Flipped classrooms can improve STEM education

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Watch any of Sir Ken Robinson’s widely-viewed TED talks on education, and you’ll notice one key take-away: teaching methods have changed very little throughout history. The “sage on the stage” model, where the teacher stands at the front of the classroom and students passively absorb knowledge, is still the standard in most classrooms.

Across the nation there is a growing movement to discard the “teacher-knows-all” mentality for a new educational model: the flipped learning model. In a flipped educational setting, teachers are seen more as a “guide on the side” – students learn material on their own outside of class, often through videos or other media, and work on problems, activities, or projects in class with their peers.  This gives students the chance to work through material at their own pace, and allows teachers to individually address student needs and foster collaboration and peer-to-peer learning in the classroom.

Early research on the efficacy of flipped classrooms is promising: in a review recently released by the Flipped Learning Network, of 450 teachers using a flipped model that were surveyed, 66 percent reported higher standardized test scores and 80 percent perceived an improvement in students’ attitude towards learning.

What might be classified as flipped models have been used in the social sciences and humanities for some time, but are only recently beginning to catch on in STEM subjects.

Students in a math classroom at Byron High School work together to solve problems, different from traditional lecture-style classes.

Students in a math classroom at Byron High School work together to solve problems, different from traditional lecture-style classes. (Photo credit: Troy Faulkner)

Flipped classrooms incorporate media, advance students

Kyle Arnold, a third grade math and science teacher from St. Augustine, Fla., had just purchased an iPad when he came across an infographic on flipped classrooms created by the adaptive learning company Knewton. He bought the iPad for schoolwork anyway, and figured it made sense to use it to its fullest potential. He flipped his classroom for half a year, and switched over completely this past year.

The result is a classroom where Arnold says he is “freed up to do a lot more fun math stuff, hands on stuff in class now. It’s eliminated about half the time I spent teaching math, and now I really set up projects and have a lot more time to make it interesting.”

For those that worry about the quality of flipped instruction, Arnold notes that it has allowed him to advance students through more material. Rather than setting a pace dictated by lecture, he can gauge whether a student has mastered content and move them along appropriately.

“If they’ve already got it, then I just move them on. A lot of them now, they start asking for it,” Arnold said. “It’s almost made them more competitive, to push themselves harder.”

Arnold also appreciates the online network of teachers that use the same software he does, ShowMe, to deliver material.

“I use their stuff every once in a while, so they hear from another teacher. The girls really like one of them who’s a woman, and she’s really upbeat and energetic, and they get excited to hear her voice instead of mine.”

What happens in a peer instruction flipped classroom?

Troy Faulkner describes the beginning of a typical math class at Byron High School.
Prep at home: “Students learn material before class, typically watching a video.”
Present a question: “You put the question on the board, and if you can have it be conceptual so that students aren’t getting lost in details of math.”
Work individually: “The students are looking at the problem on their own, answering it, then they commit to an answer.”
Start a conversation: “The students actually start discussing their answer with their neighbors, and they try to convince their neighbor of their answer.”
Commit as a team: “So after they discuss with their neighbor, then they have to commit to an answer a second time and submit to the teacher. This whole time, the teacher is seeing responses from the first time, and seeing their responses after they’ve had time to discuss.”
Assess the class: “Once they’ve submitted their answer after discussing, the teacher is able to say, ‘do I need to address this question and talk about it, or does pretty much everybody have it and we can move on to the next question?’ Then steps 2 through 6 are repeated for a new question. We typically do 4 each day.”

Team dynamics and a student-centered approach are essential

That kind of community support is key in the math department at Byron High School in Byron, Minn. In 2010, educators at Byron were faced with a dilemma: old textbooks did not match revised state math standards, and the district did not have money to purchase new ones.

What came next was a “grassroots, teacher-led initiative” to flip their math curriculum, said department head Troy Faulkner. Teachers worked long hours to write an entire textbook-free, video-based curriculum in time for the next school year.

“The biggest challenge was the time commitment that it took for the teachers. We have good chemistry, we know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and we work with that,” Faulkner said. “If somebody’s weak in something, we step in and say, okay, I’ll help you with that. We check all of our egos at the door.”

“Our main goal,” said Faulkner, “is to do what’s best for the students, and maximize learning for all of our students, and do what it takes to make that happen.”

The Byron math department has experienced considerable success with its flipped approach, having been featured in numerous case studies and research articles on flipped learning. They are currently in a second iteration of their flipped model, which also incorporates a peer-instruction strategy pioneered by Harvard physics educator Eric Mazur. Faulkner himself has seen gains in proficiency between 10.9 to 12.1 percent in his classes since moving from lecture to peer instruction flipped.

To Faulkner, their model’s strength is in its student-centered, rather than lecturer-centered, approach to teaching.

“Instead of getting this firehose effect that often happens in a lecture, where students can get overwhelmed, they can take in as much information as they want at a time, by pausing and rewinding and coming back to it,” he said. “Then in class, the students can be more actively engaged in learning, and there’s also time for the teacher to work with each student individually. There’s a lot more individual attention, and because of that there’s a lot more relationships that can be developed.”

Long road to adoption

Although the idea of flipping a STEM classroom or using peer learning is not necessarily new – Mazur wrote about peer instruction in the ‘90s – the education community has been slow to adopt this new model. Surveys show over half of STEM educators still teach using “extensive lecturing”, and the percentage of educators that use lecture has barely changed in the last 10 years. Dr. Russ Herman, physics professor and editor of the Journal for Effective Teaching, thinks that grassroots initiatives like at Byron, or individual early adopters like Arnold, are likely to have more success than any broadscale adoption.

“The disciplines themselves have to accept the idea. These classrooms are different than what people are used to,“ Herman said. “It’s hard to say that it’ll ever happen, unless more and more future educators are taught that way. A lot of them teach the way they were taught.”

Arnold, however, thinks that the status quo of teaching won’t last in the face of the rapidly evolving technology landscape.

“The kids are digital natives. They just pick right up on it,” he said. “A lot of people think they’re not going to learn that way, that they’re just sitting in front of a screen and stuff, but that’s just kind of the world we live in now. You either join them or fall to the side.”

Troy Faulkner working with students. Teacher engagement is much more hands-on in a flipped classroom

Troy Faulkner working with students. Teacher engagement is much more hands-on in a flipped classroom. (Photo credit: Troy Faulkner)


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