Monthly Archives: November 2012

Flipped Learning: What is the point?

This is not a critique of flipped learning.  Without flipped learning I would never have tried the things stated below, and would therefore never have used my experiences to make adjustments.

What I am doing now:

  1. ask students to front-load information by watching videos (made by others, or myself) at home
  2. work though a concept development pack to build understanding (start with a “simple” problem, build to more and more complex problems)
  3. assign work/labs that serves as practice
  4. test them (require 75% or higher to progress)

The issue with this order: students may watch videos, but won’t take any form of notes, so they have nothing to reference in class but their hazy memory of a 10 min youtube video. (And yes, I have considered “grading” their viewership, but think that sends the wrong message about the videos)  On top of that problem, I’m also trying out the self-paced mastery model.  So some students blow through that work in 2.5 days while others struggle to get it done in 5.

What I want to add to the mix:

  1. more time discussing topics aloud, in groups…
  2. more time dealing directly with misconceptions

The big question: Why am I having students watch videos before we do any of this?  If I want to discuss misconceptions, why would I have them watch clarifying videos first?  Wouldn’t students then memorize what is in the videos so they seem to have NO misconceptions?  Despite what some students say they really do want to impress teachers with their knowledge.  And then there is the problem of students misunderstanding what’s in the video!  And memorizing misinformation!


  1. discuss misconceptions through use of demos and q&a sessions (I ask q’s, they provide a’s)
  2. have students work on conceptual development packet to build understanding
  3. give students the option to watch videos online (maybe I won’t make one until I really really have to…)
  4. have students do some practice work and labs
  5. take test

…and all students going through this at the same pace.  This sort of goes against a philosophical belief I hold, that students should learn at their own pace, but for my sanity I think I need to simplify things.

Ultimate goal: do modeling instruction in physics.  Have students use direct investigation to gather new concepts, and use data and these concepts to build models (equations, theorems, etc.) for the laws of physics. 

The flipped learning model has served is purpose it would seem.  And the purpose, as I see it, is to free up more class time for things other than lecture.  I rarely lecture, even in my AP classes, and have had time to experiment with new assignments, assessments, and delivery styles.  Any good scientist will continuously evaluate how an experiment is going as it happens, and make changes.  As I move through this flipped learning experiment I feel it is time to make some changes, reorder what I do, and assess the damage… er… progress.

Moving to the Modeling Instruction framework is out of the question for this year.  It requires a very structured environment, a specific set of equipment, and tons of planning.  Not the type of thing to jump into second semester.  But with nine to ten months to plan, and maybe some clever resourcing, I can get the ball rolling next year.  For the time being I will try out the new ordering of activities stated above.  Who knows, if that works well I may just stick with that!

I think I’ll leave things like that for now.  Any more time think about this stuff and I’ll consider throwing out grades and just doing projects or something…

Trying new old things (part II)

First, I think it is amazing that everyone I talk to about my concerns and issues with teaching (be it the flipped classroom, or just general issues) is very supportive and sympathetic.  I have yet to meet anyone, thankfully, that is patronizing or condescending.  So thank you!

Back to what I posted about the other day, on the topic of why students seem to not be very interested in thinking or learning, I’ve been doing some reading of other blogs, posts, articles, etc.  Of course (and unfortunately) there is no magic bullet.  Kids are kids.  Some will adapt to new styles of instruction, others won’t.  Some will complain, others will suffer in silence.  And some will perform well, and others will fail… seemingly with no real correlation to ability on occasion.

Here are a couple of good resources I’ve picked up while doing some research:

In a nutshell I’ve learned that I need to do what I’ve wanted to do, but resisted doing for one reason or another: in-class discussion of ideas/concepts as a method of developing understanding, mixed with hands-on inquiry-based activities.  There will be resistance by “lazy” students.   All things with mass have inertia, and are “lazy”, and require a net force to alter their motion (or lack thereof).  And students, who have acquired years of poor academic ideals, have edu-nertia* and will also require a force to change their motion.


The Question Formulation Technique (book) was recently brought to my attention, though it is similar to what Postman and Weingartner discussed in their book (they also talk about students resisting thinking, because it is hard!).  The idea is to have students approach an idea by asking, then refining questions.  The ultimate goal is to have your students be able to actually ask good questions.

