Monday, January 28, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin' (Part 1 - Flipped Classroom Reflections)

(by Dr. Alva Lefevre - the "L" in L&M Educational Consulting)

I’ve been teaching for what seems to be a very long time.  I’ve studied the research, practiced the strategies, and gathered a lot of information about my students. Some things worked and, over time, became part of my repertoire and others fell flat and eventually disappeared.  I tried models; didn’t like them; and finally realized that I must redefine the way I teach with each new group of students. 

I am presently teaching a course titled “Theories of Second Language Acquisition” at the university level and my students often joke that the name alone is enough to put you to sleep.  Over the last several years, parts of my course have been moving online making it a “hybrid”, with some sessions taking place on campus and others being in an online format (asynchronous). 

Embracing technology was not hard. Learning to live with it was another matter.

It was already a challenge to get to know my students when the course met on campus, as it only met once a week for a three-hour session and the “lecture” took up much of it.  Every quarter, my students would fill out an evaluation and tell me that the “best” part of the course was when they could discuss the materials with their peers and the class activities.  As much as I longed to be the "guide on the side", I almost always ended up being the "sage on the stage".  This was a very scary notion as I recalled my graduate school days of desperately trying to stay awake through boring lectures after a long day working.

Because the material can be overwhelming and I wanted my students to be ready to apply their knowledge when they took the methodology course, I spent a good part of each session explaining the theories, showing how the concepts would apply to the classroom, and I tried to challenge my students to figure out how the application would change depending on their teaching environment and their particular student population.  That didn’t always leave much time for activities and discussion and I would find myself rushing through a lecture to make time for the activities only to find out that not all students had understood the material. With my class composition being half native English speakers and half speakers of other languages; I felt that the pace was too slow for some and too fast for the rest.  The activities and discussions were fun; but not always fruitful from my perspective.  The students enjoyed them but were not always closer to understanding the theories or how they influenced curriculum design.

When I started to hear about the “flipped classroom”, I thought it made a lot of sense for me.  My students were motivated; and, for the most part, already used to having technology facilitate their learning.  Although the concept was not totally new, it intrigued me and I felt I was ready do things differently and to use technology as a teaching and learning tool rather than just as a way to access information and materials.

Flipping my classroom would entail having the "lecture" done at home via teacher-created presentations and having the class time used for activities and discussions.  This would give the students time in class to work on key learning activities and would provide a means to increase interaction and personalized contact between teacher and students.

The idea of the flipped classroom also appealed to me because it was a blending of direct instruction with constructivist learning and it catered to the three distinct roles in constructivism: the active learner, the social learner, and the creative learner.  Flipping my classroom would allow all three to flourish.

Students would be able to listen to a short lecture presentation at home, at their own pace, and read the additional materials.  They would come to class prepared to discuss the topic and to participate in group activities. 

During the classroom discussions, the students take an active role. Instead of just listening to the lecture and taking notes, reading the textbook and answering questions; they discuss ideas, debate hypotheses, investigate and design instruction as they begin to formulate ideas about their potential student population.  The group activities also bring into play the social learner.  Knowledge and understanding are constructed through dialogue with others and through the application to real-life scenarios. Finally, as creative learners, students examine their potential population and make educated guesses as to how the theories would apply to them.  This engages them in a discovery process and yields deeper understanding as they learn to make connections between the theories and their “real” environment.  It’s one way of engaging learners in an active problem-solving exercise that connects the knowledge they are acquiring with a real world application.

Putting my plan into action meant that I needed to focus my lectures so that, in recorded form, they would not be longer than thirty minutes.  It also meant that all ancillary materials had to either expand my students’ knowledge of the topic or lead them to make connections with other concepts.  At all times, they needed to be brought back to their potential student population. 

Packaging and narrating the presentations was time-consuming but received a thumbs-up from my students.  The discussions and activities were successful and it seemed that, from the formative and summative assessments, my students had a deeper understanding of how theory and application connected with students and classroom. 

In the second part of this blog, I would like to look at what worked in more depth and analyzed what needs to change – the how and the why.  I have found that there are many resources on the internet about the flipped classroom and that they can be as individual as we are.  A good reference is :

 Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day, by flipped classroom pioneers Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, is available through ASCD