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Flipping my classroom before it was even a thing

By Sam Di Sano on 30 May 2018NSWstaffroomFlipped learningInnovationUKstaffroom

I was recently reminded of the gulf between how I was taught at school, which had an enormous influence on how I began to teach and how young people learn today. Many of my teachers walked into class with nothing more than a textbook and a piece of chalk (needless to say I am going back a bit). I can recall at least two of my teachers were the authors of the texts we used, and along with a number of other subjects, we were effectively taught the entire course from our texts.

If it’s not in there, it didn’t happen

I left school believing a throw-away line from my Ancient History teacher, that if it wasn’t in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, then it didn’t happen. I recall my school bag was weighed down by similar authoritative tomes - Herodotus’ Histories taught us Egypt and the Persian Wars; for the Julio-Claudians, we looked no further than Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars; Cary and Scullard taught us The History of Rome, Bury and Meiggs, The History of Greece; Germany was left up to Craig; Bill Pender taught us everything we needed to know in Mathematics and so on.

In my early years of teaching I adopted this same approach, sauntering into class, dog-eared and highlighter-soaked copy of Thucydides under my wing and box of chalk in the other hand. I also had a set of OHP pens, for I was very fortunate to teach in one of few classrooms that housed a high tech overhead projector.

That approach served me well back then and it was a long time before I began to question that source as being the complete course. Eventually, questions about reliability, usefulness, bias and context housed within a new syllabus made me reconsider my approach.

The positive of course was that my command and mastery of the content in the courses I taught was second-to-none and my students were the beneficiaries, but, as greater emphasis in History and the humanities was made of the writing process and addressing a rubric, it was clear a different pedagogical approach was needed. It became clear that while these bright lads I taught had an edge with their knowledge and understanding, it was not transferring into results because they could not write.

The MASH equivalent

At a professional development workshop I was recently running, I quipped that in those early years I was always struggling to finish the course as I spent so long teaching content - akin to the TV series MASH which lasted 11 seasons even though the Korean War lasted only three years.

I desperately needed to make time in my lessons to teach my students how to write. I realised I needed to spend less time teaching the content and build in to my programming the process of writing good history - the elements of essay writing; structuring and scaffolding paragraphs, incorporating evidence, drawing conclusions. These were bright boys I was teaching so I convinced myself they could learn the content themselves, albeit with some direction, and bring their questions to class, while we workshopped and analysed the elements of a good response.

What a flip I was, even back then

I realised much later that in fact I had decided to flip my lessons, long before flipped learning became a thing. So - what did I do and did it work?

In conversation with my Head of Faculty during a yearly review, I broached the idea of turning my classroom on its head. Firstly, I realised I had to break the nexus between lesson time and teaching content; secondly, I looked at the skills I thought my students were deficient in and considered some teaching strategies to counter that; finally I had to convince my students they were going to be better off... I also had to convince my Head of Faculty.

The flipped learning movement

Move forward the better part of a decade and the flip learning movement has gained ground more in the US, leading to the adoption of an Americanism for the changing role of the teacher in class from “sage on stage” to “guide on the side” - yep only in America. Nonetheless, the movement has gained traction with teachers delivering instructional content offline via video they have either produced or procured, leaving lesson time for valuable skill development and application, utilising the facilitation of the teacher and collaboration with peers, another valuable offshoot.

Interest in flip learning has gone hand in hand with the adoption of the FOUR Cs in the American curriculum - critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. An explicit student-centred flipped model is now viewed by many as the gateway to deeper learning as students can dictate the path, place, time and pace of their own learning as well as generating improved results and a deeper engagement and understanding.

A flipped environment in today’s society is closer than perhaps we have ever been to having teachers teach the way students learn.

Here in Australia, though there is little empirical data, a recent study into flipped learning among three high school mathematics classrooms in Tasmania and Victoria shows that students were overwhelmingly positive about the approach and found benefits working at their own pace and taking charge of their learning.

Don’t throw out your textbooks just yet

I wouldn’t advocate throwing out those dog-eared textbooks just yet, but nor would I suggest relying on them at the expense of other resources. Students today are saturated by online information; they can draw content and data from many more resources than I was ever able to when in their shoes. A blended approach of using some resources procured online and viewed outside the classroom is at the heart of this exciting and liberating paradigm shift in pedagogy, allowing teachers to finally teach to their students’ needs.

This is something that we are passionate about, so if you’re interested in teaching the way students learn get in touch and let us take out all the hard work of flipping your classroom.

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