August 27, 2012

Facilitating Flipped Classrooms for Primary, Secondary and College Classrooms

There is nothing like a trip to remind us that life’s journey’s are our only real destinations.  Whether you ascribe such wisdom to Chinese Proverbs or “One Tree Hill”, the wisdom in recognizing that the process is more important than the product is universal and ageless.

I have spent the last couple of weeks traveling. I have driven through the Badlands of South Dakota and Oregon. I have spent time with family and friends and felt the longing for things more familiar. I have been surprised, delighted, frustrated and aggravated. I’ve seen waterfalls in state after state and marveled at the wonders of Yellowstone. Above all, I have learned.  I’ve learned, though nobody set out to teach me.  I’ve grown because it is my instinct to grow and learn just as it is in the inherent nature of every human being.  All that travel, all that discovery and all that learning has motivated me to re-energize my exploration of the flipped classroom, and given me context to better frame the discussion.

If you’re a follower of this blog you’ll know that I wrote about flipped classrooms a few weeks ago.  There I described the basics and discussed the fact that fundamentally this is simply the application of principles of cognitive theory and Constructivism.  But today, let’s put all the academia and theory – all the ideology aside and just think about the relevance of ‘How’ students learn in various contexts.

One way to describe different approaches to learning is to paint an oppositional picture of instruction as either didactic (any approach where the learner gets information passively and is expected to consume it.)  In the didactic approach teachers create or provide content that is theoretically full of learning goodness and then position it in the path of the learners – expecting it to be well consumed.  If we look at the opposite end of this bi-polar visualization we’ll find the experiential options. Discovery learning, problem-based learning and so on.  Using these approaches the teacher is expected to provide a framework, a set of challenges that will guide the student toward appropriate knowledge, but to do so without providing the actual content to the learners.  In the most powerful examples of this ilk, the students become the teachers. They are challenged to solve a problem or answer a question and the mechanism for demonstration of their results becomes the learner’s method of ‘educating’ the teacher.  Virtually everyone who has ever taught understands intrinsically that there is no more powerful way to learn something than to ‘teach’ that thing.

Another way to describe this approach is that teachers are the one’s learning the most in most classrooms, because they are forced to both learn and make use of the knowledge that they describe and discuss in their classrooms.  The notion of the flipped classroom is that if learners are the ones unearthing and making use of the information and ideas – manipulating, synthesizing and evaluating the content – then the students will gain knowledge in a deeper, more lasting way.  The critical difference is that by manipulating and creating based on new knowledge we are far more likely to retain the learned information, and to retain it for a long time.

It should be noted that regardless of my enthusiasm, there are legitimate criticisms of this method (and of any number of other constructivist approaches regardless of the name.)  Most of these criticisms boil down to this simple concept – learners who don’t have any guidance, will often get frustrated by this approach. I’m sure those vehement critics out there will say I’ve over-simplified that, but really that is the core of the dispute – (I’m deliberately ignoring the ‘lacks empirical evidence’ thread here because you can’t realistically measure efficacy due to illusions on both sides of the coin. Empirical data suggesting drill and kill methods are effective only validly measures short term outcomes, and as corporate employers have made clear – the status quo approach isn’t delivering learners able to thrive and innovate.)

With more than a century to consider the implications since John Dewey’s “Child and the Curriculum” – and a reasonable body of qualitative evidence as well as growing evidence in educational psychology and cognitive science, it’s growing ever clearer that the behaviorist approaches of the last century are not effective for all students, and worse are clearly both disenfranchising students and potentially creating an environment that is toxic to creativity.  Let’s consider for example the recent study from Haddon & Lytton:PRIMARY EDUCATION AND DIVERGENT THINKING ABILITIES—FOUR YEARS ON (F. A. HADDON & H. LYTTON). In this follow up and the original study Haddon & Lytton explore divergent thinking (sort of the educational psychologist’s way to suss out creative potential.) In the original study the authors theorized that students exposed to informal instructional approaches (like the flipped classrooms, discover and problem based learning environments) would perform better on divergent thinking tests (be more creative.) You see earlier tests had already revealed that learners in traditional classrooms would get dramatically less creative over time. Yup – not kidding at all, and not even news, we’ve known for a while that students in traditional classrooms get less creative the older that they get. The first of these studies showed a correlation between the didactic / traditional approach to learning and the decline in creativity. The follow up study showed that even if the students left the non-traditional classroom to go to another – more formal learning environment – they still retained higher levels of creativity four years later.

So why should we care if learners could be more creative? Because now more than ever, creative problem solving, invention, discovery and tons of other skills are critical needs in the modern workplace. The current factory model of education is not only horrific in it’s open willingness to dismiss and disenfranchise learners who do not fit the mold for ‘favored’ skills, it’s also not at all useful in a post-industrial world. It’s also the right moment to implement discovery, problem based, and other Constructivist educational approaches because for the first time ever, we’ve reached a perfect storm of technologies that can easily and affordably support the needs of Constructivist learning environments.

To effectively meet the needs of the Flipped Classroom, you need to provide 1. An intellectual challenge, 2. Guidance (not instruction, guidance), 3. A consistent environment that supports both successful discovery and mistake-making and 4. Record-keeping and reporting.

Modern technologies that help flip the classroom can help with two of the four elements above. Teachers can share some guidance through making available a wealth of information. This can range from pre-recorded short videos created by both the teacher and various generations of learners. They can include WebQuests and similar kinds of active explorations of information – so long as there is some reasonable effort to ensure that the student has guidance along the way. This bit is tricky. It would be easy to infer that guidance should always value the shortest path to the objectives (note that we’re not focusing on content here, we’re looking to help the student meet core objectives.) Making mistakes, making less than perfect guesses can be a very effective way to approach this step. But you also want to ensure that the learner values and discovers those things that help them fulfill the core objectives. The indication is that it might take repetition, experimentation and practice to really effectively master the objectives.

The final element, record keeping, is also a good opportunity for today’s technologies to serve the needs of the Flipped Classroom. Learners are able to document the processes that they undergo by reporting those processes in short videos. I’m very convinced that in both the case of documenting and reporting, and in the case of providing indirect guidance, Adobe Presenter 8 Video Creator is an ideal tool to meet the instructional needs of the space.

Video Quests
You don’t have to look at any of the above research or reasoning to see the advantages this new technology brings you. Here’s what it allows you or your students to do;

  • Describe something on webcam
  • Demonstrate something with a screencast
  • Explain concepts using a slide deck
  • Instantly package, brand and deploy your video
  • The software takes on all the complicated parts, and leaves you and your learners to simply create. The huge advantage is that it promotes media literacy, promotes divergent thinking and thus creativity, creative problem solving etc. Used in the context of Constructivism it provides teachers and students a tool to communicate, guide, share and document their mutual discoveries.

    Because the software is simple enough for even young children, the opportunities are equal regardless of the learner’s age. The benefits are clearly present as divergent thinking is a positive quality in tomorrow’s work place and because studies have shown it continues to evolve and grow (or generally diminish) in learners of all ages.

    Here’s a simple challenge to those of you who teach. Try this out not with a giant revolution, but with a simple experiment. Change one learner assignment from a traditional one, to one that requires the learners to solve some problem – and use Adobe Presenter 8 Video Creator to document their results. Then share with us here the outcomes. We’d all love to know how you did it, whether it worked and if you’re likely to try it again.

    Here’s the download link for free trials of the software.

    Posted by Allen Partridge2:38 AM
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