Implementing this technique could take significant class time if done repeatedly.  While I’d love to work on question-asking for days, I’d also like to have them do physics.  So, perhaps starting with a non-physics topic to get them warmed up, and then introducing physics ideas as time goes by would work.  I’d also like to utilize our learning management system (LMS) Canvas to move these questions refinement tasks online.

Canvas also features an excellent discussion feature.  Students can post, comment, and repost in a discussion and receive credit for it.  I can assign peer review of other students posts, and make comments on everything.  And, since it is online students can participate at home, in school, during lunch, or wherever/whenever they have an internet connection.

The way I see it

  1. Students are asked to think about and question a topic
  2. Questions are refined and discussed
  3. Hands on activities are completed to build a conceptual framework
  4. Conceptual framework is discussed and tested through further investigation
  5. Results are shared and discussed
  6. Students get Advanced on the standardized tests.

Of course, the biggest gripe students have with physics, and math for that matter, is that it seems removed from real life.  They get that momentum is related to cars moving, and forces are required to make things move sometimes, but they see through the thin veil of “real world application” hanging over most  physics problems.  The real trick is to apply the techniques above while simultaneously making the class more applicable to their lives… and simultaneously remaining sane.

*Thanks for the edu-nertia reference @clonghb

Trying new old things.

Status Quo Ante

Several years ago (I almost wrote “a couple of years” but realized it has been 7 or so…) I was at the CA Science Teacher Association conference and sat in on a talk about inquiry learning.  As a new-ish teacher I was happy to hear about less rigid lab methods being used by others.  In my credential program we were encouraged to do inquiry labs in our classes.

I liked doing them because I had a chance to see the students explore and figure things out on their own.  The students rarely liked these inquiry labs.  Even the guided inquiry labs, where I gave them a rough outline of what to do, were met with sighs.  It seemed that the students didn’t like having to think.

At the CSTA conference I was introduced to Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1971).  I bought the book and it blew my mind! Over twenty years before I started teaching, Postman and Weingartner were preaching that inquiry activities and question-asking were the keys to an education revolution.  They also lamented the static methodology of teachers: despite the rapid increase in available technologies, teachers still lectured and gave exams just as they did for the previous 50+ years.  They were griping about this before VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs, and the Internet!  How bad did I feel that I had a bazillion times the technology at my fingertips as they did and I still lectured and gave exams?  I felt horrible.

So where did this lead me?  At first I was emboldened and made my students write out questions, that I would answer, and did ONLY inquiry labs (sighs be damned!).  And while I also tried to make my kids not get stressed about state testing, I still tried to get them as prepped as possible.  Unfortunately, over the course of the year, I reverted back to some cookie-cutter, follow the direction labs, and withdrew a bit on the inquiry front.  I capitulated to my students desire to amass information in order to regurgitate it on tests, and quickly forget it.

But now I am at a new school!  And I am doing the flipped classroom!  And implementing some mastery learning methods!  And I still see the same desire from the students: just give me the information so I can memorize it… when is the test?.   Not having lectures in class has really thrown some students for a loop: how was I supposed to know that? You never taught me! …even if the content was presented in several videos, online simulations, tutorial websites, and in-class work.  And students still, on a slightly lesser scale, bemoan labs.  But why?  I remember loving labs the most in HS and College.

The Big Question

This question has been bugging me for weeks: why does it seem that given freedom to learn at their own pace, unhindered by the tyranny of a strict exam schedule, are my students still, for the most part, behaving as if I were boring them with lectures?

My gut reaction answer is that a large number of students, even those in AP classes (and maybe more so in AP), have conditioned themselves to place a higher priority on the metrics of performance than the sense of understanding that should come with learning something new.

I ran across a video clip of a Taylor Mali poem the other day and it really hit home.  The opening line: In case you hadn’t realized, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about… or believe strongly in what you’re, like, saying.  While this is intended to be half humorous, it is also half dead-on.  At least in my experience in the last few years.  Being the “smart” kids has always had an uncool stigma attached to it in the general population (despite making people laugh the guys on Big Bang Theory still have to dress as uncool as humanly possible…).  But I’ve noticed even my college-bound, top-20-in-the-class kids brushing off misunderstanding of a subject because they (luckily) did well enough on the exam to appease their parents.  And students in my general physics course getting upset because I demand they explain how to solve a problem before I give them credit.

