Wednesday, January 25, 2012

#flipclass diary: a form-follows-function story

Abstract: Flipped Classrooms rock.

Been taking a week or so off of the blog to finish a #BYOT book chapter with @40ishoracle, get the debate tournament season started and teach a class. It is that class that i wanted to write about today...more of a gush than a rant, so pull out the handkerchiefs, i may get sappy...nah. File this under a continuation of form-follows-function: Designing classes that meet the learning needs of the students.

Brebeuf Jesuit is a private secondary school that follows the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (you can read a lot more about technology in the context of the IPP in @40ishoracle’s article that was in LEARNING AND LEADING WITH TECHNOLOGY “Give your old-school curriculum a NETS makeover” -- shameless not available yet).

In this system of education, the emphasis of learning is in...
Reflection (careful consideration and thought) on
Experience (actual activities that the student in which the student has engaged) within a
Context that includes both the student and the subject matter as a foundation.

One of the struggles I have had as an Ignatian educator is balancing a whole lot of foundational context about technology and a wide variety of foundational context from students.
  • Have you had the student who sits in your class bored over the lecture because they already know the material (and you know that they know)?
  • Have you, at the same time, attempted to teach other students who struggle with the material because they have no frame of reference in which it makes sense?
  • Felt hampered by the sheer amount of material you had to cover to get students ready to do an activity?
  • Felt inadequate to the task because all of the really good questions that had to be set aside because it was time to move on to the next lesson?
This was my experience as I prepared to teach a revised computer science curriculum that would emphasize the skills and characteristics of a “Digital Citizen” and de-emphasize the push-button Microsoft curriculum. I decided that the best way to do this was a flipped classroom.

"The History of Computers" was often a lesson that I presented traditionally. While I created an excellent and engaging lesson (of course) about the history of computers I often found it to be a bore. It was built around "themes" which provided the students a framework other than the passage of time: “Smaller, Faster, but not all that different”; “Getting Connected”, etc. I incorporated activities like making each student a “member” of the original Arpanet so they could experience delivering messages in the early internet. It was about as good a lesson as I could manage given the subject.

As I began to evaluate activities that required live interaction between the teacher and student, I also distinguished between what was necessary content and skills that i would evaluate and what was “fluff” -- I began to re-think the entire lesson. The “themes” were the important content takeaway, not the dates or the terminology. This general ideal could be combined with an introduction to research-as-a-skill and making-effective-presentations-as-a-skill, two subjects on which high school students can always use practice. The lesson began to form and I made the flip:

Introduction of the “themes”LectureVideo Homework
Examples of the themes in historyLecture
  • Keywords given in flip video and on Presentation notes as homework
  • Examples and evidence generated by students in class
Research for PresentationHomework (or “extra” periods of classtime)Classwork the day after the flip
How to make a PresentationLecture with Guided DemonstrationVideo Homework with hands-on experiment module in class
AssessmentMake-a-presentation HomeworkMake-a-presentation in class
In-Class PresentationIn ClassIn Class
* Classtime is in green. Same number of days, different activities.

Students watched the flipped video lesson that night with only a few hiccups. There were “did-you-watch” action steps so that students, after a brief Q&A, began their research in groups (each group given a different time period) on the Themes from the lecture.

It is important to note two things: First, students were not given a full-blown history lecture as video. They were given the themes, a few general “things to look for” and some getting-started keywords. Second, prior to this year, I had never watched students research -- that was the homework AFTER the lecture.

A Few Examples:

Student A: Begins research by opening up internet explorer and Microsoft PowerPoint. After typing in keywords, clicks on the Wikipedia link (first one) and copies the first paragraph into a PowerPoint slide.
Me: Why did you open PowerPoint? that is an odd note-taking vehicle
Student A: you said we were going to do a presentation on this.
Me: What information did you just paste over?
Student A: I don’t know, I just copied it. It’s about one of the keywords you gave us.

Student B: Types into Google: “History of Computers Getting Connected”. Student is frustrated that this does not yield a wikipedia article. When asked to refer to the keywords that she was given as part of the lecture or questions she had developed, she sighs over the difficulty of the assignment.

Student C: Can I use wikipedia?
Me: I don’t know. Is it a valid source?
Student C: Lot’s of teachers hate it. It’s OK, I can use something else (turns around).

Reflection: What a difference a FLIP makes.
My first reaction was just sheer amazement over their (lack of) research skills. But the more i thought about it (multiple sending schools, young students, a class that is not typically research oriented, etc.), this should have been expected. More importantly, it was likely what has always happened, but the traditional format did not afford me the opportunity to see research-in-action. In a flash, I was not frustrated with the poor quality of work from "these kids today...ugh". I was given a clear indication of learning deficiencies that could be illustrated and which could improve research for the long term.

I made a list of what I had noticed and what proper research techniques would be necessary to address the areas of concern. The next two days were set (they watched a FLIP video preparing for PowerPoint and spent the next day refining skills and learning the practicalities of codecs and embedding video). That night, I assigned another FLIP video.

Their assignment the next day was to try again, with a more focused topic (depth beats breadth on everything except standardized tests). The results were amazing: More focused research, Questions that came from research instead of from the teacher, collaboration in discovery and answering -- all from a ten minute video that addressed the common mistakes that were being made by the class as a whole.

The flipped demo featured a split-screen browser and OneNote
Students watched a live demonstration, starting at a keyword (i used the Commodore 64). They watched as I moved in-demonstration from making questions, doing preliminary research, copying links and pictures, taking notes, forming more questions. Along the way, I was able to address the importance of linking evidence and claim, using notes during research instead of bypassing directly to the presentation, and taking time to think and reformulate new questions.

This is an extension of the form-follow-function in education argument. If I believe in the premise that reflection-on-experience is the place were learning occurs, than it is essential that the teacher be present during the experience for observation, guidance, etc. The passive part (lectures, videos, and to a lesser extent note-taking) is contextual foundation for the learning. The important part to watch is when the neurons are firing in the learner's brain. That is when teaching, even if it is just a nudge in the right direction, is fundamental.
If I were not a fan before, the ability that the #flipclass format affords the teacher in giving a window into the work habits and processes of the students is enough to justify the extra time and effort. The strange thing though, is there is not much more of either.

More on that later...