Flip Instruction: Questions that Must be Addressed


Yesterday I was forwarded a powerful blog post written by a high school Economics, History and Government instructor (Coach Brown) from Ukiah CA, about Flip Iinstruction. Click here to read this thought provoking post. Along with outlining his approach for incorporating a Traditional Flip model into economics class, he poses some very important and direct questions that must be addressed if Flip Instruction is to develop into a pedagogy that can be adapted in a meaningful way, in a variety of disciplines. Below is each question followed by my response:

1. It is insisted that constant student engagement is better than the “sage on stage” method of direct instruction. Then how to you justify the generations of students that have successfully been instructed by good teachers through some direct instruction? We’ve all had teachers that have the gift of the spoken word and have been effective at teaching students necessary content. And the teacher “knows” that content is being taught to a student instead of guessing through self-directed learning.

In reading this question, I am reminded why the most common advocates of flip instruction are science and math instructors. Disciplines where ultimately, students will commonly face some sort of algorithmic challenge lend themselves very well to flip instruction. Students can re-watch the problem-solving process, and have a cataloged data base of videos that address common strategies is very helpful. For example, in chemistry, balancing a chemical reaction is an essential skill that can be found in almost every single chapter in the second semester of a standard high school course. Providing video instruction for such a skill can be nothing but helpful for a student that needs the information repeated, and chunked, and readily accessible.

Personally, my high school history instructor was a genius at lecturing. His stories, method of explaining historical phenomena, and relating it to our everyday lives in a way that elicited critical thought and inquiry was amazing. I wanted nothing more that to sit in his classroom, and soak in the information his relayed to us. I was truly learning in his class. Not all subjects lend themselves to the concept of video-based direct instruction, and more importantly, neither do all teachers. Whether you embrace a purely constructivist classroom, where the heart of instruction comes from student exploration and the scientific method, or you lecture, the question “to flip or not to flip” I feel, is the same: are YOU using your precious class time with the activities YOU feel best promote meaningful learning with YOUR students?

If the answer is no, then perhaps there is something that you could off-load to the homework setting, and if you feel there is, video-based instruction takes advantage of our human cognitive architecture in a way that can help promote retention and long-term schema formation. I think :) For me, any use of video-based instruction that saves class time can be considered “Flip Instruction”. It doesn’t have to be the entire mode of information transfer, and it MOST DEFINITELY doesn’t require losing the enjoyment that comes from delivering aspects of instances of direct instruction to students during class. I am a huge proponent of Flip Instruction, and spent a majority of my day today in AP Chemistry, standing in front of the classroom, helping students understand and complicated process that could never have been properly addressed in the video they watched the night before, and I failed at helping them construct during the “exploration” phase (see response to question #2 below). Simply, I see Flip Instruction as a way to a) open up ANY AMOUNT of class time for more meaningful student engagement and b) create a more interactive and accountable homework experience for students, especially when merged with other methods of technology such as google docs/forms, and other ways to reflect individually and collaboratively outside of the classroom. Click here and navigate to the “tracking” tab for a simple example.

2. Speaking of bad power points and lecturing; isn’t a video the student watches at home basically the same thing? What’s the difference between my 15 minute power point at school and the 15 minute power point at home? I mean besides the fact that I’m right there to help answer questions. Isn’t that direct instruction?

I completely agree with this critique and personally, feel the future of Flip Instruction as a useful pedagogy, especially for science educators, lies in our ability to address this question. Over the past 6 years, I have experimented with many different models of Flip Instruction, and ultimately come to the same conclusion: front-loading information is bad. Even if it saves classroom time, and even if students get all the multimedia benefits of a screencast lecture (interactivity, modality, segmentation, etc.), true learning, I feel, happens best when students construct their own knowledge, while we act as facilitators in that process. With that said, I absolutely love the concept of off-loading aspects of information transfer to the homework setting, and therefore, find that redefining, or broadening our definition of Flip Instruction is essential.

This year, I am doing a variation of the Explore-Explain-Apply model outlined by Karplus (1977). In this adaptation (Explore-Flip-Apply) students are part of an inquiry learning cycle where open-ended, inquiry driven exploration occurs first, followed by video instruction (the flip) to address any student misconceptions, and transfer any necessary factual information that was not addressed in the exploration phase. Video instruction is then followed by a classroom application phase where information is used to solve real-world problems, and in my case, AP style problems (mainly free response). This is one example of how the basic concept of Flip Instruction (lecture for homework, homework in class) can exist as a sub-component of a larger learning cycle. Ideally, even the explanation/video phase could be designed, created and distributed by students, and programs such as Explain Everything, Replaynote, Screenchomp, and Showme are excellent first steps in providing a student friendly way to create and share instructional videos with simple technology.

3. What not reading? Flipping classrooms seems to be all about the video experience while seemingly totally ignoring reading. Is this a wise course of action? I saw a comment on Twitter that insisted that no reading should ever be assigned without something interactive attached to it. Aren’t we downplaying the importance of the read word?

I love this question, and it got me thinking more than any other. Ultimately, I default to my definition of Flip Teaching: “…moving any aspect of direct instruction from the classroom to the homework setting using teacher produced, annotated and narrated screen casts.” This is a definition that I worked on developing for the YouTube Teacher’s Studio this summer in Seattle, WA, and my attempt was to create a broad, more inclusive definition, rather than Sal Khan’s comments that I feel over simplified the process (see comments under question #2 above). Sticking to this definition, video instruction is used to address aspects of direct instruction that could more effectively, and efficiently be addressed in a one-on-one video setting with a student plugged in. Thus, in my own experience, it has allowed me more time for promoting in-class literacy skills and critical reading activities when I am there to help guide them. I still assign reading, and have simply found that using class time to help students deconstruct a text, while simultaneously assigning a video that helps explain algorithmic processes, etc., the reading experience outside of class can be more directed.

