The “Retro-Classroom Model” or Why “Flipped Classroom” is a Silly Term

In the olden days you’d leave work at lunchtime, rush down to the bank and stand in a queue to withdraw some cash, then you’d rush back to work in time for period 5. Now you use your lunchtime productively or relax and enjoy staffroom conversation and instead, stop at the ATM on the way home. You don’t call it ‘flipped banking’! In fact it’s the new normal! Going inside the bank (in banking hours) to withdraw cash is inefficient; a waste of time. If you told your colleagues you were going to the bank at lunchtime to withdraw cash – they would think you were crazy!

There are similar parallels in watching a TV series on Netflix, booking flights on Webjet – and in many other areas of life, where once, you had to be in a particular place at a specific time but now it is normal to take advantage of technology that lets us operate more contextually.

None of these situations gets a special name – we don’t talk of “flipped banking”, “flipped entertainment”, “flipped booking” – they are just the natural, expected behaviours that result from freeing technologies. It would be rather silly not to take advantage of them.

I think that using the term “flipped learning” conveys a misleading impression, which is that using technology intelligently, to make the most of our time, somehow represents a special, fringe teaching strategy. I don’t think it is – or at least I don’t think it should be. In fact, let me go further. If anything is ‘flipped’ (up-side-down or back-to-front) in 2016, it’s continuing to enter the classroom, intending to waste precious class time, doing something that can be done much more efficiently.

Perhaps it would be better to call teaching from the front of the room “the Retro Classroom Model” and to stop implying that teachers working in a way consistent with the rest of modern life, have got it back-to-front.

The Threshold Challenge for Teachers in 2016

 

My favourite definition of education is this:

“Education is a conversation between one generation and the next, about what is important” ~ Sir John Jones.

The quote does, however, invite the question – “What is important?”

At a secondary school recently, I asked that very question of staff, who discussed it in small groups, and together we make a list of what they thought was important. Here’s what was listed (in no particular order):

  • Learning how to learn
  • Creativity
  • Resourcefulness
  • Resilience / Willingness to risk failing
  • Teamwork
  • Communication and presentation skills
  • Problem solving skills
  • Independence
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Tolerance and understanding of others
  • A growth mindset
  • Research skills
  • Digital citizenship
  • Self-awareness / Self-assessment.

What interested me is that nobody mentioned “memorising important historic dates” or “knowing the first 20 elements of the periodic table”.  Nobody even mentioned “learning times tables”. That’s not to say that those things are no longer useful, but that nobody mentioned them, shows me that teachers know, tacitly, that some things, while still useful, are now less valuable, and other things which have always been valuable are now even more so.

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The threshold challenge for teachers in 2016, is how to spend more time teaching the things which, in our heart of hearts, we know have increasing value, while still preparing our students for assessment systems that primarily measure the things that have falling value.  Do you see what I mean? If we spend all our class time teaching creativity, communication skills and resourcefulness – we are doing them a disservice if they face an exam testing their knowledge recall in a room where communication is banned and resourcefulness is called ‘cheating’.

The threshold challenge for teachers in 2016, is how to spend more time teaching the things which have increasing value, while still preparing our students for assessment systems that primarily measure the things that have falling value.

We have to do both, not either/or. That is one reason (of many) that the flipped learning model makes so much sense. It allows us to make sure we are covering the knowledge they will need for the exam, while freeing up significant class time for “…what is important”.  Flipped learning is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end – which end is the freedom to teach the things that matter most, in engaging ways, whether or not they are assessed on an exam.  (Until the yoke of exams is lifted off our shoulders).


 

If you are interested in flipping your class, or if you have already done so, but are looking for easier, cooler and more effective tools, workflows and strategies, I’ll be running a workshop in Melbourne on 19th February.  You can find the information about that workshop here.

Or if you would like me to present to your staff on this, or any other topic related to the use of ICT in education, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

One curious reason students more readily listen to podcasts than complete traditional homework

I’ve always found that students are much more likely to watch a screencast or listen to a podcast at home, than to complete a traditional reading-writing homework task.

There are a number of reasons for this, but one that I’d never considered until recently is that psychologically it’s always easier to commit to a task if you know how long it will take. I’m much more likely to attend a working bee, join a committee or even go shopping with my wife, if I know in advance what my involvement will cost in time.

Think now, about a student contemplating her homework. If it’s a reading and writing task, she doesn’t really know how long that will take to complete. It could take 20 minutes but it might take 45. Her time commitment is indeterminate. So if she has half an hour ’til bed time, does she make a start on the homework? I offer that many students will put it off until tomorrow.

On the other hand, consider a student with a podcast to listen to. He knows precisely how long it will take, because it says so, right there in the progress bar! He knows he can listen to that podcast in 25 minutes and 45 seconds – leaving precisely 4 minutes and 15 seconds to brush his teeth and put on his pyjamas, before bed. Homework done. Check!

Teacher: “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”

A teacher said to me “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”.

