Last week, my Y13s were about to go into a week of exams, so we were going to miss some lessons. Time is precious, so we looked ahead to the material to come (Newton’s law of gravitation and circular motion) and I suggested the students used Khan Academy videos and the text book to get ahead. No big deal; just a routine thing we do from time to time. The next day, I was taken aback by a triumphant ‘take-down’ of Khan by Tom Bennett in his blog The Laugh of Khan: if this is the future, then classrooms really are fl*pped. As usual, it is a good, witty read – and I do know where he is coming from; it is a reaction to the hype and the overblown claims that ‘flipping’ is the new revolution. No one idea is ever the new revolution. But it got me thinking… when put in perspective, neither of these positions seems justified or especially helpful. Firstly, as Eric Mazur pointed out at the recent SSAT conference, flipping has existed since we had books. Secondly, the various methods of flipping are extremely powerful learning devices that teachers can weave into a normal flow of lessons.
Back to the future: 1987
My first ever job was teaching Physics at Winstanley College in Wigan. Home of ‘chips and pea-wet’, ‘Latics’, The Orwell and The Verve. The Physics department had developed a fabulous method for teaching that may well have been ahead of its time. I’ve checked on their website and they still use it now.
It may not come over from the prospectus blurb here but it was a radical approach. Basically, the entire course was broken down into units (there were 42 exactly in 1987, which pleased Hitch-Hiker’s Guide fans). Each unit came with a Study Guide; it directed students to read certain pages from certain books, to refer to specific diagrams, learn particular definitions and equations and then to practice some questions BEFORE THE LESSON. That was the key. Students turned up to lessons with the notes already in their folders. Obviously it took time to perfect, building slowly over Y12, but by Y13, they were supremely good at it; it was automatic. Lessons were fantastic because all of our time was spent on questions, discussions, teasing out misconceptions, doing practical work and running demonstrations. We could zip through concepts where the pre-learning had been more straight-forward and cut to the chase with more difficult issues. If I’d known how fabulous this system was at the time, I’d have kept a full set of all 42 guides… but I left empty handed! But this was ‘flipping’ in action; the students took responsibility for pre-learning the material prior to engaging with the teacher and each other.
With this in mind, the Khan Academy videos and the various alternatives like http://www.my-GCSEscience.com are just a development from the 42 study guides. When woven into a scheme of learning, in a planned or spontaneous manner, these videos can help students to engage with a topic. It isn’t meant to be a substitute for the teacher or be more effective than an interactive lesson – it is what it is: a video of someone explaining something. The advantage is that students can rewind, pause and fast-forward to suit themselves. Here are two on the same Physics topic. First, my-GCSEscience:
And the same topic from Khan Academy
The Khan version is pitched at higher level and covers more material. There are now all kinds of tech tools for people to make their own screencasts and so on. Students who watch these videos can go to their lessons full of ideas, questions and some uncertainties all of which can be the starting point of the lesson. In conjunction with other resources, they can use the videos to help reinforce prior learning, make notes, or simply get a different perspective. Lots of students like them – but they don’t constitute a revolution.
Having seen the amazing Eric Mazur and his Learning Catalytics site in action I have since found this great website run by one of his researchers Julie Schell :
This is full of interesting ideas for ‘flipping’ which mostly hinge around the related concept of ‘peer instruction’. I think this is important. This is a two-stage process. 1) Students prepare for lessons by engaging with material in advance from books and online sources (yes, books too!!) and 2) students then interact with each other during lessons or lectures in a structured way so that their learning is enhanced. The teacher’s role is to guide this process, to challenge, correct, probe.. but the students are driving it; at least they are driving it to a greater extent than if the teacher is the source of the knowledge and all the answers.
I think there is huge potential for using these videos in this context – to help students prepare for lessons or to consolidate learning afterward. They never replace lessons; they make lessons more sharply focused on the learning that the students still need to do. Referring to the clouds in my Learning Arcs post, I think that ‘flipping’ videos can support the processing phase very effectively, using homework time for students to explore the learning that is still to be fully landed later on.
But of course, let’s keep it in perspective. No-one is making anyone do this. Will it become a growing trend? Yes that is likely, because students will find them useful. Could you teach yourself a whole GCSE through this method? Possible, but less likely. Is it a revolution? No; it is just an enhancement on what we were doing in Wigan 25 years ago… and what teachers have been doing for centuries: getting students to take responsibility for their own learning.