Either way, I teach Chemistry, and beyond deconstructing a worked example, there isn’t much reading. With that said, our AP Biology teacher has posted videos where she models the reading process for students using a document camera or the e-book, and then assigns various readings where the students are too repeat this process. I consider this Flip Instruction as the modeling process did not occur in class, and the students can revisit it throughout the year. All in all, literacy is increased in a way that embraces 21st century tools with 21st century learners, while also encouraging students to interact with written material. More interestingly, I have had many conversations with English instructors in the past week about Flip Instruction, and we have arrived at a variety of applications that, I feel, only promote good literacy. One teacher had a specifically interesting application process. Her assignment read something like this: 1) “Read pages X-Z in Catcher in the Rye” 2) “When you finish reading page Y, watch video” 3) “Complete Reading pages X-Z” 4) “Submit Google Form with your reflection” While parts 1, 2, & 4 are standard, it is part 3 that incorporates aspects of Flip Instruction. In part three, she recorded a screencast of herself reading a certain, critical passage in the text where, for example, Holden Caulfield demonstrates an important behavior that is crucial to understanding the text, but might not be easily interpreted by students. In the screencast, she helps direct students attention, underlines certain key phrases, while providing a conversational style narration about her thoughts. She does not reveal her direct interpretation, but through the video, increases the chances that all students might have a more meaningful reading experience. The next day in class, students debate the meaning of the reading and the key passage with one another.

I am most definitely a rookie when it comes to anything beyond science instruction, however in working with this teacher over the past week, she noted an increase in student engagement, not only during class, but during the reading process. Students said they looked forward to the section she would “help them read” and felt her direction added not only a motivational boost, but helped to make the reading process more interactive. The teacher noted that she is especially excited to continue this process when they get to Shakespeare as helping students negotiate complex language and meaning is what occupies much of the class time. All in all, I feel good teaching should always help students build literacy skills, and as online tools, especially video, become the norm in classroom instruction, we as educators need promote creative ways to use this technology to create a design infrastructure that amplifies all skills. Farb Nivi, CEO of Grockit.com addresses this well when he states: “The problem with education is not one of engineering, but one of design.” The tools (video, etc.) are not the problem. How we couch these tools in a design infrastructure that encourages development of all skills (literacy, problem solving, inquiry, etc.) is the real goal. Flip Teaching, I believe, is one powerful design tool that happens to harness aspects of current engineering.

4. And finally, what happens when students don’t have Internet? I’ve asked this a dozen times and I either get ignored or I get “well all children need to have Internet to be successful in the 21st Century environment. The government needs to make Internet penetration in this country a priority for all students or we are doing them a massive disservice.” Yeah, thanks for the public policy message but that still fails to answer my question. How do you flip a class when half the kids don’t have online access?

The accountability of my flip process revolves entirely around student submission of a form, embedded directly below the embedded video (shameless plug for my opinions regarding managing extraneous cognitive load). My rule is students must have the form submitted (via the spreadsheet time stamp in google docs) 1 second before the bell rings for class that day. Thus, not only do I not require the video to be watched and processed at home, I encourage students to use resources made available at the school, prior to class, to view the instructional videos. I have noticed, anecdotally, that in providing the conceptual and algorithmic reflections I require in the form in close proximity to class application (see “Explore-Flip-Apply” model noted in question #2) that student engagement increases. Moreover, because I couch the Flip process in an inquiry cycle, students usually only have ~ 2 instructional video/week assigned. With that said, I am fully aware that not all schools have a surplus of computers students can access, and that not all students can arrive at school with the 20 minutes to spare required to watch the videos on site, before or after school.

I teach at an inner city Christian Brother’s Catholic High School school in San Francisco, and while many of our students do have internet access (either at home or via smart phone devices) a majority of our student body does come from a variety of under served areas in our community. Keeping in mind these students, and others whom internet access may not be that readily available, I always start with the same process of questions to determine access and availability. First, I hand out a sheet of paper to students and have them respond “Yes” or “No” to the following questions: 1) “Can you watch and hear a video from the internet on your phone or on a computer at home”? 2) “If you answered no, do you have access to a computer at school or in your community, where you can watch and hear a video on the internet at least 2 times/week”. 3) “If you answered no, do you have access to a DVD player at home where you can watch and hear videos at least 2 times/week, for 10-15 minutes each”? I quickly shuffle through the papers and look for any students that answered “no” to all questions. Usually there is 1-2 students a year in this situation. For these students, I have acquired a few laptops over the years, via eBay, etc., and I loan them the laptops for the year.

I am COMPLETELY aware that this low number is entirely due to my situation. With that said, I am fine spending my money on serving these students, and actually, am now a passionate “horder” of any device that can access the internet in preparation for trying to provide access to all my students. It’s a hobby of sort :). For students that only have DVD access, this is around ~ 5 every year, I burn DVDs of the lecturers and created a variation of the Google form other students create, that they do by hand. The reflection process in my practice is absolutely essential, and although the written responses are not nearly as valuable as the cataloged google form response, they do serve as a necessary bridge helping students with limited access participate. In a sense, I am dancing around the access issue, however this process has been almost full-proof, and there have actually been a few years where all students had access. I would suggest, before assuming that access is a big issue, create a process such as this where the instructor sequentially presents access options to students, in order to get a real number of how many actually can’t access videos online.

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