What a strange thing to say! – I can’t think of any other professional occupation in which people feel that computer technology slows them down, gets in the way and makes their work less efficient? In other professions it reduces friction, increases productivity and saves time (and money).  That is why those industries least forgiving of inefficiency, are most invested in computer technology.

I don’t think the teacher I spoke to is alone, either (I think her feelings are quite common among teachers, actually). And what’s more, I don’t doubt that she is right! Technology probably does make her work less efficient. But that is because she’s doing it wrong.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 5.37.57 pmSteve Jobs said that a computer is like “a bicycle for our minds” meaning that it magnifies the efficiency of our thinking the way a bicycle improves the efficiency of our locomotion. I love that analogy – and I think it’s very true, but it does, of course, assume that you actually ride the bike (rather than wheeling it alongside while walking). In order to ride a bike, you have got to stop walking. You can’t do both. If you’re not prepared to give up walking, then the bicycle is a hindrance.

When teachers describe technology as a hindrance to their work, I say that’s because they are unprepared to let go of their old methodologies. Instead of “riding” technology, they’re “wheeling” it alongside their old teaching practices.

Why your school needs clearly defined social media policies

pinnacleIt’s not to stop teachers from doing the wrong thing with social media; It’s to give them confidence to use social media well, knowing there is no appearance of impropriety.

If there were no balustrade on the ‘Pinnacle’ lookout in the Grampians, very few people would venture to the edge to take in the arresting view.  The barrier gives hikers confidence to go further than they would otherwise dare, because their safety is assured.  The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

Is it appropriate for a teacher to reply to a student’s electronic message at 9:00 pm? 11:00 pm? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question, but I do think there should be a school policy about it.  If a student sends a text at 9:45 pm, and the school policy says 10 pm, a teacher can confidently reply, leaning against the balustrade of that policy.

I meet a lot of teachers who are reluctant to use “this website” or “that web 2.0 service” with their students for fear that doing so might make them the star of a story on 7’s Today Tonight (and not in a good way).  That fear can be soothed by creating well publicised, unambiguous and clearly defined policies.

Make screencasts interactive with eduCanon

I’m daily investigating teaching tools in the hope of finding one that gives me the dopamine hit I get from discovering a really great one. Every once in a while, something comes onto my radar that immediately stimulates my brain’s reward and pleasure centres. That’s what eduCanon did.

Like most great ideas, eduCanon is based around a really simple concept; it really only does one thing – but it does that one thing very well. It allows you to embed questions into any screencast (or any video for that matter) hosted on YouTube, Vimeo or TeacherTube, and it tracks your student’s responses to them.

As students watch the video (from within eduCanon), and the playhead reaches the time marker at which you’ve inserted a question, the video automatically pauses, and the question slides in from the left. Once the student has read and answered the question, she clicks “Submit”. Then your explanation appears, either explaining why the response they chose was incorrect, or confirming that it was correct. On clicking the “Continue” button, the video automatically resumes playing until the next question is reached. It’s really quite a fantastic thing to add to your video lessons, helping students to stay focussed and leaning forward while watching.

Because eduCanon uses HTML5, rather than Flash, playback works great on an iPad, too.

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The first time students watch a video, they are unable to skip through the video; they have to watch the whole thing from start to finish and attempt every question. Once they have watched it once, however, they are then able to come back at a later date and skip around the video reviewing specific parts. This is useful if (say) they understand the introductory concepts in a video, but want to review more sophisticated concepts toward the end.

The process of building questions into your video is utterly friction-free (that’s one of the things that impressed me most about it). You paste in the URL of the video, then watch it play. When it gets to a point at which you want to ask a question, you simply click the “Build Question” button. Then you type in the question, two or more (multiple choice) answers, click the radio button beside the correct answer, type in an explanation for each of the multiple responses, and click the “Save Question” button. Simple!

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You have the option of publishing your videos as “public” which means you can share them with anyone to use for personal learning/revision. If you would like to see it in action, have a look at this sample which I have published as a public video. The answers people choose in a public video are not collected by eduCanon.

The real magic happens though, when students link to you (using your teacher code). You can assign a video to the class, and then eduCanon collects data for you on your class’ completion of the task and their responses to your questions.

One of the most commonly asked questions I receive about flipped and blended learning is “How can you know if your students have watched the video?”. Well, this is one way to know!

I think it’s remarkable that all of those features are 100% free! (and that includes add-free). An optional “premium” subscription ($48/year) gives you additional features, such as the ability to export your class data as a .csv file so you can import it into your own class record-keeping software or Excel spreadsheet. A premium subscription also gives you the ability to create free response questions (whereas the free version only allows multiple choice questions).

Verdict: This is the most exciting new web 2.0 platform I’ve found this year so far. I’d recommend it for anyone who makes screencasts or educational videos for their class.  The small investment of time required to type in the questions should see a big payoff in student engagement.

The Best School I’ve Seen Yet

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It is now one month to the day since I visited Northern Beaches Christian School, in Terrey Hills, about 30 km north of Sydney.  The fact that now, a month later, I still find myself thinking regularly about what I saw there makes me believe that NBCS could well be the best school I’ve ever visited.  In this post I want to simply share some of the things I saw which made an impression on me.

