Saturday, July 13, 2013

Making a Flipped Learning Cake

"Why a cake?" you're wondering.  I'll get to that...

This post is my official "Final Reflection" for my Flipped Learning Class, but I am determined that it will not be my last post to this blog!  As I considered what I would like to write about for this last assignment, I found myself continually looking forward instead of looking back.  Due to a commitment I made last spring, I have the opportunity in August to talk about flipped learning with a handful of teachers in my district and other nearby districts.  I keep pondering how I'm going to sum up everything I've discovered about what it means to flip a classroom in a short, workshop-style conversation.  It is becoming a huge weight on my shoulders.  As I reflect back on my experiences teaching in a flipped classroom last year, being a student in the Flipped Learning Class this past month, and supported by my newly-formed PLC, I know there are at least 3 things I must present in my upcoming workshop.

#1:  Flipped Learning is more than just the videos.
I recall that I entered the world of flipping with this overwhelming idea that I needed to make tons of videos to cover all of the content of my class.  I cringe when I think of my 30-minute videos on Cellular Respiration my students watched last year.  Hassan Wilson, one of my fellow Flipped Classmates, has a great blog post about this exact topic.  The central question to Flipped Learning is not "How do I make the videos?" but, "What is the best use of my classroom time?"  Teachers need to parse out the pieces of their class that are low-level, content-driven activities (which are well-suited to video), and those that are high-collaboration/creativity/inquiry/application type activities (which are much more effective in a classroom environment).  Yes, making the videos is one flashy, technology-based facet of the flipped classroom, but the more revolutionary idea is that this tool frees up time in class to actually engage students in research-based teaching strategies that guide the process of learning.  In a podcast interview Carolyn Durley agrees that the first thing teachers new to flipped learning usually have the most questions about is, "How do I make the videos?"  Through her flipped-class experience she learned that more time needs to be put into "classroom renovation."  What will the teacher do with all of that time the videos free up?

A lot of Ramsey Musallam's Explore-Flip-Apply ideas have influenced my growth in this area as well.  Educators need to understand that the videos are only one ingredient in the "flipped learning recipe."   This ingredient can take on different forms (white flour or wheat flour?), and it can be added to the "batter" at different times (before or after the eggs?).  Also, teachers might use different ingredients for their recipe.  Which leads me to my next revelation...

#2:  Flipped Learning will look different for every educator.
While interacting with my classmates this past month, I have seen a huge diversity in the types of content that video can cover, as well as the formats of videos.  Video can be used to provide a hook for a lesson or explain how to use a calculator, to introduce a new class project, or for iPad training.  Teachers can incorporate mainstream movie clips and images into their video, use a graphing interface, or even create their own characters for a video.  The possibilities are truly endless.  This is where the true craft of being a teacher enters the picture.  Each teacher needs to decide for himself/herself at what point in the learning cycle video would be most appropriate.  This will most likely vary according to student age and the subject taught.  I'm in the process of collecting lots of examples for my district teachers who teach Math and English.  For example, in a podcast interview with Lisa Highfill, she describes some amazing flipped lessons for fifth graders on the topics of money sense and poetry.  Not only is a portion of each lesson based on video, but the meat of the lessons is based on Explore, Flip, Apply.

#3:  Flipped Learning is a Bridge to teaching in the Information Age.
Whether a teacher embraces or rejects technology in their classroom, our students are growing up in an age in which every fact they would ever want to know is at their fingertips.  To round out my "recipe" analogy, are we going to bake this cake in a traditional oven or a high-powered convection oven?  The day will come when convection ovens are the only option for bakers.  As Aaron Sams explained in a Flipped Learning Network Podcast over a year ago, we are in a new educational environment.  Not everyone is ready to take the leap over the chasm and frolic in this environment.  Flipped Learning can be a bridge for teachers to gingerly cross the chasm and begin to think about what a 21st Century Classroom looks like.  And by a "21st Century Classroom," I don't mean a classroom that uses the newest technology at every turn.  I simply mean a classroom that acknowledges that memorizing "facts" is no longer relevant for most subjects.  We need to focus our classrooms on those higher-order Bloom's categories, such as Analyzing and Creating.  We need to prepare our students for the future.

I still have a long ways to go in preparing my "Introduction to Flipped Learning" presentation for August, but I know that I have grown more in my understanding of flipping in the last month than I have in the past two years.  Much of this is thanks to the amazing connections I have made through the Google+ class community, the Flipped Learning Ning, and #flipclass on Twitter.  At some point during my viewing of the FlipCon13 archived sessions, one of the presenters made the comment that the Flipped Learning community is simply a group of educators that want to constantly improve their teaching.  When I heard that, I knew I had landed in the right place.  I feel buoyed by my PLN as I enter another year of exploring flipped learning in my classroom!

**If you have any great suggestions of items that I MUST share with my fellow teachers when I present in August, please respond via a comment or e-mail.  I'd truly appreciate any advice!**

Sunday, July 7, 2013

"I want to teach really well."

