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Flipping Your Science Classroom

"Excellent teaching cannot be reduced to one technique; excellent teaching comes from the dedication, heart, instructional skill, and passion of the teacher."

“Don’t be the sage on the stage. Be the guide on the side.” -Dr. Eric Mazur

Blended learning is an educational approach in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some student control over the time and/or pace of learning. As in many human endeavors, granting people some autonomy within a structured context leads to better outcomes. One of the best attributes of a blended learning model is that it intentionally shifts control of instruction to the learner, allowing them to control the pace of instruction and providing continual and instant opportunity to review just-taught concepts. This frees up class time to allow teachers to devote more in-class time to higher cognitive activities.

“Flipping” your classroom instruction is one of the most common types of blended learning. One of the impacts of COVID-19 is that the number of environmental science classrooms that flipped during the 2020 - 21 academic year has grown far beyond what we observed in prior years, and for a number of good reasons. Students need their teachers present to diagnose their struggles and coach them through them. Students need their teachers present in the moment to guide them to answers for questions. They need their teacher to facilitate small group conversations, and to provide their students opportunities to teach each other. Students don’t need their teachers present as they listen to a lecture or review content. Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for flipping your classroom has been articulated in a video by Harvard University Professor Dr. Eric Mazur.

Facilitated argument is one of the most effective instructional strategies. Case studies provide students an opportunity to apply their recently-gained knowledge to a new context. Pose a question from the case study to your students. Then instruct them to “Find someone who has a different answer and try to convince them you are correct.” Then observe as the best arguments, based upon the merits of their evidence and reasoning, win. As students argue, they are explaining their position to one another, and both parties are learning deeply. The explainer performs deep intellectual work to formulate and articulate either position, and the listener learns because the explanations they are provided are exceptionally well-suited for them. Students who have come to a recent understanding of a challenging concept are often best able to explain it, because they still intimately understand the difficulties of a beginning learner of the concept.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Today, there are engaging video lectures available that teach the content to your students (Ex: Jordan Smedes for AP Environmental Science) that go far beyond what I would expect a typical classroom teacher to have the time, knowledge, equipment, or expertise to produce. Use what’s already available.

It’s fairly simple. Assign video content aligned with the curriculum for students to watch, and then spend much more class time putting what students learned from the video into practice. This might be facilitating discussion, investigating scientific phenomena, guiding students through a hands-on activity, exploring a case study, guiding students as they tackle writing prompts, performing a demonstration coupled with a Q & A session, or utilizing one of many other possibilities from your instructional toolbox. Flipping your classroom can provide more opportunities to differentiate instruction and provide personalized learning experiences.

The most common mistake self-reported by teachers new to the flipped classroom model is that they shift too much of the instructional responsibility to students without supervision by failing to check for understanding at the beginning of the following class, and not setting aside in-class time to discuss and reinforce what was just learned. Human nature leads people, including teachers, to avoid accountability. This can result in teachers thinking that if they posted a video online they can hold students accountable for the content without holding themselves accountable for making sure it was received. This is an almost certain recipe for failure in the flipped classroom model of instruction. Some teachers address this shortcoming by utilizing EdPuzzle or another platform so they can track student views and formatively assess their understanding of low-level content.

The next most common pitfall is assigning more than 30 minutes of video time per night. The science teachers I know who have demonstrated outstanding success with the flipped classroom model report that they usually assign 1 - 2 videos per night, each about 10 minutes in length, 3 - 5 nights a week. They also keep all homework assignments to less than 30 minutes total each day. There are exceptions, but that is the general rule.

There is no need to be a dogmatic purist. When the “flipped” classroom became all the rage in 2011, the idea was that teachers would assign the videos for homework and invest class time in guided practice, collaboration and higher-order thinking. But it doesn’t have to be inflexible, and changing the routine from time to time keeps learning fresh and exciting.

It’s a good practice for teachers to occasionally allow students to watch video content during class time. Doing so enables teachers to monitor student viewing and answer questions not addressed in the video, and allows students to access the content knowledge of a master teacher and allows students to stop, review, and control the pace of their learning. This strategy can be used to give the students a break. It’s also a great sub plan. At the end of the day, use your professional autonomy to do what actually works for your students in your context at that moment in time.

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