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I visited the school primarily because my friend,  Steven Collis teaches there.  I’d had dinner with Steve and his wife Rachel the night before, and he had invited me to see his school while I was there.

Much has been written about NBCS’s use of open learning spaces, and they really are terrific.  I have seen many other schools with open learning spaces but have generally been underwhelmed by what I saw.  Typically, two or three classes are running in different spaces in the open-plan centre.  But the classes are more or less the same as they would have been if there were walls between them – except with more noise.  Indeed a number of schools which built an open space, have later put up walls because it wasn’t working.  In dramatic contrast to that scenario, the open spaces I saw at NBCS not only worked but worked beautifully.  I don’t intend to dwell on the actual design of the spaces.  I simply want to describe some of what I saw that really made an impression on me – and made me think.

1.  All the students were on-task, all the time.  If I didn’t know better I’d have thought that the students were actors – and I was in some kind of Truman Show experience.  I spent several hours there, and in all that time I saw just one or two student who appeared to be off-task.

It seemed to me that there is very little attempt for teachers to keep their class all working at the same pace.  Instead students come into the space and start to work on wherever they are up to.  When they need help there are teachers circulating around ready to help.  In many cases the students were working on long-term, real-world, collaborative projects that were inherently interesting.

All students (across multiple year levels) were doing geography/science at the same time.  So it was quite difficult to tell which students “belonged” to which class or teacher.  They were allowed to take any position in the room and work there.  For many students that position was on the floor, despite there being lots of available chairs, couches, bean-bags and other places that to me – a 45 year old man – seemed more practical and comfortable.

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Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 3.25.42 PM2. Despite a large number of students working in the space, it was surprising just how quiet and peaceful the rooms were.  It’s not that there was no conversation – there was lots of conversation – the room was a hive of activity, but somehow there was not even a hint of clattering.  The ceilings had been designed by a sound engineer – I’m not sure if that was the reason. All I know is that unlike many open learning spaces I’ve seen – these spaces were not only spatially functional but were acoustically functional.

3.  The school had an established BYOD program.  It worked very well.  Many (most?) students had Mac laptops, many had PC laptops, some had iPads.  What I saw was a lot of sharing of devices and groups of students working using three different devices between them.   It convinced me that BYOD is the right approach as we head into this second decade.

4. The school’s innovative approach to space-use had not just stopped with classrooms.  They had looked at a number of other spaces innovatively:

  • Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 3.23.51 PMThe girls toilet block was something to behold! Not just a bland room of cubicles – it doubled as an art gallery!  On the walls and even the ceiling hung works of art works produced by students.  It was really rather beautiful, and something I’d not seen before.  It made the space something to be proud of and to enjoy.  Needless to say, they had no issue of graffiti in there.  You don’t vandalise what you love. 
  • The staff room was also the senior students’ study  centre.  I had never seen this before!  It makes sense though! In most schools, the staff room’s peak usage time is recess, and off-peak is during class time. Reverse that for the use of the Senior students’ study centre!  By combining these two spaces into one, they had freed up one large space to be used as another open-space learning area.  Supervision is built-in to the plan.  I think it also conveys a level of respect and trust to senior students that is quite remarkable.
  • Another confronting thing about NBCS: there was no library.  There were no librarians.  There were books housed in all the spaces – but no large central repository that would be recognisable as a library.  This made available yet another large space for an open learning area.  I’d never seen a school before which had purposefully chosen to decommission the library for space that can be used differently.  I’ve seen some small schools which can’t afford a library in the first place – but to repurpose the library space is courageous, or at least bold!  It makes you think though, doesn’t it? Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 3.24.05 PM
  • The large spaces did not typically have a whiteboard at the front of the room.  In fact, in many spaces, you could not really say where the front might be!  The whiteboards that had been taken off the walls had been repurposed as bench tops.  How fantastic.  Benches that invited collaborative discussions in groups – rather than teacher-centred delivery from the front!

One of the things I’d heard about and really wanted to see at NBCS was books that have been written by students in Steve Collis’ class and published on lulu.com.  I love this!  What better way to promote excellence in student writing than to give students an authentic audience for their writing.  What better way to do that than to have them write books that are then sold in online bookshops like Amazon and Barns & Noble, printed and shipped only when purchased.  The quality of the student work that I saw did not let me down.Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 3.23.30 PM

NBCS is by no means perfect. Every school has strengths and weaknesses – and NBCS was no exception to that.  But taken as a whole, Northern Beaches is really something remarkable.  The pride that staff and students have for their school is clearly perceptible.  It is deservedly so.

I have visited literally hundreds of schools.  Were I to rank them from highest to lowest in terms of how they match up to my vision of “an Ideal school”, Northern Beaches Christian School would be atop that list.

Lastly, I want to say thank you to Principal Stephen Harris, for allowing me to tour freely through the school and a big, big thank you to Steven Collis (and colleagues) for so generously sharing both time and insight with me.