Our Flipped Classroom Experiment

Recently my English 12s and I flipped our classroom and it was a huge success, but to truly understand why this worked out so well I need to explain how we got there.

I am a proponent of a blended model of learning where the teacher and students have created a community of trust, one where reflection is a constant and work ethic is abundant. Any hope of project based, self-directed learning, or the flipped classroom being a success, is directly dependent on this community. Students need to understand the why just as much (if not more) than the how and it’s my job, rather my role, to show them this.

I began this process on the very first day of school by challenging the group to design our course outline for the semester. I told them that on the next day they would be asked to present their outlines to the class and that they could do so in any way they’d like; in partners, groups or as individuals. I told them that this would be an opportunity to shape our learning community and to have a meaningful stake in not just how the class functions, but what we would study and how we would be assessed. From “Go” some magical things happened. Students formed groups on their own to get down to the task. Some assigned roles to take on research and others divided up their outlines in to sections to tackle together. Some groups went to the library (a natural step in the research process at the post secondary level but all too restricted by availability and teacher planning at the secondary level). Some students grabbed an iPad and looked for examples online, on our class website, or on our school site for information. Some students sought out English Department colleagues for guidance. And some just got right down to creating their “utopic outline”, their attempt to create the ideal semester. The next day groups stood up at the front of the room (on their own accord) and presented their outlines. Each and every group shared this task. Each student shared openly and had a pretty even role in their presentations. This activity shifted control from me, their teacher, to them, the learner. It illustrated how in our time together for the semester I would be much more of a facilitator and mentor, rather than a sage on the stage (ugh, I hate that phrase!) It empowered the group by giving them control over their learning without being tied to criteria and worried about assessment. It created an environment of trust and community by the openness in how they accepted each other. And it set a tone for the year, one where hard work pays off and the hard work is fun!

This beginning has provided the foundation for us to discuss our learning in a meaningful way. Often we talk about persistence and meaningful motivation just as much as we talk about anxiety and the roller coaster of the semester. We read Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed (a must read for educators) and reflect on our own ability to delay gratification and stay focused on a boring task (our impetus for self-directed and project based learning). And we blog as a means to reflect on our learning. Each student has created and maintains their own blog. We discuss creating a professional persona and being able to use our blogs as an example of a positive online history.

I proposed the flipped classroom model before the Thanksgiving weekend. The class had just completed their rough drafts of an essay and I had a neat digital self/peer edit lesson planned using Explain Everything for our next class. We discussed our attempts throughout the course to meet their learning needs and whether they thought watching a tutorial at home would be beneficial. The vote was unanimous: the entire class agreed to watch the videos over the weekend, participate in the lesson on Tuesday, and then reflect via a blog post as to their feelings of the process. Have a look at the 2 videos the students were assigned:

On Tuesday I began by asking if any students would like to work together after having watched the tutorial from home. A small group formed and I was able to work with 5 students as the rest of the class got to the task at hand. At this point everyone grabbed an iPad. Some watched the video again and spent some time alone on their essays. Some jumped right in to working in pairs examining each others’ essay and working their way through the video’s instructions. Eventually as a class we discussed the changes we’d like to make to our writing and how we’d go about getting this done.

The next class was spent reflecting on our flipped classroom experiment. We didn’t discuss our thoughts aloud, but rather we grabbed an iPad and got right down to writing a reflection post on our blogs. That evening I visited each blog and read their posts. With each read I got more and more excited. Their honesty, enthusiasm, and quality of written work were phenomenal. Most students were happy with the flipped experiment and identified several reasons as to how it met their learning needs. For the most part they appreciated the chance to learn on their own time and when it suited them. This speaks to motivation as in they learned when they wanted to learn. Additionally, they applauded the opportunity to pause, rewind, a review the lesson. This is something they simply cannot do in class. How many students lack the courage to interrupt a lesson or ask a question for clarification? How many students possess the self awareness that they are not understanding in the moment? The video gave them the chance to address their questions. Clearly these students need to be motivated and engaged in this process for this to work, but as addressed above, we have built a community where this motivation is discussed, celebrated, and is the norm. Last, when students watched the videos on their own time, many of them actually did the lesson at home. Then, when they arrived in class on Tuesday, they got right down to seeking help from a peer. Again, these students did the meaningful work when they wanted to. As educators how often do we discuss self-motivation as an inhibitor in student learning? The flipped classroom allowed varying opportunities to tap in to their own motivation, something that proves often too difficult to achieve in the class.

In contrast there were a few students who wrote that this process didn’t work for them. They revealed that they had left the videos until the last minute and when they came in to class they had a bunch of questions that needed answers. This is ironic because what they deemed to be a lack of success I identified as a teaching victory. While the majority of kids watched the videos from home and got to the task at hand on Tuesday, I was able to meet the needs of the students who struggled over the weekend. I was able to spend the majority of the class with 5 students and provide them with the support they needed to be successful on this assignment. Alternatively, if I taught the self/peer edit lesson during class I would have used up valuable time that I needed with those 5 students. Furthermore I wouldn’t be providing the entire group with the independence, self-direction, and trust they crave from our classroom.

As you can see, when students understand why what we are doing is important to their learning they begin to engage in the how. The how becomes student driven and the teacher turns in to a mentor to support their learning. For the flipped classroom to be successful time must be given to foster the classroom community. This group’s enthusiasm and excitement has been an inspiration each and every day. I look forward to seeing where they take us and where we end up going. And I’ll happily keep you posted along the way!

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