At the suggestion of a fellow teacher in my Flipped Learning class, I listened to a podcast of an interview with Ramsey Musallam from last June (click here to connect) during my morning run yesterday.  Now, I knew that Musallam was onto something when I watched his FlipCon13 Keynote, but not until I listened to this interview did I realize how closely his educational philosophy matched with my own.  It was an epiphany (or maybe just my endorphins kicking in).  By the end of my run, I knew that I had to find a way to solidify my thoughts so I could keep things in focus.  Thus, this blog entry...

#runningepiphany (you saw it here first!)

Now, before I proceed, I have to make it clear that Musallam is a high school Chemistry teacher, so the fact that his ideas mesh so well with mine, as a high school Biology teacher, is no big surprise.  What was truly revealing to me was that I don't have to completely redesign my classes and abandon my principles as a science teacher to delve further into the world of flipped learning.  What follows is an examination of Musallam's points that truly resonated with me.

The traditional mastery model has the potential to weaken inquiry.
I have tried mastery learning in my classroom on a couple of occasions.  I've redesigned complete units, provided the students with access to all labs, assignments, and content, and let them go at it with flexible deadlines.  Doubtless, I was missing some key components of a true mastery classroom, being that I was new to the whole idea, but I still felt as though things just weren't clicking as I'd envisioned them.  Students rushed through each of the tasks, just to get them done, and didn't slow down if something was particularly engaging.  The class self-divided into small groups of 2 to 4 students based on their pacing, and they rarely interacted with classmates outside of their small group.  I was not convinced that my students were learning science better as a result of this model, but I was not sure why this was.

Fast-forward to yesterday and Musallam's interview.  In his discussion of mastery learning, Musallam states, "The mastery model does not guarantee that inquiry comes before content."  This was a huge eye-opening moment for me.  Here was the reason my mastery units seemed so odd to me - my students were not engaged in inquiry.  The focus of my classes has always been the process of science, thereby inquiry.  When I attempted mastery learning, that focus got fuzzy.  Also, as Musallam suggests, it's difficult to control the sequence of inquiry in a mastery environment, and this is key.  Assimilation and accommodation must come before content in a true inquiry learning cycle.  I would also add that conversations during that assimilation and accommodation phase are essential as well.  When students are allowed to make their way through a mastery-based unit, it is more difficult to control the timing of the inquiry cycle and facilitate the conversations that need to take place.

In my mind, I compare these two processes to different dining experiences.  What would you prefer...a buffet at which you have a huge variety of foods to choose from and can eat your dessert first, or one masterful meal that has been planned out by a James Beard Award-winning chef who knows just the right time to introduce particular flavors into the experience?  



I think my inner foodie just exposed itself, but I would argue that most people would also choose the second option.  I still hope to incorporate facets of mastery learning into my classroom, but this time understanding more about how the two modes of learning may conflict with each other.

Video should be responsive to student needs.
From Musallam's FlipCon13 keynote, I had a general idea of his "Flipped Bloom's" paradigm, but listening to this podcast really fleshed it out for me.  Musallam described this thoughts that traditional classrooms tap into lower-spectrum Bloom's during class time and reserve higher-spectrum Bloom's for homework.  He believes that this is where the true "flip" in flipped learning needs to originate.  Musallam suggested teachers classify their learning standards by Bloom's taxonomy.  Tasks that are at the lowest levels (Remembering, Understanding, some Applying) become video content, and those tasks associated with the higher levels (Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating) should take place in the classroom.

This concept isn't revolutionary to most flippers, but Musallam took the idea further.  He suggested that video is your chance, as a teacher, to differentiate for individuals.  The videos should be made in response to the questions and misconceptions that become obvious in the classroom during the Explore phase.  Therefore, different sections of classes might even need different videos.  (This also highlights another issue with mastery learning, which assumes that all of the videos can be made ahead of time for students to access at their own pace.  Therefore, the videos can't be responsive to the various learning stages of the students.)

The idea of using video to provide content for students when and how they need it truly opened up doors in my mind.  My videos don't have to be multimedia masterpieces or prepared in advance...they simply need to give my students the tools they want at that moment in the learning cycle.  Entering this summer, I had a goal of redoing many of my videos from last year to make them more engaging.  I'm finally now realizing that the videos will be more engaging if I create a need in my classroom for the students to access them - and by ensuring that the videos fill that need.  A huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.  The idea also fits right in with all the work I've been doing with formative assessment in my class, once again reminding students that learning is a process and I'm here to support that process.

