Friday, August 24, 2012

Turning education on its head

From today's Briefing:

I didn’t sleep much during most of high school.

After spending all day at school, I’d often stay a little longer for one club or another. Then I’d go home or to the public library to read, research, write essays, complete assignments and study, with a fair amount of teenage messing around mixed in.

Some of the homework would keep me up late into the night. If a geometry proof or chemistry equation stumped me, I would review notes, reread books and maybe call a friend for help. (These were pre-cellphone days, and not everyone had call waiting or an answering machine. Getting a friend on the phone at the exact time of need was unpredictable.)

After toiling into the night, I’d sleep a little and start all over again in the morning.

I would have benefited from flipped classrooms, a movement gaining popularity 25 years too late for me but in time for a generation desperate for more effective education.

The basic idea of a flipped classroom: For homework, students watch a taped lecture provided by the classroom teacher. During class time, the teacher answers questions about the lecture then offers individualized assistance on assignments or facilitates in-depth discussions and activities.

One of the early adopters and gurus of the movement is Jonathan Bergmann, a 26-year educator, longtime chemistry teacher and co-author of the book Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. We visited last week while he was on the road after a teacher workshop.

“The question I ask teachers is this: What’s the best use of your face-to-face class time?” Bergmann said. “I would argue that that is no longer a teacher standing in front of 30 kids to disseminate a concept.”

Instead, those 30 kids should be able to watch the lecture on their own time, at their own speed (pause and rewind as often as necessary). Then there’s time for application in the classroom.

“The flipped classroom is about the active, engaged stuff you can do in the classroom,” he said. “It’s the interaction between the student and teacher. There’s more time for discussion.”

And more time for hands-on activities. For example, a nutrition teacher can prepare a video on how to make a fruit smoothie. That video is watched at home or in a library — on the computer, on an iPod, on a DVD player — freeing classroom time for actual hands-on cooking. Or a P.E. teacher can cover the rules of a game in a video lecture, freeing the period for actual playing.

In Bergmann’s case, he and his co-teacher, Aaron Sams, were able to free valuable class time for chemistry problems and laboratory experiments. Not only that, he was able to reach individual needs.

“Do you teach to the top kids? Then you lose the bottom kids,” he said. “Teach to the bottom kids? You lose the top kids. For the first 17 years, I taught to the middle.”

After flipping, Bergmann said, his students moved through content at individualized paces. A student has to prove mastery of a unit before moving to the next one. That happens at different speeds for different kids.

Critics of the flipped classroom model often cite socioeconomic barriers, but Bergmann says economics don’t have to be a factor.

“People think kids who are poor can’t do this because of lack of access,” he said. “We can solve that.”

If a child has a computer but no Internet access, offer a flash drive. If they don’t have a computer but have an iPhone or iPod, download lectures to those devices. If they don’t have any kind of handheld technology, burn DVDs and let them watch on televisions. Or keep computer labs open after hours.

“It is a big issue, but it can be solved. The teacher, the school has to be creative in solving access issues,” Bergmann said.

He readily acknowledges that flipped classrooms aren’t the only answer to improving education. But it is an answer.

Teachers who have flipped report fewer discipline issues because kids are more actively engaged. Flip Your Classroom is filled with testimony from teachers who say they have more time to reach struggling students, to help advanced students learn more, to mentor and to coach.

One teacher writes, “I don’t have to go to school and perform five times a day. Instead, I spend my days interacting with and helping my students.”

Bergmann and Sams are in high demand these days, traveling across the country to share their experiences. Bergmann has been in the Dallas area four times this year to conduct training for area districts.

Together they founded the nonprofit Flipped Learning Network ( in an effort to teach teachers how to flip. “Things have to change in education,” Bergmann said. “Schools are going to have to adapt.”

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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