Keep the lectures at home: New ‘flipped classroom’ model focuses class-time on experiments in Easthampton

Wednesday, May 14, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — Easthampton High School junior Kevin Van Oudenhove may not be familiar with the term “flipped classroom.” But he knows there’s something different about the honors chemistry class he’s taking this semester.

For homework, Van Oudenhove’s teacher, Shawn Sheehan, asks students to watch videotaped lectures and other lesson materials posted on his website. Class time is devoted to solving equations, conducting lab experiments and working on group research projects.

Van Oudenhove said he likes that much of the basic instruction for chemistry class happens outside of the classroom.

Follow @BarbaraSolow //

“If we spent all class listening to lectures and taking down notes, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said, in an interview last week, gesturing towards a table where his lab partners were busy creating a reaction with baking soda and acetic acid.

Classmate and fellow EHS junior Jennifer Szafir said she is also a fan of flipping the traditional spheres for classroom and homework.

Reviewing online lectures at home means “you come to class more prepared and you don’t spend all your time just taking down notes,” Szafir said. “We never just sit and get lectured. I like that class is more hands-on.”

Sheehan, a 14-year veteran at EHS, has been experimenting with what’s known as a “flipped classroom” since he first heard about the model at an education workshop five years ago. In doing so, he has joined a national teaching trend that experts say began in K-12 classrooms and is rapidly spreading into higher education.

At its most basic, flipping the classroom means that students access lectures and other core instruction at home online, while problem-solving activities once reserved for homework are done in class.

Alan Gardner, a fifth grade math teacher at Michael E. Smith Middle School in South Hadley, said he decided to try flipping because the model relies on digital technology students are already drawn towards.

“The kids are all using it and I feel like that’s where education is going,” he said. “Flipping the classroom shows you are using the technology responsibly.”

Two Colorado high school science teachers, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, are credited with inventing the term “flipped classroom” to describe how they began posting pre-recorded lessons online back in 2007 to help students who missed class due to illness, sports events or other activities. The experiment became a regular practice they say has made their teaching more interactive.

“Flipping the classroom has transformed our teaching,” Bergmann wrote in an article posted on The Daily Riff (www.thedailyriff.com) about how the model began. “We no longer stand in front of our students and talk at them for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. This radical change allowed us to take on a different role with our students.”

While the idea of moving teachers out of static lecture mode isn’t new, experts say digital technology has made it easier for educators to do the actual flipping.

“The advancement of technology is facilitating this trend where students are led through guided, pre-exposure to course materials outside of class,” said Kem Saichaie, director of educational technology for the Center for Teaching and Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It definitely has momentum.”

Saichaie said research on the effectiveness of flipped classrooms is still emerging. But initial studies show “faculty and students are more engaged when taught in this manner.”

So, how does a flipped classroom operate?

Sheehan said anyone who assumes the model means less work is in for a rude awakening. He said it took him about three years to stockpile enough video lectures to accommodate his chemistry courses.

Producing those videos has also meant getting used to new digital tools, Sheehan said. For example, he recently purchased a Smartpen — a writing tool with an embedded digital audio recorder — that allows him to create online “pencasts” for his class website. The device cost about $100.

Sheehan also quickly discovered that shorter online posts were more effective with students. “My first ones were about 40 minutes long and I was rambling,” he said. “I prefer ones that are about 15 minutes.” A sample of his online lectures is available at http://chemeagles.com/flipped.

Sheehan stressed that having students receive instruction outside of class “doesn’t mean I don’t teach in class — I do.”

“But having the students do the passive note-taking at home means I have more of an opportunity to do problem solving in class,” he said. “And the kids say they can replay the pencasts at home if they don’t understand something instead of feeling funny asking me to repeat something in class. I feel like I can go at a faster pace.”

Sheehan said he provides students who lack Internet access at home with a flash drive containing the online lectures. He can also check to see which students have viewed the online materials — and when — through his Moodle network. Moodle is an online learning platform where teachers can post coursework, grades and send instant messages to students.

Some skeptics dismiss flipped classrooms as merely repackaging what should already be considered good teaching.

“Sorry, not seeing what’s new here,” said one comment posted in response to Bergmann’s article.

Another post noted that the key issue is not flipping but “classroom management and that this is the same debate that occurs every day in every school.”

Locally, despite growing interest in the flipped model, not everyone is ready to try it out.

Michael Morris, director of evaluation and assessment for the Amherst Regional Public Schools, said some teachers in his district have “dabbled” in flipped learning. But, he added, “given that a significant portion of our middle and high school students do not have high speed Internet access in their homes because of lack of access in Leverett or Shutesbury or other reasons, it does limit the potential for this trend in our district.”

Nancy Cheevers, director of curriculum and assessment for the Northampton schools, had similar concerns.

“If we knew that every single kid had access to technology in their homes or to tech support it would be one thing,” she said. “I think there’s potential with flipped classrooms. But I do have concerns about access.”

Gardner, the fifth grade math teacher in South Hadley, said he never expected to become a flipped classroom pioneer.

“I’m not that technological,” said Gardner who is in his 11th year of teaching at Michael Smith Middle School.

But after hearing about the model, he felt it could be helpful to students who were falling behind in math because they could absorb online lesson materials at home at their own pace.

For the past three years, Gardner has been posting short math lectures produced by Khan Academy on a class website twice a week. He then shapes the next day’s classroom activities around those lectures.

In an interview at his school last week, Gardner said reviewing online lessons outside of class has helped students who were struggling and has freed him up to give them more attention in class.

“Now they know they will have me for a whole block of time,” he said. “I notice I get through things quicker and can go into more depth.”

In surveys he did of students last year, most said they enjoyed the experience of the flipped classroom. Three-quarters of the fifth graders Gardner surveyed gave flipping high or very high marks and said it helped improve their learning.

“Kids noted that they liked coming to school with an idea of what they were going to learn, that it helped them understand the material quicker,” Gardner wrote, in a self-evaluation. “They also liked that it made homework less boring.”

He has also noticed improvements in math test scores.

One challenge is finding enough video lectures to send home — and ones that more closely match his own lesson plans — Gardner said. This year for the first time, he has had students create some of the video lectures used on his class website.

Many of Gardner’s middle school colleagues have been asking him about the flipped classroom model and a new teacher study group has begun exploring how it works. But for flipped learning to truly take hold at his school, he said more classroom technology is needed.

“That’s one of the reasons I haven’t produced my own videos,” Gardner said.

Sheehan said he would also like to see more training in flipped classroom strategies offered to Easthampton teachers.

“There is a learning curve,” he said. “I think professional development would be the key to get teachers more involved and more familiar with the technology.”

Easthampton’s new technology-friendly high school building has encouraged more teachers to pursue digital teaching strategies, Sheehan said.

“In the old building, this would have been a hard sell,” he said, of the flipped idea. “In the new building, everyone is interested in doing innovative things with technology.”

Meanwhile, his students are hoping teachers in other classes will begin posting lectures online as homework so that class time can be more interactive.

“We’ve been doing a lot more labs and a lot less note taking,” said EHS junior Lauryn Cadieux of Sheehan’s chemistry class. “I think other subjects would benefit from this.”