What finally crystallized this approach to video for me was Musallam's discussion of using Educreations in his classroom to record his interactions with students.  When students are working in groups and have a question, he records his discussion with the students, along with any "whiteboard" work he does, on Educreations on his iPad.  He then sends the file to his library of Educreations videos and alerts the other students in the class that he has just posted another tutorial.  Genius!  I am constantly in this position in my classroom, and what I typically do is grab some scratch paper and a pen and sketch out some diagrams as I work through a question with a group.  I ask the group if they'd like to keep my sketches when I'm done - and they almost always want them AND make photocopies of them to share with others in the group.  Now, I've had an iPad for two years...why have I never thought of doing this on Educreations instead?  Not only could the discussion and diagrams be easily shared with other groups, but those original students could also go back to that video at a later date to review the conversation.  I am SO excited about using this in my classroom.

Teachers shouldn't be a slave to our set pedagogy.
During the interview, Musallam was asked a question about the word "flip" and why it has negative connotations in some circles.  His answer evolved  into a broader discussion about pedagogies in general and the danger in becoming a fervent disciple of one or another.  He said that no method is a silver bullet, and some methods are more appropriate than others for particular topics.  To me, this means we need to be careful about jumping on the flipped learning bandwagon simply because we see it as the method that will cure all that ails us in the educational world.  Instead, we need to understand any teaching method, be it flipping, mastery learning, project-based learning, inquiry, or others, has its time and place.  This is where the true craft of being a teacher comes into play; we need to determine what method works best for our students for a particular unit, lesson, topic, or class section.  Forcing the use of a method just because you're a "flipped class" removes the teacher's connection to his/her students' needs.  I flipped all of the units in my Biology classes last year, except for the unit on Molecular Inheritance.  I had some really effective whole-class kinesthetic simulations I'd used in the past to deliver content, and I wasn't ready to leave those in the dust yet.  I have to admit I felt a bit of discomfort that I wasn't making any videos for the unit, though, because my class was supposed to be flipped.  Listening to Musallam tell me that I shouldn't allow a label to define my teaching made me realize that I had been limiting myself.  I have put a lot of effort into developing some truly great methods of helping my students learn content.  If it works well, I don't need to trash it just because I have the label of a flipped classroom.

This point made by Musallam also made me consider interactions that I have been delving into on social media platforms recently.  In becoming more involved with my PLN in the last month, I've been experiencing this surging feeling that there are so many flipping experts out there that know so much more about the process than I do.  As a result, I've been on a crazed hunt to find as many resources as I can to supplement and organize my class before the school year starts, because one of these people or methods or tools must be THE WAY to FIX EDUCATION.  If I only search long enough, I will find it.

In reflecting on what Musallam had to say about labels, however, I realized that this thing we call teaching isn't about the next great fix - employing the latest buzzwords or techniques or wowing our students with the newest technology.  It's more about constant reflection of how well your students are learning and what you can do to help them.

I already employ a lot of techniques that help my students as learners.  Flipping is simply another tool that I can adapt to my students' needs.  Musallam argued that labeling any teaching method can dissuade teachers from even trying it because of their internalized conception of what that method involves.  I would agree, and then further elaborate that labeling teaching methods also limits the creativity of the teacher in utilizing that tool.  There is no one set procedure for flipping a classroom, and teachers need to be reminded that there are hundreds of ways of incorporating flipped philosophy into their teaching.  We will continue to use labels, because we need to employ some type of language to discuss these methods, but I will attempt to stop seeing these labels as THE WAY to FIX EDUCATION.

When I reflect back on my development as a teacher, my evolving teaching philosophy, and all of the strategies that I've picked up over the years, I can truly say that this statement by Musallam sums up my experience:  "I want to teach really well."  Because when it comes right down it, we as teachers need to be satisfied with never being satisfied.  Our students are always changing, always different, always demanding more of us.  There will never come a time when we've solved every educational roadblock in our classrooms.  What we can do is maintain our desire to strive to be better.  We need to have confidence in our own journey, open minds to gather new tools along the way, and the creativity to use them in a way that best suits our students.    

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Student Choice

(Re-posted from my Flipped Learning Class in response to the question prompt:  How will intentional content impact your students' learning?)

Through my years of teaching, I've gradually shifted away from textbooks and lectures to deliver content, and more toward labs, activities, group discussions, and simulations. Figuring out what to do with my class time when I first flipped my classroom wasn't forefront in my mind because I was already using a variety of strategies in class to introduce and reinforce content.

However, two of the presentations at FlipCon13 made me consider that although I have been using many different types of instructional strategies to engage my students, those strategies were always ones that I had chosen or topics that I was most interested in. Musallam's presentation about stimulating student curiosity and Dill's presentation about project-based learning revealed to me that I was the one with all the power in my classroom. I was making the decisions about what interesting side topics we would discuss and how the class would learn about them. The students were simply with me for the ride.

My goal for next year is to introduce every new lesson with a "mystery box" that is broad enough to evoke many questions from the students. I'm also going to give more opportunities for my students to choose what types of assessments they will complete for a unit, whether a written paper, a drawing, a multi-media project, or a song, etc. I am hopeful that these changes will inspire more curiosity and motivation in my students.