Being a Professional Educator in the Flipped Classroom

sage on stage

One of the Pillars of Flipped Learning is “Professional Educators”, which refers to the changed role of a teacher in a flipped classroom.  No longer is the teacher a “sage on the stage”, but rather a facilitator of learning.  I’ve heard of teachers and parents who think the flipped classroom enables a teacher to sit back, kick up their feet, and take it easy.  Which I admit is actually possible to do in a flipped classroom (just as it is in a traditional classroom)!  If they are motivated learners, your students can watch the videos, do worksheets, check their answers, and take assessments without a teacher in the room.

feet up

However, this has NOT been my experience! Flipping my class has been a lot of work.  Of course, I spent a lot of time outside of class making my videos.  But the biggest change has been what I’m doing IN class.  Instead of sitting or standing up front and lecturing, I’m constantly walking from student to student, group to group, listening into conversations, guiding discussions, and helping struggling students.  This is the reason that I flipped – not so my life would be easier, but so that I could better help my students learn.  I have gotten to know my students so much better as learners and as individuals since I flipped, because we actually have time for conversations in class.  My room may look a bit more chaotic, but there is actually more learning happening amidst the chaos than there was in my quiet, orderly, but traditional classes.

Goals for the school year

Where I’d like to grow as a professional educator is actually OUTSIDE of the classroom.  I have benefited so much from reading the blogs and tweets of other professional educators, from hearing them speak at FlipCon, and from participating in a Google+ community with other Flipped educators.  I plan to stay connected to these networks throughout the year for support, encouragement, and new ideas.

(Here are a few of my favorite Educators/Bloggers, in case you want a few ideas on where to start):

Another coworker and I have been asked to present at the Illinois Science Teachers Association’s fall conference, where we will be sharing about how the “Living by Chemistry” curriculum addresses the Next Generation Science Standards.  That curriculum is already kind-of flipped, as students are actively engaged in labs or activities in class, and get direction instruction by reading the textbook at home.  We also plan to create some videos to support or replace some textbook readings.  I’m excited to share the concepts of flipped learning with other educators!

I also want to support other teachers at my school who are interested in flipped learning (and who are interested but just don’t know it yet!)  Some other science and math teachers have expressed interest or asked questions about it, and I’d like to support them in whatever ways I can.  Whether they need help with video-making, or figuring out how to use class time, or just reflecting on how to help students learn, I want to be there as a sounding board and to direct them to resources that have helped me.

Finally, I plan to stay connected through this blog, where I will share my experiences and reflections as the year progresses.  I love reflecting and analyzing my teaching, but my busyness often prevents me from doing it as often as I’d like.  Hopefully the accountability of having a public blog will motivate me to reflect more frequently (And hopefully you are not reading this months or years down the road, as my last published post! If you are, perhaps you feel compelled to leave a comment to motivate me to come back?)

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Flipped Learning as a vehicle to Intentional Content

As I see it, one of the biggest benefits of Flipped Learning is that it gives me greater flexibility in how I convey content to my students.  My students do not need to be sitting in my classroom looking at me in order to learn.  They can learn from watching the videos that I make, or by completing an online activity, exploring the concept through an in-class inquiry lab, discussing the ideas with their classmates … the possibilities are endless.  This is not something that only “flipped learning” teachers do – it is just plain good teaching to use a variety of strategies in your classroom.

However, I am not always been intentional in thinking about the content that I’m teaching and the best way to deliver it.  I admit that I sometimes fall into a routine of “I taught it this way last year” or “this is how the other teachers for this course are teaching it” – partially because I get busy, partially because it’s easier to do what I’ve always done, and partially because I actually do a few good things already!  But since it is summer right now, I have plenty of time to think and dream and brainstorm, and I’m currently thinking that some of my units could use a bit of TLC and creativity.

