Thursday, April 12, 2012

Teaching Innovations: Flipped Classes

I know almost nothing about pedagogy - the science of education. I didn't even know the word existed until our older daughter started college in pursuit of her music education degree, and would talk about her "music pedagogy" classes. That's one reason you don't hear me weigh in much on the way education is delivered in our schools.

But I wanted to call your attention to a story that ran in The Columbus Dispatch recently about the "flipped classroom" concept being used by a math teacher at Darby High School, Wayne Tsai.  Mr. Tsai gave the School Board a presentation about this concept at one of our meetings last fall, and I've been fascinated by it since.

Having taken many a math class in my day, I know that the normal approach is to use the class period primarily to give a lecture - a one-way presentation of information from teacher to students - and for students to take notes, but not ask a lot of questions. At the end of class, homework problems are assigned, and the student goes off on their own to figure out the solutions.

The "flipped classroom" approach is the reverse of that. Instead of going home and struggling alone to complete the assigned problems, the students are expected to go home and watch the lecture online. Then the classroom time is spend solving problems, when the teacher is present and able to give guidance and coaching.

This makes perfect sense to me. If a student doesn't quite catch something in the lecture the first time, all s/he has to do is rewind the online recording a little bit, and listen again. And again if necessary.

And then to have the whole class time to complete 'homework,' with the teacher and even some classmates to help - wow, that would have been very helpful. I was never a math savant like some of my friends, but accepted that I had to develop competence with the tool to be able to study other subjects more interesting to me, like physics and finance. I think that for me, this "flipped classroom" would have been a much more efficient and effective approach than the traditional method.

One concern about this approach is that it assumes that every student taking the class has access to the Internet, preferably from home. I expect that this assumption is true for most of our students, but we need to make sure this isn't a separator between the haves and the haves-not. I heard Alvin Toffler, the well-known futurist and author of Future Shock, lecture in the 1980s that as time went on, access to information and technology would be exactly such a separator.

I remember in my college math and physics classes - 40 years ago - the expectation was that you: a) owned a slide rule; and, b) could use it accurately and quickly. I'm sure that makes me sound like a dinosaur to some of you, but a slide rule was state-of-the-art in portable computing in those days. I still have mine, and remember how to use it. And it still works - it doesn't even need batteries. But the point is that it was assumed by the education system that I owned this piece of technology.

In a brief period of time, the expectation for math/science classes became that you owned one of the fancy HP or TI calculators with trig functions. Then that evolved to the presumption of having a desktop personal computer with a tool like Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect.

Today, we're at the leading edge of figuring out how to use tablet computers, notably the Apple iPad, as the tool of choice for students. It won't be long before the paper textbook is a thing of the past, like my slide rule.

We need to pay heed to Toffler's warning, and make sure that in the process of incorporating more technology in our teaching method, we don't leave behind any kids because their families can't afford what many in our community can. The mission of a public school system is exactly to eliminate such economic segregation (I'd argue that as a country we're not doing very well on this front, but that's for another time).

Rewind the clock a few hundred years, and it was the book that was the expensive technology. Rich kids had access to books, both in their private school libraries, and in their homes. Poor kids might not hold a book in their entire lives, so why bother learning to read?

Then along with public schools came public libraries. Anyone could check out a book with the promise to return it in a reasonable time so that someone else could read it. The technology became available to all, and there became a reason to learn to read.

We should have an analogous solution in regard to access to online resources. For now, that might mean providing after-hours access to computer labs in our schools, such as the one being considered for the new Innovative Learning Center. The computers are already there, we just need to provide the supervision and security.

In time, it may mean making iPads or similar devices available for checkout. We're not ready for this yet. Among other issues is the one of theft. Public libraries already have a problem with valuable books being checked out and sold on eBay. When a book is 'lost,' all the library requires is that the borrower pay the original purchase price of the book.

That's not working. Nearly all the copies of one of my favorite books is now gone from the Columbus Metro Library System because thieves figured out that it could be sold on eBay for many times its original acquisition cost. It's now out of print and irreplaceable. I'm fairly confident that if we loaned out a bunch of iPads, some of them would appear on eBay and CraigsList within 24 hours. We don't have that problem with expensive chemistry or history textbooks because there is no resale market for them.

In spite of these issues, I applaud Mr. Tsai and his colleagues for giving the 'flipped classroom' a try, and the administrators for giving the go-ahead. I believe we'll see success with this approach, and hope it can be applied to other subjects in more of our buildings.


