Friday, April 22, 2011

The Inverted Classroom

Robert Talbot
Casting Out Nines
People are talking about it here, and here. This is Robert Talbot, the first person I heard about it from. Here are some of his other articles. Let me throw out a few thoughts and attempt to nail down what I think. ("essay" from Fr. "Essayer", to try.) I'd love to hear what all of y'all have to say, too.

Essentially, Talbot (a university math professor) is reversing the order of his teaching.  He makes a video of his lecture which students are required to watch before class. Class time is then used for doing "homework" and practice, etc.  The theory is that lecture is very one-directional anyway (basically a video) and the students don't do well in lectures, so put the video online and have the kids do that portion of the class themselves. They can rewind, fast forward, review, whatever.  Then class time is reserved for face-to-face tutoring, direct and targeted instruction. Differentiated, if you will.

I'm ambivalent about this for high school. It sounds great in theory but so many great educational theories only work with college students or other adults who have different time pressures and levels of responsibility from the ones in front of me.

Some thoughts that occur to me are

Can 9th grade students learn this way? I'm not convinced. I think education at this level is more than just watching videos (and certainly NOT a lecture) and I'm not sure that the limited amount of time in the classroom the next day will suffice for re-teaching missed concepts or for correcting misunderstandings ... but they can watch the video over and over again, stop it and think. Listen to it again.  There are misunderstandings now and lots of time that homework would have gone much more smoothly with me to help. ("but my father said THIS was the way to do it.")

Really?  Students teach themselves? What am I here for? To teach the students.  They'll get more personalized attention the next day when you are working through the homework with them.

What about time? The college professors who have tried this are dealing with people who come to class every other day, people who have much more control over their lives, who can drive. I remember my college schedule: three to fours hours of class a day and then lots of free time to do this kind of thing. The expectation was one hour in class for every two hours outside of class. I can't see high school students ever fitting this pattern. When my son learned to drive, it immediately freed up a tremendous amount of time for him and for us. That's one huge difference - the amount of "loose time" and non-structured time. Time they can use to go to Office Hours. Our kids aren't allowed to come during free time, can't stay in the building without a teacher, can't meet at off times. But shouldn't they be developing that sense of responsibility? It's simple to require homework and any parent who won't support that shouldn't be surprised if the kid doesn't learn. We don't even allow them to go to Subway for lunch. that's my reality.

I can see a parent getting really annoyed that his daughter needs to use the living room TV every night for 45 minutes per class. I can also see that daughter being embarrassed to ask or simply giving in to the family's "American Idol" viewing habit. See previous comment.

My computer ate my homework.
The technological side bothers me too. Too many possible home configurations, IT issues. I had one set of parents tell me that they couldn't get their son to do a PowerPoint (I'd have accepted Keynote or Google apps, too) because their computer had a problem. For two months. True or not, it was out of my control - that kid would have had no instruction for two months. That kid had plenty of time to do the assignment, had plenty of resources with which to do it (town library, after-school, during class).  What he lacked was the desire. This will clarify matters.  Watch the video or fail.

An issue here in Vermont that the rest of the world hasn't had to deal with for a while is lack of broadband; probably a third of my students can't even get cellphone access at home. Poverty dictates that the school can't require certain things.  Require it and make it work. If there is a student who legitimately cannot, then deal with that issue at that point. Most complaints of this type are bogus. The real-world isn't stopping to wait. Lend him a computer, use a DVD, make a vidcast for the iPod the kid is carrying.

If they don't get the video done, what happens? I assume you'd let them watch it during class? What about the homework then? Does that kid get to re-invert the classroom because he simply won't cooperate? No. The classroom stays inverted.  If he refuses to do his assigned work, then that is the same as refusing to do homework.  If he refuses, he won't learn. If he doesn't learn, he'll fail. That seems a little draconian, but the students will rise to the level of your expectations.

Or not. The parents will bitch, the principal will be called and I'll be told to change. A lawsuit will be threatened. Hell, they do that anyway. Remember that kid and the PowerPoint? Give him some more time, during class, to get the work done.  That's the whole point of this - class time should be for working with a student, not talking at him.

What if YOU don't get the video done?  Well, shit.  You'd better prepare at least two weeks in advance, or just do the whole course over this coming summer.  No more of your "I've been doing this for years, let's just wing it today" bullshit.

