Home Why and How How I Started Flipping

How I Started Flipping

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My flipping journey began in 1994, when I was a high-school junior in Maine. Two friends and I got an after-school/summer job at a nearby Sylvania manufacturing plant, which produced light bulb filaments by winding together coiled wires with sewing machine-like contraptions. [This documentary shows them in action for a few seconds.] Our assignment was to convert printed manuals into multimedia presentations for more effective employee training. Operator errors can cost many hours and dollars of lost productivity, and these high-speed spinning machines can snag clothing, cut off fingers, or worse.

We recorded short videos of employees repairing the machines, loading new wire coils, and other tasks. Then we compiled the videos in a user-friendly application (does anybody remember Claris FileMaker Pro?) with some diagrams and text. New hires and re-assigned employees had to complete our training program and apply their understanding on the machine with an authentic skill assessment.

Flash forward two decades to a suburban Massachusetts middle school in May 2013. I teach Social Studies for half of the school’s 8th grade; my content partner Jean teaches the other half, and we both feel frustrated. We had tried several really cool teaching experiences that year: a Constitution Convention role-play, a poetry-inspired “Declaration Slam,” independent research about Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Some students had flourished, but too many others had not; worst of all, we received some meticulous but inaccurate student projects and presentations. In the last weeks of the school year, we hoped to end with a bang: an immersive Civil War unit with some mini-projects, games, and interactive simulations. How could we avoid the same problems as before? How could we ensure that students had essential knowledge (like the names and results of key battles) before doing the deeper “fun stuff” (like writing a soldier’s letter home after the battle)?

I wish I could tell you that I recalled my high school job experience:  We should produce video lessons that teach the essentials, so kids can learn or re-learn as many times as needed. Then they could move on to apply the knowledge in higher-order tasks when ready … just like the filament machine operators at the Sylvania factory! But no, I was not that clever. I did not make that connection until a few weeks later in July, while reading Flip Your Classroom at my content partner’s suggestion. Jean heard it mentioned at a PD session in June, after we had already muddled through the Civil War unit with mixed results.

In September 2013, we took the plunge and flipped all our classes all at once. However, I must admit that we started with a series of mistakes. The first videos I produced were brain-numbingly dull voiceover Powerpoint slideshows with cutesy transitions and at least 100 words on each screen. [I present Exhibit A for the prosecution.] Bergmann and Sams encouraged a system of accountability for student viewing and learning, but I hate the clunky multiple-choice quizzes we assigned in the first few months; in midwinter we switched to brief open-response assessments. Furthermore, we were unprepared for the speed with which many students could zoom through the class activities. That is not the worst problem to have, but still required some serious re-adjustment.

Despite all that, my first flipping year went pretty well. I conferenced with every child at least once in September, and many times afterward. Struggling students had fewer excuses and more successes. It certainly felt better to me, but feelings are not data. My year-end student survey gave the objective evidence I needed. Nobody reported that flipping was worse than a traditional class system!

Figure 1.  Graphed results from a survey of 82 students in a flipped eighth-grade social studies class, June 2016.

If I could start over, I would do two things differently, in addition to the assessment change mentioned above:

  1. Students must be taught how to learn from a video (just like the lightbulb plant employees in 1994 needed direct instruction to use a computer mouse!). In our first flipping year, I assumed the “YouTube generation” was primed for video-based learning, but found that actually these kids watch online videos for entertainment and occasional practical learning, not for abstract or factual information. In my basement green screen “studio” I made this short video which I still assign to students every September to teach good habits for flipped learning. (If you like this video, then you can use it too!)
  2. I have also learned to be honest with students and families about making the flip. Back at the factory, some employees complained about the video trainer. “Why can’t we just read the regular manuals?” My friends and I (and our adult boss) had to show and explain what a multimedia presentation could provide. Spending just one or two early class periods of discussion and demonstration about the benefits of video lessons can prevent wasted time resulting from trepidation and/or confusion later on.

Here is one thing I would NOT change: flip with a teaching partner. Collaboration helped my teenage self so much with the factory project, and working with my content partner made this teaching process much less lonely and scary. If you possibly can, grab a colleague to join you on the journey!

When we first started flipping, I braced for impact from parent complaints, student mutiny, support-staff confusion, technological collapse, administrator veto, or another unforeseen force … but we have had more than 720 days without a major workplace accident! The flip has been a gift that keeps on giving, and I hope for many more “lightbulb” moments ahead.

REFERENCES

Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

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Andrew Swan

Andrew Swan teaches middle school, currently 8th-grade US History / Government, at Bigelow Middle School in Newton Massachusetts. Previously he has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English, ancient history, and geography in Maine and Massachusetts.

Andrew has been flipping his instruction, with the collaboration and support of his intrepid content partner [not pictured], since 2012.

His daughter and son are in middle and high school, and he has a wonderful wife who indulges his blogging, tweeting, & other behaviors.

Reach Andrew on Twitter: @flipping_A_tchr

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