My Hopes & Dreams… & Challenges

hopes dreams

The hard thing is that I have to “cover” the same curriculum as the other honors chemistry teachers in my school, and that curriculum is skewed toward calculations and algorithms (i.e. worksheets where they do basically the same problem with different numbers 10 times in a row).

I think I can persuade the other teachers to start developing students’ conceptual understandings and assessing those more frequently.  But I will need to show them what that looks like – and I’m not sure I know exactly what it will look like!  We will also need to cut some of the procedural stuff from the curriculum, because developing conceptual understanding takes TIME.  But it’s always hard to agree on what can be cut because we all have our favorite things to teach.

The best next step is probably to spend some time studying the Next Generation Science Standards, since Illinois will probably be adopting them as our new state science standards in the next few years.  I’ve heard that a significant amount of content has been de-emphasized for the sake of skill and concept development.

Next Steps

hop step jump

Once I decide what to cut, I need to figure out how to class time to help my students actually learn what they’re supposed to learn without being BORING.  This is where I’ve been stuck for the last couple of years.

When I flipped, I basically just started doing the same worksheets in class that used to be homework.  My honors students bought into it easily, because it wasn’t “flipping” their world too much – they would still get direct instruction (through videos) before they applied the knowledge (by doing worksheets or labs in class).  As I reflected on it, a student could succeed in my class without having to do a whole lot of real thinking.  And that is a shame!

So I have two goals:

1)    Incorporate Learning Cycles

As I mentioned in my last post, I am going to try to use Mussallam’s “Explore, Flip, Apply” in my class this year, to create a healthy discomfort for my students before they are taught new facts.  I’m planning to start small – maybe focus on one or two topics in each unit.  I already developed a cycle for bonding types, in which students explore the conductivity and solubility properties of various substances in the lab to develop initial categories of bonding, watch a video about the scientific models for bonding, and then come back to class to apply what they’ve learned through peer instruction and another activity.  This activity is adapted from the Living by Chemistry (link) curriculum that I use in my general chemistry classes.  The curriculum is full of great ideas, so if you teach chemistry, I strongly recommend checking it out!

2)    Turn Worksheets into Activities

There are just some things that students need to practice over and over.  And worksheets are great for this, but they get boring when used too frequently.

I’ve made some math-teacher-friends this year, who also face the difficulty of teaching students skills that are best learned through repeated practice.  They have shared a few ideas of in-class activities that can be used in place of worksheets.  Some of them work better with shorter problems (which could be useful for molar mass calculations, or identifying the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in an atom based on atomic mass and number) and some work okay with longer problems (like gas law word problems or stoichiometry calculations).

I would LOVE to have more ideas for how to do both of these things, so if you know of a book or website with strategies, please share a link!  I’ll also try to share ideas here throughout the year as I use them.

Flipped Learning – Learning Culture

(I wrote this post for a class I’m taking on Flipped Learning.  This post explains the Learning Culture in my classroom, and how I make decisions to support this culture.)

Why I Decided to Flip

Two years ago, I made the plunge into the “flipped learning” world.  I flipped my honors chemistry classes, cold turkey, at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.  I had stumbled across Aaron Sams & Jonathan Bergmann’s website or blog, where they shared how they’d been creating “Vodcasts” for their lectures.  I was attracted to this teaching strategy because I found myself lecturing in class a lot, and students still came to class the next day saying they couldn’t complete the assigned homework practice problems.  Also, I felt like I didn’t have time to do the inquiry labs that I wanted to do to help students construct their own understanding of the content and to help them develop scientific thinking and process skills.

Flipped 101

And it changed my world!  Honestly, that first year was tough – I spent a lot of my time outside of class making videos, and I struggled to figure out what to do with all the class time we had.  It was Traditional Flipped Class – students spent a lot of time doing worksheets in class – mostly because I often didn’t have time to think through and change my calendars to accommodate more of those inquiry labs I wanted to do.  However, my classroom culture changed immediately.  Just a month into the school year, I felt like I knew all of my students better than I’d known any of my prior groups of students by the end of the semester, because I interacted with them so much more frequently.  And in when working in smaller groups, I found that quieter students were much more likely to call me over and ask a question.  I had more time to spend working with struggling students, and to push the students at the top of the class to try greater challenge problems.  I loved being the facilitator and coach for my students, rather than the “sage on the stage”.

