Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Flipped Lessons

I've started using "flipped lessons" in my class this year and the result has been awesome. To put a flipped lesson in perspective, let me compare it with a traditional lesson.

Traditional Lesson
The traditional lesson (in any subject, but I'll use math for a primary example) usually has this format:
  • 5-10 Minutes: Warm Up Problem/Debrief of last nights homework
  • 20 Minutes: Explanation of the lesson, learning objectives
  • 15 Minutes: Guided practice with teacher checking for understanding
  • Extension: Homework outside of class

Flipped Lesson
Before I outline what a typical flipped lesson might be, let my share it's rationale. When students take an assignment home, there obviously is no teacher to help them. It is assumed that if a teacher gives help in class, the student is therefore 'ready' for independent practice. The problem however, is that in mathematics, assignments typically get harder towards the end of the assignment. The first part of the assignment has more recall and application tasks and the end of the assignment has more synthesis and analysis which are much higher order thinking skills. It should be no surprise that kids come back to school and say "I didn't understand this, so I couldn't do it." Come now the flipped lesson.

With a flipped lesson, instead of introducing a topic in class, the students are first exposed to it at home. That is their homework. They are to watch videos or take notes on designated pages in order to prepare them for the practice that they will do in class. It's basically a way to "front-load" the instruction so when students come to class, they're prepared and the concept will not seem so new. What this means is that there is less time for demonstrations at the beginning of class, as the students have already been introduced to the material. Here's a breakdown of what a typical flipped lesson format is like:

  • 5-10 Minutes: Warm Up Problem/checking notes for today's lesson
  • 5 Minutes: Clarification of the lesson and questions from note taking.
  • 30-40 Minutes: Individual practice with teacher checking for understanding. If you have answers to the homework that you can post in class, it's really helpful.
  • Closure: Student's self-assess their productivity, number or % of questions correct.
  • Extension: Notes on the lesson for next class.
I think that 30-40 minutes of practice is adequate for learning and retention and a flipped lesson gives students more time in class to practice because the teacher is spending less time teaching. Assessment factors in as well. For instance, we don't count homework in the grade but do enter it in the gradebook as a "0" weighting. Homework is practice, early in the scaffolded ladder of learning so students should not be penalized for not understanding from the start. To grade homework is akin to teaching a student how to shoot free-throw shots in basketball and them telling them if they can't shoot 80% after 5 minutes of practice, they won't start in the next game. For that reason, we don't grade homework and it makes it more objective for students to assess their productivity. However, if your school has a grading policy where it must be graded, you can give them spot checks in the last five minutes.

Consider using flipped lessons in the future. It's been a huge leap in my students abilities as self-learners and puts the onus of education on the learner, not the teacher.

Monday, 2 April 2012

What does it take to be successful at mathematics?

I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's book "Outliers" for the second time. What a great read. I like re-reading books from time to time and I'm surprised at what I glean from a book the second time through. Often it's something that I overlooked the first time through or perhaps new wisdom has me looking at it in a different way.

For starters, in his section "rice paddies and math tests" Gladwell presents some pretty convincing evidence for Asian aptitudes in mathematics as many Asian dialects have easier translations for number systems, making calculating them easier as well.

This however, wasn't what really interested me this time through. I came across a researcher in this chapter, Alan Schoenfeld, that did some experiments on mathematical understanding through learning experiences which he videotaped. The most compelling to me was actually an experiment that I did two years ago with my students as well. It starts by giving the class an unsolvable math problem, or clearly one that is too difficult for them such as some higher level calculus. Students try to solve the problem but then make note of how much time elapses before they give up. Through his research (and mine too) the students that give up first are typically the students who are the worst in mathematics. The conclusions are that students that try hard tend to be better in any subject. "Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds"

Fellow teachers often lament how some students are poor performers in their subjects, and any subject is bound to have them no matter how good a teacher is. Teachers are quick to label the students as "lazy" and generally, they are correct. Through my experience I have also noted that my worst acheivers are usually the students that are derelict with homework, don't participate much in class and don't come in for help. In contrast, the best students are the ones that go above and beyond and do all the aforementioned tasks. Attitude and the desire to try hard, remediate areas of difficulty are always enlightened by understanding. Students that drop out and tune out are the ones that don't.

I have been presenting this contrast to my students for years on the first day of school. Most see the connection and vow to try harder. I do the same with parents on "back to school night" and they vow to make sure that Johnny gets his work in on time. Most of them do too, but some do not. At whatever rate that students or parents have the revelation that more practice equals higher rates of success in education, the sooner they'll be successful in whatever they put their mind to.