  1. What is interesting about the Flipped Classroom approach is the impact on the teacher. It is a fundamentally different skill set to lecture to a camera than to lecture to a class full of kids. I've done both and I prefer the kids because the camera provides no feedback as to whether anyone has a clue what you are saying. One message to take from Paul's excellent post is that technology will fundamentally change the education delivery model in unpredictable ways and with low cost tablets, this particular dam is about to burst.

  2. Good point about the immediate feedback of a live lecture. There's always tradeoffs.

    Seems to me that if the teacher pays attention to which lectures work well, and which ones don't, there is the opportunity to redo the ones that don't, and over time build a library of the best lectures. Clearly one of the upsides of this approach is that the best efforts are captured, and reusable year after year.

    In fact, the model used for many of my classes at OSU could be adopted, where the best lecturer the department had on a subject presented to everyone two days/week (sometimes 200 or more in a large lecture hall), then the other three days were spent in recitation sections of 15-20 students max. Kinda the same idea.

  3. I love this idea. Sure it will need refining over time, but the one on one time in the classroom more than makes up for deficiencies in the lecture video. One caveat, I see this as being more effective in the advanced courses, but if students had choices to choose the learning environment best suited to them, then it is a win win. Having tutored math for many years, I've found the "lets solve this problem together" is more effective than showing and then waiting for the student to repeat it. Not sure the percentages, but I think you retain 10% of what you read, 20% of what you see, 50% of what you do, and 90% of what you teach. The classroom interactive time gives each student an opportunity to teach someone else.

  4. Thanks for your comment John.

    If I'm not mistaken, Mr. Tsai is using this method for a course called "Geometry and Algebra Connections 1" - which according to the Darby Course Catalog is for students who struggled with Algebra 1. This course and this method may give students a chance to get back on track with their math studies. The chance to collaborate with their peers may create some of those 90% retention opportunities you describe.

  5. If I understand it and along the lines of Paul's OSU example, I can also see a change happening in the staffing needs if this flipped classroom becomes the standard. The teaching staff of certain departments in the upper grades would become more of a college hierarchy of a head teacher/professor and teaching assistants. A single recorded lecture of say the Geometry head professor could be used for and viewed by all the district students taking Geometry at all of the middle and high schools. The classroom teacher may become more like the teaching assistants of my day that were the ones that really reviewed the assignments and answered questions.

  6. Back on 2/15/2012 I attended the Fordham Institute sponsored event in Columbus on "Embracing the Common Core: Helping Students Thrive." It involved presentations by Stan Heffner (State Superintendent) and Mike Cohen (Achieve) discussing some the promise and challenges that the implementation of the Common Core will present to Ohio. The panel discussion and following Q&A were also very engaging as well. Video can be found on YouTube or (documents and powerpoint presentations included). As "just" a parent, I was not sure how much I would get out of this event, but I am glad I attended as the questions, comments, and discussions were worth the trip.

    One of the comments made by Eric Gordon (Cleveland CEO) that I found interesting ( at the 27:30 mark) was, "We moved kids to e-readers in two of our schools and went from picking up truckloads of books that were left on buses and trains to having lost two in the course of a semester. One by a kid and one by an adult."

    While theft / carelessness is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed, I don't know that we give our kids enough credit. They need to learn responsibility. Our parents also need to take responsibility for their child's actions if something is lost or stolen. We must move forward with the educational tools these kids require in order to compete in the global marketplace.

    We, as a district, absolutely need to end the "economic segregation" that the rapid pace of technology can exacerbate. However, the opportunity for hands-on learning for all students is limited by our current student/tech (i.e., computers or tablets, etc.) ratios. We need to move to a 1:1 ratio within each classroom and for use at home.

    You remark that "we are not yet ready for this," but how much longer will it take? Can we afford to wait?

  7. Heather: exactly -- that was the OSU experience I was describing.

    I think lecturing is a different skill than working one-on-one with students. One of my all-time favorite college professors was Dr. Charles Mate at OSU, who was the course chair for Physics 131-133. He lectured in a style that was both entertaining and highly instructive. I sat through maybe 50 of his lectures with a couple hundred classmates, and never had a face to face conversation with him. It wasn't necessary.

    Between lectures, I was in a small group with recitation and lab instructors, who were often PhD students. They were good at reinforcing the lecture, and guiding us through individual problem solving. I doubt that very many of them would have been good lecturers, and none would have come close to Dr. Mate.

    What if the lecture component of our high school classes were delivered by recorded lectures by the very best teachers in our country?

  8. Kel:

    These issues with technology are not unique to our district, and I'm sure there are some very smart folks working on solutions. And you're right, I suspect that an 'all in' analysis might find that the incremental cost vs textbooks might not be that great.