Will students who play a sport or have another obligation get progressively farther behind? I can see them doing math problems on the bus (or on the bleachers while they wait for the JV game to finish) but not being able to do much more than placidly listen to a DVD (or podcast). Learning something new from scratch needs focused attention. Doing homework needs focused attention, too.  Would you rather they zoned out while listening to you in class, or zoned out while listening to you on their computer?  It might give them more responsibility because they know they have to get it done.  Slacking off has no upside. And you can help them with the more important part of learning, the reinforcement.

New isn't always better. Old isn't always better, either.

Crap. What about the time needed? In any recording endeavor, the time to create is at least four - six times the running time. You plan, record, re-record, mix, edit, review.  In the middle of October, that pile of whatever that needs grading is not going to go away and you've got videos to make and these videos can't wait. You don't have the "research" time that Talbot does. He has 3 hours of class a day, you have 6. He has lot more free time and "office hours" than you do. Once created, they stay created.  Sure, you can be replaced next year with a much cheaper TFA teacher and we'll still show your videos, but that's the risk we all take. Did I mention that all of your work is now the property of the school, that you cannot resell it or even give it away for free? Take it off YouTube. It legally belongs to the district because you created it on school time. Thanks for your effort. Now we can give a teacher 60 kids per class and a couple of cheap aides because all the learning has been done by video. Any non-learning will still be your fault. Aren't you thrilled?

Well.  It was a nice discussion.

I think that I will take the safe route this year and wait for other people who have met AYP to do the research. In the meantime, I'll put a few videos online, increase the use of the Moodle, but keep the traditional format for now.
You can't have "improvement"
if you haven't got any data.

Changing seems too much of a crapshoot to me at this point. The most important piece to all this, and one that I'm afraid will be overlooked by almost everyone, is data. I haven't seen anything other than Talbot's anecdotal information to say this works at the high school level.  I am not willing to go through the tremendous amount of time and effort required to change over without something more than pleasant stories.

We have enough trouble in this country with educational fads. An option that MIGHT work? I have seen lots of stupendous, wonderful, groundbreaking ideas come roaring in like lions and then go slinking out embarrassed like a wet toy poodle. The money spent in the meantime is obscene.

Data Questions:
Better bone up.
  1. What is your baseline? Have you got someway to measure the effectiveness of the current system before you throw it away?
  2. What kind of data will convince you that this works - or doesn't?  You must develop some way to tell if this was effective or if the teacher was effective, or both, or neither.  If you can figure that out, you can sell the idea to New York.
  3. When will you decide? You have to nail this point down or run the risk of picking your goalposts to suit a preconceived notion.
  4. Is this tent therapy?* Are the gains simply a matter of improved attention on the teacher's part, working harder, being better because you're paying attention for the first time in a while? Is the different format making a difference or is it simply that you've made a change?  Will these gains diminish next year when the kids get used to the new method? If this goes well, will you be able to prove it?
  5. Control group? Can students transfer to another class if they really don't like it? How flexible is your school? If you truly want to make this a controlled experiment - and you should - you should do it with only half of your classes and refuse to let the kids switch around.
These questions need to be answered FIRST or you are committing Egregious Research Error #1.  There's been enough of THAT already. Now for the important questions:
  1. Will your principal back you up? College professor Talbot has a great deal of professional freedom. If this hits a stubborn kid or obnoxious parent in October, how much influence will be enough to shut this down? (Is 'obnoxious parent' an oxymoron or a regular moron?)
  2. Do you have tenure? Is your union willing to stand by you? Do you still have a union?
  3. Do you need this job? If the answer is "Yes." then you need to consider whether to take this chance. I know what the current method does. 
  4. Do you have the resources to pull this off? Technology, website, bandwidth. Since you're going to be doing some of this from home, how's your home computer?
  5. Do you have the time? Better start recording the lessons now.
* Tent therapy was a short-lived psychological treatment fad from early twentieth century. Patients who were brought outside and placed in tents on the lawn of the insane asylum showed improvement. In reality, the improvement came not from the tents or the fresh air but from the increased attention the staff was giving to the patients. As soon as routine settled in, the improvements disappeared.

1 comment:

  1. These people who think I do nothing but talk at kids for an hour, and somehow this flipping will be better, I ask this:

    Currently, you think I teach for an hour and assign half an hour of homework. If I flip the class, they're now watching an hour of video at home--do you support that?
    What? The video shouldn't be an hour long, but only 10-15 minutes? What do you think *I* do when my instruction goes beyond 10-15 minutes in class?