Ideas for the flipped classroom

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Rather than being radical and new, flipped learning is simply about good preparation. Gerald Haigh speaks to teachers about how they are using this approach in their classrooms.

The flipped classroom, or as many prefer, “flipped learning”, means giving students the content of a future lesson to study for homework, then consolidating the learning in class. 

So the English teacher who says, “Read the next chapter of Middlemarch by Thursday and we’ll discuss it in class”, is surely demonstrating a version of flipped learning.

Over the last decade, however, the spread of flipped learning across all education sectors globally, and the attention it attracts, have been vastly increased by the use of technology. 

One of many teachers now using it is Colin Hegarty, advanced teacher of mathematics at Preston Manor School in north London. Mr Hegarty, rather than seeing “flipping” as radical and new, prefers to think of it simply as preparation: “Students preparing themselves for the lesson.”

His version is probably what most people now think of as flipped learning. He separates out the didactic, instructional part of a lesson, puts it on video, posts it on his own “Hegarty Maths” YouTube channel, and sets his students to watch it as pre-lesson homework.

An important feature of flipped learning is that students study at their own pace, pausing and repeating as necessary, noting anything they do not understand, freed from the pressure of keeping up with everyone in class.

They then come prepared to ask and answer good questions, engage in discussion, and tackle follow-up work. Crucially, it enables the teacher to cut straight to where his or her professional skills are best used, moving round the students, helping, assessing progress and setting follow-on tasks, for groups and individuals as well as the whole class. 

“Content transmission is only a part of the teacher’s role,” explained Mr Hegarty. “Flipped learning has enabled me to make my lessons be about questioning, challenging, motivating.”

So, importantly, and contrary to the views of some critics, this is far from replacing the teacher with a video. As Philadelphia teacher Mary-Beth Hertz writes in her blog on the pros and cons of the flipped classroom: “The model is not about the videos, but about the learning.”

Some teachers, as they will quickly point out, have produced video explanations for a long time, and for them, flipped learning is a natural development. 

Vicki Stokes, head of science at St Birinus School in Oxfordshire, said: “I was off school for some time and I recorded lessons for students. They watched in their own time and sent work to me.”

This seemed such a good idea that she continued on her return, and the technique is now used throughout the faculty.

Another flipped learning advocate is Ben Rouse, maths teacher at Glyn School in Epsom. Like Mr Hegarty, Mr Rouse has a YouTube channel rich in excellent explanations of mathematical concepts.

“Having got started with video, it seemed a logical step, for some projects, to cover the basics with a video for homework,” he told SecEd. “And then I could spend more time in the lesson really going through the key bits.”

Together with a colleague, he has developed a technique whereby at the start of the lesson following the homework he does a quick assessment of the students’ understanding of the video, assigning them to one of three groups – red, amber and green.

“The red group, who show the least understanding, work with me; the amber group need to do work that consolidates their learning; the green group, who have the highest level of understanding, have an extension task.”

He found that the approach took a little time to settle down: “Some students didn’t watch the videos, but after a while they noticed that the ones who had watched were more confident, and so they started using them.”

One way of ensuring that students watch the material, of course, is to make it interactive and collaborative. 

At Shireland Collegiate Academy in Sandwell,  each teaching group has its “class site” on the learning platform, where resources from the school’s extensive bank can be posted, so class members and their teachers can work together on them, before bringing their conclusions into class. Kirsty Tonks, Shireland’s e-learning director, said: “They’re not just passive recipients. They have to internalise and act upon what they see.”

That interactive approach is also advocated by educational technology consultant Nik Peachey who makes, on his “Nik’s Quick Shout” blog, the telling point that “…dull unengaging content doesn’t suddenly become engaging because it’s on a video on the web”. He suggests the use of “Vialogues” – videos for discussion as well as one-sided instruction.

The flipped classroom, then, is still evolving. What’s certain, though, is that it is a major change not to be lightly undertaken. The videos, and the lessons that follow, call for skill and time, and the process is professionally demanding. 

Ms Stokes at St Birinus, for example, sets up between four and 10 differentiated tasks to which students are allocated depending on their understanding of the video they have watched. It’s not surprising, then, that levels of commitment vary even among the system’s advocates. Some believe it should be widely used. Others look not only at the work involved, but at the need to be fair to students who have no home access to the videos, and conclude that it should remain as one available technique among many. 

Nevertheless, the fact that flipped learning is spreading is a sign of how technology is beginning to take learning beyond the classroom.

Does it work?

In the USA, where it all started, there have been improvement stories like that of Clintondale High School in Michigan. There, a dramatic one-year transformation of learning and behaviour is attributed to a wholesale move to the flipped classroom. 

Mr Hegarty, for his part, is sure of the impact of flipped learning in his own school, and you can see him on YouTube at a TeachMeet presentation quoting impressive “best ever” results for his students’ GCSE and A level grades.

So far, though, experience in UK seems to be anecdotal, and much more study and experience will surely emerge, across a wider range of subjects and settings.

Making the video

The usual method is for the teacher to work on a laptop screen, adding a spoken explanation, while a screen recorder and a microphone – built into most laptops – captures both the work on the screen and the teacher’s voice. Adding handwriting, drawing diagrams or explanatory arrows and circles all require a graphics tablet. 

None of this is expensive, assuming that you already have a laptop. Adequate graphics tablets are available in the £40 range, and there are screen recorders which are free to download. It may even be possible to do the whole job with the built-in features of a tablet, although not all models have the right capabilities.

It is possible to work wholly or partly with video made freely available by other teachers, or drawn from a video library – but many believe that students want to hear their own teacher’s voice.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary, middle and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. He’s also served as a school governor and as an external examiner to teacher training courses. He has published many articles and books on education and you can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

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