    We just have to do the due diligence. How much money will it cost? Where will the money come from? Will there be offsetting savings? Some of the kinds of strategic things I hope our Board will address in the near future.

  9. Exactly. My bet is that it will grow at a district level but eventually will expand to a state and possibly even federal level. Talk about standardized teaching. We hear so often about standardized testing needs because geometry in Dublin is different than geometry in Hilliard which is different than a district in Cinci. Well, if all the districts are using the same lectures then the concerns about different levels of education should be reduced.

  10. Paul - Any feedback from the City of Hilliard on the high-salaried Central Office staffers moving out of their income tax district?

  11. Heather: One concern I would have is a growing expectation that students would use after-school hours to watch these recorded lectures. Maybe things are different these days, but I used to get a ton of my high school homework done in the couple of study halls I had each day. I guess that in a flipped classroom mode, the kids could be using study hall time to watch the recorded lectures.

    Then again, I worry that kids are way over-scheduled these days. Would the online lecture choice allow kids to just jam more activities into their schedules, causing them to end up watching their lectures late a night?

  12. Mark: Back when the move of CO to the SSF was first mentioned, I did a back-of-the-envelope estimate that it would cost the City of Hilliard about $40,000/yr of income tax revenue - ie that about $2 million in payroll would be moving. I have no idea if that's the right number, but it's probably in the ballpark.

    No, I don't know of any reaction about this from the City leaders. Then again, they didn't seem too concerned about taking a fair chunk of revenue from the school district by using a residential TIF to finance the construction of the new Roberts Rd realignment, in spite of our explicit objections.

    Another impact worth noting is that the Hilliard School employees who don't live in the City of Cp;umbus are going to see their local income tax increase by 0.5%, since the City of Columbus has a higher income tax rate than the City of Hilliard. It's not a huge hit - for an employee making say $80,000, it's an extra $400/yr, and that's deductible on the Federal Income Tax return, making the real impact more like $250-300, depending on the marginal tax rate.

  13. All,

    Regardless of what the setting for learning may be (in a classroom or on-line) or if the course materials reside in a book or on an iPad, a student must first have the basic desire to learn for any of those other things to really matter.

    Kids (and parents) who value education will usually take advantage of whatever learning oportunities are available, some more and some less. Those kids (and parents) who do not value education tend to waste learning opportunities and district resources.

    I just can't help but think about those kids (with ESL) that move here from other countries where educational opporunities are truely limited, and they end up taking advantage of what is offered and end up out-performing on average most of US born children.

    Do sucessful students go school to "recieve an education" or "to pursue an education"? There is a huge difference...



  14. I think the flipped classroom is a good idea. But the fact that we're treating this as some kind of innovative idea demonstrates how primitive our pedagogy is. To be honest, I think the whole idea of homework is a bit ridiculous given the amount of time the kids spend in school.

    And I offer this caution about switching to e-books or whatever. The publishers are going to try and squeeze every penny out of us. I recall using a introductory calculus text (a subject that has not changed in 300 years) that was in its 13th edition. But once you had a book, it could last you years. I bet the e-books will sold on an annual license so the publishers can ransom schools every year.

  15. Steve: Well said.

    T: Yeah, I've made the point that the textbook publishing industry is about to go through the same pain as has the music industry (at the hands of Apple), and general book publishing (via Amazon).

    If there is really competition in textbooks, then at some point, one of the respected publishers will introduce a new pricing model that takes over from the old. If an established publisher doesn't take that step - then the textbook industry will then be leaving room for an unforeseen player to take over - just as Apple did in the music industry.

    The power of the music companies used to be that they controlled the manufacturing, distribution and retailing of plastic disks. Apple put an end to that. For a while it looked like there might be a complete disintermediation of the music industry, with artists going right to the consumer. But there is value in the marketing power of the big labels, so the ones who have figured out how to deliver that value are surviving into the next era.

    Likewise, book publishing has been about printing, distribution and retailing of bundles of paper. That quickly disappearing as well. We'll see who figures out how to make the transition...

  16. Note this story about the Newark City Schools deciding to spend $200K/yr to lease 500 iPads. They say the money will come out of the textbook budget and will be cost neutral to the district.

    The Board seems to have some pretty basic questions that the Administration apparently can't answer. Sounds to me like this is premature.

  17. Might I point out that the DOJ is filing against Apple and others for price-fixing for eBooks... I suspect that suit will determine whether textbook producers try to gouge schools or not...

  18. One can say that textbook publishers gouge school systems today, and they get away with it because they're the only path between textbook authors and their customers. What happens if textbook authors decide to go it alone, without the publishers?

  19. More on this growing use of flipped classrooms from a well-respected organization.