The Flipped Classroom

Andy MartinsonToday I get to introduce you to our next guest blogger, Andy Martinson, which seems appropriate given that we not only share the same initials, but significant chunks of both our first and last names! 🙂

In any case, Andy is a high school teacher and technology coach from White Bear Lake in Minnesota. He is also a Sketchpad and Fathom user, as well as one of our online course moderators.


Social networking, blogging, interactive whiteboards, going paperless, student response devices, cloud-based computing, netbooks, apps, yadda-yadda-yadda. These terms and phrases have been rattling in my skull this year as I took on the role of one of our high school technology coaches. The one topic on the front of my brain since December has been the Flipped Classroom. My working definition for a flipped classroom is one that sends all students home to watch videos and interact online. They are doing something more than traditional homework—watching videos, reading articles, listening to lectures. When they arrive the next day, they have already watched the base lecture or video, and the teacher can go deeper and expose students to richer content normally shoved aside due to time constraints (since the base lesson was the entire lesson in a non-flipped class). Sounds like a pretty good plan!

Flipped ClassroomIn May I attended the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM) conference in Duluth, where there were many technology-focused sessions, including some on the flipped classroom. After sitting through a couple of sessions, I noticed a trend: All the presenters talked about the structure of their courses, the time and energy put into creating these courses, the resources, and the pace—specifically how they could get through so much more material. While I was getting a better understanding of how teachers were making this happen, I had more questions: What are students viewing and doing online outside of the school day? What are teachers doing in class with this extra time they’ve created? While others asked about giving students equal access to technology, I wanted to say “please present one of the explorations you’ve done recently, that you’ve never had time to do, since you now have extra time in class.” I wanted a peek into what kids were gaining, besides time to complete one more chapter per year.

One comment has been hammered over and over, from national news stories about the Khan Academy to blogs and sessions at conferences: The lecture is no longer done in class. The student sees the lecture at home the night before. These presenters and reporters are assuming that lecture is the current classroom practice. I’m still not sure if I should be offended or heartbroken—I’d like to think that many math teachers are promoting inquiry in their rooms—but maybe I live in a bubble.

While all the presenters emphasized how students watch the lectures at home, therefore creating much more time in class, no one enlightened me as to what they were doing in class. A few promoters have said that kids have time to do homework and get individual help in class. The majority stated that teachers now have the opportunity to go deeper, do explorations or projects, or individualize additional learning opportunities. But what everyone has failed to do for me thus far is show me what this looks like. I wanted to get my hands on some example lessons—nothing beats doing math at a conference to help me understand what this looks like.

I strive to create inquiry-based lessons and I try not to lecture more than a few minutes at a time in my high school classroom. I was fortunate to enter the teaching profession in the late 90s when my school district embraced a couple of the NSF-reform curricula: CMP and Core Plus. I was brought up on this material, and since then, have gravitated toward similar programs, materials, and tools like The Geometer’s Sketchpad, Fathom, the Discovering Mathematics series, and anything Michael Serra has written or presented. I have ideas for Java-based Sketchpad demonstrations I could post for students to explore at home, write about in a forum, and then discuss in class the next day. Flipping as a concept has a lot of potential. Keep in mind, this is not a new concept by any means: Language Arts teachers have been sending students home with reading assignments so that students can return the next day ready to discuss.

If the flip trend is the tool that helps teachers who are currently lecturing move toward something better, this is a great shift. If past practice was lecture, example, drill and practice, and now it’s watch a lecture video, come to class and do some guided exploration using this newly acquired knowledge, this is most definitely a move in the right direction for education. I would prefer to see teachers guiding a developed or discovered understanding of a formula, concept, or new theorem, but I am pleased that kids in flipped classrooms are getting to the richer content through saved time, where they might have missed out under a previous model.

Hopefully the conversation will open up a bit to include those of us already attempting to create more inquiry in our classrooms—perhaps it is elsewhere, but I didn’t hear it at MCTM. My guess is that those promoting are sharing the practical steps to making this happen because that’s what people want to hear at this point, and that’s okay. People posting lectures made me think more about what I could post for viewing the night before, or after, a given lesson. How can this flip be used to promote inquiry and go deeper rather than simply shift learning to the home to save some time? Dan Meyer’s keynote at MCTM focused on perplexity and if you haven’t seen his 101 Questions site or kept up on his blog, this seems like an example of the water flipped class enthusiasts should be drinking.

The most positive thing I heard from the various groups presenting at MCTM was how much professional development they were doing, either mandated or on their own, in order to pull off this radical shift to flipped classrooms. They emphasized the importance of having a team, collaborating, getting their whole department on board, etc. One school that presented proudly stated that they were so excited to get this off the ground that when staff meetings or required professional development time was cancelled, they still met.

Flipped class teachers are probably doing amazing things with their students. Some are individualizing educations and helping students explore deeper, often skipped, topics. But the blogs, social networks, and other tools are just that: tools. And the flipped classroom is just a structure. After I walked out of the conference, I was almost saddened by the degree of credit these groups were giving to the inanimate structure of the “flipped class” instead of their dynamic professional learning communities (PLCs). They showed data and discussed results they were getting from kids and I was surprised, impressed, and jealous. But they all had one thing in common—a large group of teachers collaborating, learning, and creating together. Good teaching will result from a strong professional development models and good pedagogy. The technology will only be as good as those who use it.

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