‘Flipped classrooms’ in North Texas turn traditional teaching on its head
Like most teachers, Cristi Derow and Jennifer Bradley have spent most of their careers giving classroom lectures to students who sat passively in their seats.
The Lewisville school district teachers were keenly aware that the hours they spent preparing lessons were wasted on many students.
“We thought we were making them interesting,” said Derow, who co-teaches history classes with Bradley. “But we were losing half the class. They were looking at us. But they weren’t listening.”
So these teachers at Forestwood Middle School in Flower Mound did something radical.
“We’ve completely done away with our lectures,” Derow said.
And homework assignments “are all done in class,” Bradley said.
Derow and Bradley are part of a growing number of teachers who have embraced the “flipped classroom” method of instruction that’s turning the traditional teaching model on its head at schools in North Texas and throughout the county.
With the flipped concept, a student’s typical homework assignment is to watch recorded lectures on their computers or smartphones.
They walk into class ready to discuss the topic, collaborate with other students and work on assignments based on what they learned from the videos.
Freed from lecturing, teachers say they can use class time to delve deeper into the subject, focus on difficult concepts and work individually with students.
“Now [students] are actively engaged,” said Derow of the shift she’s seen from passive listeners to active participants in her flipped classes over the past year.
Bradley has seen a 15-20 percent increase in test scores.
“The kids have better comprehension of the material,” she said.
Dallas school district officials say the flipped concept hasn’t been adopted as a district-wide initiative, but say some teachers are incorporating aspects of this technique on their own.
That’s how it started as a grass-roots effort a couple of years ago in the Allen school district.
After a few “trailblazing teachers” began flipping their classrooms, the concept “started spreading on its own,” said Lisa Casto, director of curriculum and staff development. “It was not top-down. We just allowed it to grow.”
Now about 50 high school teachers are beginning to use or have fully implemented the flipped model. It’s starting to catch on in the lower grades, too.
When Allen ISD hosted a regional conference in July on the flipped classroom, it drew 330 teachers and administrators from 10 North Texas school districts.
Casto believes this “innovative instructional strategy” is catching on because it fosters a higher level of learning that is needed for the 21st century.
As students shift from a passive to active role, they acquire critical thinking skills, learn to collaborate and become independent learners.
“This lines up with the skills they will need,” Casto said.
But that shift can be daunting for students.
In a pre-AP American history class last week, Derow and Bradley’s students — sitting at tables of four — were studying the Civil War period.
After watching videos at home, they arrived in class ready to answer questions from the teachers that probed their understanding of the turbulent time in American history.
Then students were given a challenging written assignment: to justify slavery from the viewpoint of a plantation owner in the antebellum South.
The teachers knew it was a difficult task, and some students balked at first.
But it was a way to determine if the students had an in-depth understanding of the conflicts that led to the outbreak of violence.
Instead of doing homework assignments at home alone, now students are “working together, talking about it,” Bradley said. “If they don’t agree on an answer, they debate it and have to justify their answers. It’s a higher level of learning.”
Her students give the flipped classroom high marks.
Sarah Lee, 13, watches the 30-minute videos on a home computer. She likes the ability to rewind the tapes if she doesn’t understand a concept.
The eighth-grade student also likes being able to take breaks and can watch the lessons on her own schedule. “I can watch the videos over two or three days,” she said.
Classmate Dawson Depperschmidt, 13, said she sometimes watches the video lectures on her iPhone at soccer games.
She likes learning the lessons before she goes to school and thinks the time she spends in the classroom is more productive.
“It gives us more time to learn at school,” Dawson said. “You get more in-depth in class.”
Schools are adapting this model to fit their needs.
At Coppell Middle School North, the flipped classroom is one part of a broader initiative to engage students and enrich learning. It’s being phased in this year in all three grades.
The strategy gives teachers more time in class for one-on-one instruction in the classroom, principal Leanne Dorhout said.
“Instead of sending students home with homework, we want immediate feedback while the student is doing the work,” she said.
And when students are watching the videos at home, they can post comments or questions on a secure social networking site.
This feedback helps teachers know what concepts need reinforcing and helps them structure their classes, Dorhout said.
Because this is a relatively new innovation, there have been no long-term studies on its effectiveness, said Carol Wickstrom, an associate education professor at the University of North Texas.
However, she said the Detroit schools have seen positive results.
“Students were doing much better with their work and their attendance had improved because they were engaged in their learning,” Wickstrom said.
She cautions that the flipped classroom, like any new technique, requires adequate training for teachers and the support of administrators.
And, since technology is a critical component of the flipped classroom, schools must ensure access to computers for students who don’t have them at home.
Wickstrom said many schools have computer labs that they open early in the morning or after the final bell rings in the afternoon.
And, she adds, schools using the flipped classroom might want to ask businesses or public libraries to provide computer access.
“It could be a powerful way to create that school-community bond working for the benefit of the students,” she said.
Bradley, like many teachers who are flipping their classes, loves this approach and wouldn’t want to return to the old style of teaching.
But, she admits, there’s one thing she misses about lecturing in front of a room full of students.
“I don’t get to see the reaction on their faces when they hear something interesting,” she said.