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.    


  1. Awesome. What a great post. So thorough and PACKED with growth. Ramsey is great - and his message sinks in when we are ready. For many teachers new to Flipped Learning, Explore-Flip-Apply and the idea of inquiry is unimaginable. However, the flipped classroom has often been described as a bridge to something better... :-) So happy for you!!

  2. I was also struck by Ramsey's comment about being a slave to a type of pedagogy. Even as I am planning next school year, I'm reminding myself to focus on the course objectives and think about which tools will get me there, rather than thinking of the tools first. Although I'm not sure EFA and Mastery are mutually exclusive - hopefully I can develop some effective mastery learning cycles to incorporate the self-paced rework until mastery with the inquiry and explore before direct instruction. But I am nervous about giving up some synchronous activities like Socratic Seminars and whole class skits to act out complicated processes. Still trying to work that part out. Anyhow, thanks for sharing. Very informative as always!

    1. I also have a lot of synchronous activities that I'm not ready to give up. I'm beginning to think that mastery in my classroom will focus more on "mastery," i.e. making sure all of my students master the objectives, and less on being asynchronous in the accomplishment of that mastery. I agree that inquiry and mastery learning don't have to be mutually exclusive, but they can certainly get in each other's way.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! And I love the pictures you drew to illustrate your thoughts! I had many of the same responses to Ramsey's episode of the podcast. It challenged some of what I've been doing in my class for a couple years, but I think his idea that we as teachers need to create in our students a NEED or DESIRE to learn content is so important -- whether you Flip or not. Flip is just a tool that enables you to help you students do that.

    1. Motivation is a huge issue with high school students. Finding ways to wake up some of that wonder and curiosity they experienced when they were younger is essential in science classrooms. I think videos are another great way to capture this.

  4. I love reading your thought process, especially since I've also worried about creating videos or moving to a mastery model for EVERY lesson. You're right - we as teachers should be pulling out the best tools for the job from our tool belts, depending upon the content, the students, the class, and the goal. Sometimes, that means students learning independently for a mastery model, but sometimes, the class has to come together for a debate or talk. The white paper by Noora Hamdan and McKnight pointed out that flipped teaching shouldn't mean that we create video lectures - possibly more boring than we'd be lecturing in front of class. On the other hand, videos of science experiments can be much more engaging and enlightening than, say, a textbook or lecture description of the experiment. So there's a definite place for videos.

    1. Exactly! I've been re-watching some of my videos from last year, and I just about put myself to sleep! I need to be more purposeful in my use of video and not assume the videos are going to be engaging lectures just because they're in a different format.