, the instructor uses class time exclusively for learning that cannot be done independently.

Reached in Illinois, Bergmann explained that it’s all in the interest of providing students a richer classroom experience.

“I see this as a gateway to deeper learning,” Bergmann said. “What happens with a teacher is he or she flips for a year and the next year, they’ll have all this extra time. They’ll wonder if they can do something better and deeper with their students. That class time becomes really rich, meaningful, and valuable.”

Bergmann and Sams’ method takes advantage of readily available recording and viewing technology to make lectures available outside the classroom.

This could involve streaming lectures online or providing students with DVD copies for home viewing before class.

“The question I ask is: what is the best use of your face-to-face class time?” he said. “Whole group direct instruction is a wrong answer. You may still need direct instruction, but you can commit [lectures] to video. It’s easy to make, it’s easy to distribute.”

The two chemistry teachers, who were working at a small Colorado high school at the time, discovered software that allowed them to simultaneously record their lectures and slide shows for students that missed class. They began to consider other ways they could use this software to help improve their teaching. Why eat up class time if lectures could be watched at home?

“We made a crazy decision,” said Bergmann. “We said, ‘I think what our kids really need a teacher for is to get help with their stuff.’ And so we stopped lecturing.”

Their gamble worked better than they could have hoped.

“In our classes, students started learning better. Accidentally, we saw some really cool stuff happening with kids – they were really learning it. Our kids wrote a standard deviation test better than they had before,” Bergmann explained.

A personalized approach to education

According to Bergmann, flipped classrooms allow teachers to cater teaching to the specific needs of the students in the room.

“Each kid needs something different,” he said. “We have a one-size-fits-all approach that we need to get away from.”

Bergmann also likened customized teaching methods to ordering a coffee at Starbucks.

“You’re going to personalize the coffee to your liking, aren’t you?” he said. “All of Western civilization has moved to personalization and education hasn’t done that.”

The concept behind flipped classrooms is not altogether new. Bergmann was quick point out that the two teachers were not the first to come up with such an idea. Yet few teachers had taken it as far as they did, and none as prominently.

Translating a flipped class to a university setting

These techniques can also be used in a post-secondary environment. Wendy Burton, UFV’s director of teaching and learning, said interactive content has been embedded in science labs for years. Instructors from other faculties have only recently begun to incorporate these techniques into their lessons.

“In the past five years there has been more and more activity from instructors who are in face-to-face classes where the expectation is that they will lecture and most of the hands-on activity will happen somewhere else,” said Burton. “When the class starts, it’s interactive, experimental or enquiry-based learning. Small groups. Field trips.”

This approach benefits students by encouraging engagement during class time. Burton said that high school students with fragile academic interests could be reeled back in with these techniques.

“It’s also really good for students who have some sort of learning disability, particularly any of the attention disorders, because that’s what a person with ADHD needs,” said Burton. “They need to do things; they need to be involved.”

All about access

Despite the noted learning benefits associated with flipped classrooms, ensuring students have access to the necessary technologies poses a big challenge.

“One of the things I find myself doing when we start dreaming big is to remind everyone that there’s a lot of students who don’t have that kind of access,” said Burton. “We do have a lot of solutions. Not everyone’s toting around $2000 of equipment.”

Aside from equipment, reliable high-speed internet access is also an issue. There is a danger of leaving behind students from rural areas or those from families who can’t afford it.

“For a lot of folks, cable is the first thing in the apartment that goes when money gets tight,” said Burton.

According to Statistics Canada’s most recent internet usage survey, conducted in 2010, approximately 84 per cent of British Columbians have household internet access. This does not account for low-speed access, which also prevents streaming video.

Wendy Burton said that internet access is an issue even here in the Fraser Valley.

“I live less than 15 kilometres outside Chilliwack,” said Burton, “and there is no high speed internet access in my area, Ryder Lake. And that’s my job.”

Burton suggested instructors burn DVDs that include the entire semester’s lectures and leave them on the corner of the desk. That way, students who might feel embarrassed about admitting that they don’t have access to a computer with high speed internet at home can discreetly pick up a DVD.

“If you can record a lecture, you don’t need to stream it,” said Burton. “You can also burn it onto a DVD and hand it out. It costs a dollar.”

Jonathan Bergmann indicated that, in his experience, increasingly affordable access to digital technology and the internet is also helping to alleviate these issues.

“I was with a school district on Monday in rural Illinois with really challenging economics,” he said. “They flipped their whole school and so far, they have hardly had any issues. It’s becoming less and less of a problem as time goes on.”

An ever-expanding reach

Since their use of this methodology first gained media attention in 2007, Bergmann and Sams have been the driving force behind flipped classrooms across North America. Flippedclassroom.org, their social network for teachers using their techniques in class, has over 9000 members and is rapidly growing.

“If my life schedule is any indication, it’s growing a lot,” added Bergmann.

Bergmann noted that the grassroots nature of the project is both a benefit and a drawback.

“It was started by teachers and for teachers and kids,” he said. “But one of the weaknesses was that it started with a couple of teachers in Colorado. Because how do you scale this to make it bigger? How do you get people trained who haven’t heard about it?”

Sams and Bergmann have since written a book, gone on media tours, visited school districts, and met with policy makers to help introduce this concept into the larger education conversation.

“There’s some people that think this is just another fad that will just go away, but I don’t think so,” said Bergmann. “I think this is something that will have a lot of traction down the road.

“The beauty of the flipped classroom is that we can personalize learning for every kid in the class.”

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