I had some students who were resistant to watching the videos at home, so I made a deal with them that they could work ahead, watch the videos in class on our classroom computers, and do the homework at home.  That flexibility and loss of control was a BIG change for me, but I was amazed at how it reduced the homework battles between me and my students and helped them achieve more than I think they would have in a traditional classroom, because they felt like they’d “won” by having a say in their pacing.  Many of those students ended up watching the video AND doing the practice in class … so they were able to have no homework.

Flipped, Round 2

This past year was my 2nd year flipping, and I made a few minor changes (re-doing some videos, increasing interactivity by posting the videos in Edmodo so students could respond with questions, asking students to make their own videos for a topic, incorporating a few new inquiry labs).  I improved in my ability to monitor and assist students during class time, and I had even stronger relationships with my students as a result.

However, my focus was mostly elsewhere, as I was teaching only 1 section of my flipped class and 4 sections of a brand-new general chemistry curriculum (“Living by Chemistry”, which is a great inquiry-driven, topically-organized, learning-cycle-focused curriculum).

At least when I compared my data, it seemed promising: my 2 years of flipped students scored, on average, 1% better on unit tests and 4% better on final exams than my 3 years of non-flipped students.  So it seemed to be working … or at not doing too much harm, at a minimum.  Still, I had a nagging feeling that I could be using my class time in a more engaging way.

Flipped, Round 3…and beyond!

So in the upcoming year, I am planning to make a few changes that will enhance the learning culture of my flipped honors chemistry class.  As I’ve reflected on what I heard at FlipCon13 and listened to some of the Flipped Learning Podcasts, I believe that Ramsey Mussallam’s “Explore-Flip-Apply” model describes my ideal classroom environment.  This has been the missing piece for me, as I’ve desired to have more inquiry experiences for my students, use my face-to-face time more effectively, and developed some familiarity with using learning cycles through the “Living by Chemistry” curriculum.

I knew after FlipCon13 that I wanted to learn more about Ramsey’s ideas.  So I listed to Episode 3 of the podcast, in which Ramsey explained to the host, Troy Cockrum, how he created learning cycles out of his objectives.  He started by developing “explore” labs to engage students and help them construct the basic knowledge, made “flip” videos for lower-level Bloom’s taxonomy tasks (like knowledge and comprehension), and had students come back to class to practice and then apply those skills (higher levels of Bloom’s).  The picture below is borrowed from his website, and explains where each of the components of Bloom’s taxonomy occurs for his students:

Ramsey also acknowledged in the podcast that this is really hard to do with some topics, and that sometimes those explore labs just flop, which encourages me to give myself some grace as I try it out this year.  I think this will have the potential to help me get my classroom learning environment to where I want it to be.  Hopefully this will shift my classroom to be even more student-centered, in that the videos will not be delivered to students until they’ve grappled with the material a bit, started asking questions, and felt a need for a more in-depth understanding of the content.

On the days where we are practicing and applying the content, I want to push my students to be more metacognative about their own learning.  I’m not ready to do full-on mastery learning or standards based grading, but my course and assessments are already aligned around clearly-written objectives, and I will have my students reflect on their own level of mastery for those objectives  (I like Dena Leggett’s categories of “Got It”, “Fuzzy”, or “I Don’t Know” from her session at FlipCon13, “Maintaining Rigor in Advanced Flipped Classrooms”), potentially through end-of-class exit slip questions or using an app like Socrative to send electronic questions to students.

Hopefully these changes will help me push my students into their zones of proximal development (Vygotsky), where they are actively engaged with the content to a degree that stretches them but does not break them!