Promoting student learning: Getting the flipping thing right

Education Matters

With Miguel Ison and With Clement lamber

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

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There has been a preponderance of strategies and approaches to improve teaching and learning in our Jamaican classrooms. Also, every year with the release of Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination results stakeholders continue to be puzzled over the lack of quality in our students' academic performances. Hence, educators are always seeking new ways to ensure that their students achieve.

A more recent approach in educational circles is the concept of flipping the classroom. This idea, which entails getting students to teach themselves concepts at home by watching videos or reading on selected concepts then using class time to apply these concepts has created a buzz among stakeholders of some schools in Jamaica. Some are calling for an end to flipping, while others believe that we just need to do the flipping thing correctly.

Innovation and the Jamaican classroom

Our pool of resources to promote educational innovation may be small when compared to some more developed countries. However, Jamaican teachers have never been known to shy away from trying innovative ideas to promote teaching and learning.

Close to the turn of this century our teachers struggled, but they eventually made sense of how to teach an integrated curriculum in the early primary school years. Later, the challenge was how to promote standards of teaching and learning that had a national thrust and a global trajectory. Increasingly, with the proliferation of innovative ideas through technology, various approaches and strategies are being formally and informally embraced in our classrooms. One such approach is flipping the classroom.

A flipped classroom, as the name suggests, moves radically away from the notion of the teacher as the repository of knowledge to invest heavily on the student as the one in charge of pursuing and processing new knowledge in an assigned theme or subject area. In other words, the first time the student interacts with a concept is at home by him or herself. The teacher in this situation creates or points students to resources which are either produced and disseminated through modern technological devices (tablets, laptops, or even smartphones) or through print materials. So, the teacher may create or select a good video or paper on a concept and the student is tasked with learning new ideas from the assigned medium. Students are also encouraged to expand on their knowledge by sourcing other materials which are related to the concept to be learned. The classroom is then used for application. Students apply what they learn through various tasks, whether in presentations or completing laboratory-related tasks. This approach works especially well for some content area subjects such as science.

Flipping concerns

Researchers have enumerated several benefits of flipping the classroom. These include improved teacher efficiency, giving students greater control over their learning, and providing more versatile and cost-effective ways of sharing content. In some Jamaican high schools (especially the better materially endowed) we have observed that teachers have eagerly adopted the flipping concept, since they argue that this model should provide more opportunities for learning and promoting self-confidence and efficacy among their students.

In many cases the implementation has met staunch resistance from both parents and students. Students have expressed frustration because even after trying to immerse themselves repeatedly in the material they are directed to use at home they are unable to make total sense of the target concepts or apply them within their classroom contexts or everyday lives. Parents have also expressed the view that the teachers have divested their core business (teaching) and have put their responsibilities directly into parents' hands.

As educators of teachers we embrace new innovations in our classrooms and we salute the bravery of the teachers who dare to work outside of the box to promote their students' academic journey and achievement. In our attempt to make sense of the issue, we have observed that the root of the problem might not reside in what the teachers are hoping to do, but how they set the stage for flipping the classrooms.

Preconditions for flipping (stakeholder involvement)

There are three groups that need to be thoroughly prepared for the flipped classroom. First, the teacher must realise that, while he or she is departing from being a traditional teacher, there are attributes and skills that need to be honed to flip the classroom effectively. This teacher must be an avid researcher, media connoisseur, a communicator, and a motivator. The teacher must be conversant with the concepts to be learned by thoroughly investigating sources so that students can be directed to suitable materials pitched at their age, culture and interests. The teacher also should be able to sift through the increasingly overwhelming sources of knowledge in print and electronic forms to ensure relevance and accuracy in content and format for the students. They should also be aware that some sources are more credible than others and be able to guide their students to make these distinctions.

Flipping the classroom is a big leap from the traditional forms of teaching and learning. Therefore, the teacher should be able to create and maintain an effective communication link with parents who may be sceptical of the approach to teaching and learning. In fact, innovations must be properly packaged and sold to potential beneficiaries. The teacher should be able to market this innovation to parents in ways that they can see the value to their children. They will want to see their children take greater control of their learning because of how the teacher has shared the flipping idea with them.

Since flipping also requires more independent learning activities on the part of the students, the teacher needs to ensure that motivation is a priority. The tasks need to be presented in a way in which students want to engage in them rather than feeling forced to fulfil the teacher's mandates. This motivation can only be achieved through a well-prepared teacher who is conversant with the content and methodologies of the subject being taught.

