The flipped classroom

Back in November, I wrote in this post about the use of technology in elementary schools – or the lack of use – and this video, while about high school, has got me thinking again about technology and its effective use in (and out of) school.

The teachers profiled develop instructional videos using Camtasia, – here’s an example of their work – and students watch these during the evening, asynchronously, when they might normally do their homework. Students then come to class to, in short, do their homework – apply what they learned after watching their lesson the previous evening – flipping that homework/classroom work paradigm. One of the teachers, Aaron Sams, moves around the classroom and coaches and guides and puts out fires, as he says: “I’m no longer the guy who stands up in front of the classroom and yacks at a student for an hour.”

It reminded me of what former colleagues at Learning Point Associates wrote about in this piece, called Toward the Structural Transformation of School: Innovations in Staffing. While more radical, it’s along the same continuum as the flipped classroom, calling for education to become “unbundled,” “no longer wrapped in a neat brick-and-mortar school package.” They go on to write that in “a system of unbundled education, the teacher moves away from being the disseminator of information and toward being a facilitator of learning.”

Some folks view the effective teacher as the Robin Williams character from Dead Poets Society, and while there’s something to be said for the inspirational teacher that stands up on a desk and declaims – yes, been there, done that, early in my teaching career – there’s more to be said for the teacher that walks quietly around the room and shares his or her expertise with students that are at work – as we see in the flipped classroom. In fact, good listening and observational skills are probably the most important qualities of an effective teacher – as well as the willingness to let go. It certainly is not declaiming.

Back to the flipped/unbundled continuum. Education Week put out its annual Technology Counts issue, this one called K-12 Seeks Custom Fit: Schools Test Individualized Digital Learning. In it is a story on NYC’s Innovation Zone or iZone, a three-year initiative to test new ways for educating students, with a heavy emphasis on using digital tools to customize learning. There were other pieces on, again from New York City, its School of One and one on students customizing their own learning experiences, which began with an example from a social studies class at Philly’s Science Leadership Academy. But fear not: This customization does not devolve into chaos. I like how this last piece finished, stating that just ’cause “students may be skilled at using technology to personalize their own education, it doesn’t mean teachers should take a hands-off approach. In fact, students say they appreciate having a teacher” – here’s that word again – “guide them even more in how best to implement the technology, how to find trusted online sources of information, and how to organize and present that information.”

Ultimately, it’s not about technology. It’s about using effective and easily accessible tools to make learning relevant and interesting for students. All schools and school districts need to be encouraging the kind of experimentation that’s happening in that flipped classroom, in New York’s iZone, at the Science Leadership Academy. Principals and school district leaders need to give those experimenters some funding (Camtasia costs $300), their trust, and the time and space needed for thoughtful experimentation – just like Aaron Sams, his colleague Jonathan Bergman, and other like-minded teachers are doing for their kids.

More on the flipped classroom at this University of Northern Colorado site.

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