Shouldn’t students in high school physics be the sort that crave learning?  Isn’t that why they are taking physics, and not some other elective?

I’ll ruminate on this some more and make a second post about what I want to do, and why, to attempt to reduce this problem…



100% Engagement with Admiral Check-Off

I’ve heard many an administrator talk about engagement during evaluation meetings.  Once or twice I’ve heard the term “100% engagement” thrown out there.  I’ve even been asked if that was a goal of mine for the school year.  In all honesty, no, 100% engagement is not a goal of mine.

Do I think 100% engagement is possible?  Yes.  Just not the way an administrator, or outside observer would see it.  I can see it when I’m giving an exam, most of the time.  I can see it when a fun demo, or lab is being completed.  But I don’t think I’ve ever had all of the kids completely engaged for a whole class period.  Even on minimum day schedule.  And that is what I would call 100% engagement.

So, I don’t think it is a myth.  It is just a reality that comes and goes, flashing in and out of existence, like an electron.  You can’t pin it down and hold it in place.  You can’t make it happen, because the engagement is outside of you.  It is in the students.

For this school year (my first at a new school) I decided to try out the flipped class model, and mastery learning.  I know, it’s like drinking from two fire hoses at the same time.  But I truly think it is the best way, at least in theory, to have students learn: spend time in class working through their misconceptions and building new concepts, and let them peruse course content at their liesure.  While this has actually been going quite well so far (just passed the first quarter mark), there are a few things bugging me.

  1. It is more difficult to keep a large percentage of the students “on-task” during class.  Since they might be working on 2 or 3 completely different tasks around the room it is harder to spot a student not doing their work.  And more than a couple of times I’ve had students who have completed all their assignments days early!
  2. It is getting way too easy for students to get behind.  Specifically behind on classwork, not tests/quizzes.
  3. I am occupied almost all class, often moving from group to group in a loop, answer questions and checking off assignments.

The reason these things are bugging me is that they seem to be ruining what I liked about the flipped class.  I wanted to go from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side,” but it feels more like I’ve become Admiral Check-Off (a self-coined term I come up with the other day).  If I’m not responding to a question about Problem 2 on Assignment X, I’m checking off completion of Assignment Y for another student, or opening a quiz online for another student. While I am giving students the opportunity to self-pace and master content, I do not feel that class time is being used more effectively than in a traditional class.

How does this relate to the 100% engagement stuff?  In a traditional class an observer might see all students taking notes, or working on a book assignment, or a worksheet, and the teacher meandering around prompting students to stay on task as 100% engagement.  But the teacher, in my opinion, is barely engaged in teaching.  Lecturing isn’t teaching, it’s talking.  Prompting students isn’t teaching, it’s proctoring.  But in my flipped class, where at any given time it might look like chaos, most students are doing some form of work (completing new work, catching up on video notes, taking a quiz), though not in a quiet, heads-down manner.  And I, the teacher, am 100% engaged, answering questions or assessing understanding.  And it is this very engagement on my part that can lead to problems 1) and 2) above.  I made it a goal to talk to every student about their work at least once per week.  But sometimes that talk is about the three or four assignments they haven’t completed.  And if I spend more time prompting students to stay on task, I am spending less time clarifying problems and assessing work.

What is the solution then?  I tweeted today that if engagement is a problem in class then a teacher should look at making the work more engaging, rather than getting angry at students, or simply piling on more work.  I was really preaching to myself.  I’ve been tempted to institute a punitive grading system to persuade students to stay on task… because threats always motivate teenagers, right?  I am hesitant, not because I don’t see a need for a better grading/tracking system (for which I do see a need), but because I really see a need to make class more interesting.  Yes, my conceptual physics text comes with awesome concept development worksheets, and they do help, but kids get real bored real quick of that stuff.  And if my goal is to be a “guide on the side” I need to establish what it is that I want to guide them through.  Is it concept development worksheets?  Doubtful.

Somewhere, rattling around in the back of my head, are goals like “improve science literacy,” and “engage students in discussions on misconceptions,” which have gone ignored so far this year.  Perhaps the solution to my problems with my current flipped class/mastery model are those very things I’ve put off doing?