Students who are faced with increasing pressure to achieve high score are often overwhelmed with the awesome responsibility of learning curricular concepts by themselves. It is important that these students possess the requisite competencies that will help them to process the materials that are intended to promote their learning. These competencies include basic literacy facets of reading, viewing and comprehending.

Parents also need to realise that the classroom context their children learn in need to be far different from the ones they learned in. Technology has increased multiple times over the past two decades and their children will require additional and innovative opportunities to process knowledge. If implemented properly, flipping the classroom can be a perfect opportunity.

Undoubtedly there is also a place for teacher educators who should ensure that the teachers they produce are willing and able to document their classroom innovations through action research, which will provide blueprints for other teachers to venture into innovative ways of teaching grounded in the experiences of their peers in similar instructional settings.

The shift

The layout of the modern Jamaican classroom continues to mirror the pre-industrial age model in which students were prepared to work in factories. So, they sit at a desk in neat rows, equidistant from each other with the teacher at the front of the class lecturing with the aid of a whiteboard. How is this supposed to engage all students in learning, nurture their creativity or optimise the academic benefits that match financial investment in education that we all want? How does this challenge our teachers to master their pedagogical craft and to tailor learning experiences to their students individualised needs? The flipped classroom model provides one avenue to achieve this.

Benefits to the students

The flipped classroom is student-centred and promotes active learning. Students do not sit passively listening to lectures and aimlessly taking notes. Instead, they are engaged in a collaborative learning enterprise working with their peers during class time on tasks suited to their learning needs that appropriately match the level of academic challenge with their competence and for which immediate feedback from teacher or peer can be given. Therefore, the flipped learning environment promotes the development of students' higher order thinking skills (applying, analysis, evaluating and creating) while being scaffolded by the teacher and their peers. This happens because first exposure-acquisition of knowledge and comprehension occurred at home and so classroom time is used for assimilation.

Finally, but by no means are we suggesting it's the last benefit, the flipped classroom allows students to have ownership of the learning experiences by enabling students who were absent from class or those student needing enrichment or extension to continually interact with the relevant instructional resources outside of school time at their convenience.

Benefit to the teachers

We can almost hear the teachers say, “This sounds like a lot of work.” Yes, it is initially, but once the flipped resources (videos lectures and/or written articles) have been prepared or selected they can be reused as many times as necessary by the teachers until the content become obsolete.

Additionally, flipped mode of instruction allows the teachers to better use class time for fostering students' learning needs via active concept application rather than passive transmission of inert knowledge. Therefore, teachers are motivated to be intentional in the way they use classroom time. They have more freedom to decide how much classroom time to spend with each student and the type of activities to be developed. As a result, each student gets the attention he/she needs.

Finally, this model helps teachers hone their pedagogical skill while providing greater accountability and transparency to parents. Transparency is enhanced as parents observe their children preparing for each class.

A pathway to getting the flipping thing right

The flipped classroom model has its merits for the Jamaican classroom. If properly implemented the model should provide greater opportunities for self-directed instruction. So how should the flipped model be implemented?

The successful implementation of the flipped classroom requires significant initial teacher preparation and investment of teacher time in the development of and/or the selection of appropriate audio/video and/or written articles that will be disseminated to the students. Alternatively, students can be encouraged to prepare their own videos or pre-class reading assignments based on concepts that they have mastered and the teacher can then select the better ones to add to the repository of flipping resources.

Next, the students must access and engage with the prepared material to foster their conceptual understanding of the subject matter. Then, a key but often neglected step is the pre-assessment activity. This is assessment of students' learning after their interaction/exposure to the teacher produced or selected material to determine their academic deficits in relation to the concept they studied. Additionally, the student can prepare and submit questions about the concepts they were exposed to. The teacher then analyses the data from the tests and prepares differentiated learning tasks/worksheets that are specifically designed to target the learners' incomplete or alternate conceptions.

Once the students' learning needs have been diagnosed, the precious class time is used for engaging learners in higher-order cognitive tasks while the teacher scaffolds them rather than lecture. After all, learning is more effective when learners construct their own understanding and class time is used to deepen understanding rather than to merely provide first exposure to concepts. A coherent implemented path requires expert guidance for the approach to gain traction as a viable learning option, rather than a fad that teachers are indulging in which may frustrate students and their parents.

Miguel Ison is a science educator in the School of Education at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He has over 20 years teaching experience at the secondary and tertiary levels in Grenada and Jamaica.

Dr Clement Lambert is a lecturer in the School of Education at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is an educational researcher and consultant who has published reports on a variety of educational concerns. Send comments to the Observer or clementtmlambert@gmail.com.

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