The Second Act of Flipping

Transitioning the classroom from direct instruction and worksheets to facilitation and supervised practice is Stage 1. Reinventing class time is the challenge of Stage 2.
AND JUSTIN AGLIO/School Administrator, December 2016

Doug Macek, a physics teacher at Montour High School in McKees Rocks, Pa., has the chance to sit down, one on one, with every student during class time daily — those requiring extra attention as well as all those on level or above. How does he manage this in science classes that enroll between 11 and 19 students? He adopted the flipped learning model.

Macek, a teacher for 25 years, believes this instructional structure, which he adopted four years ago, is his avenue to teach students using mastery learning where each individual can work at his or her own pace. “There are no deadlines,” he says. “Deep and meaningful learning is the goal.”

What flipped learning means in Macek’s physics classes is this: The instruction he once delivered in the form of classroom lectures and full-group demonstrations now is provided to students in short videos averaging 12 minutes to be viewed at home on school nights and weekends. The hands-on practice that once constituted homework is completed in the classroom lab under Macek’s eye.

Passive Classrooms
Flipped learning differs markedly from the typical middle school or high school classroom today, where the primary focus most often is on teachers delivering content and students being drilled in a passive manner followed by a summative assessment. While learning certainly can occur with such structures, is that the best environment for students?

In these classrooms, teaching commonly aims for the middle with a hope of reaching most students. All the while, we bore the high achievers and leave the struggling students in the dust. All students complete the same assignments, and the teacher collects all those assignments to grade. All the while, many students miss the relevance of the assignments, and the teachers are bogged down with grading worksheets and quizzes.

At the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico, classroom furniture with wheels allows both teacher-directed and student-driven learning. (Photo courtesy of Ken Bauer.)

The feedback students receive on these assignments is slow to come — maybe 24 hours at best but many days more commonly — making it difficult for students to correct mistakes and misconceptions effectively to acquire the necessary skills or knowledge from the assignment. The result is busy work for the students, busy work for the teacher, and delayed feedback about the work completed.

Increasingly, classrooms, schools and districts are finding that a flipped classroom approach is a useful starting point to transition from the “tyranny” of busy work to a more engaging classroom without sacrificing content mastery.

First Act of Flipping
The most common and simplest place to begin flipping is to create (or curate) instructional videos and assign those videos in the place of direct instruction or lectures. To leverage short videos, the teacher removes the lecture from the classroom and assigns it as homework in order to bring other assignments, previously reserved for the home, back into the classroom.

This first step in flipping is simple. It has been happening in classrooms for nearly 10 years. It is easily achievable by most teachers and does not require a major pedagogical shift. Rather, the shift is mostly in time and space. The instruction is provided prior to class with assignments completed in class with assistance from the teacher and student peers.

A traditional teaching approach uses class time for content delivery, focusing on the lower portions of Bloom’s Taxonomy of remembering and understanding. This form of in-class instruction is followed up with basic practice tied to Bloom’s applying and analyzing levels.

This bottom-up approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy is largely teacher-driven. It engages students in challenging cognitive tasks by leveraging the recuperated class time to bring higher-order thinking to students. By planning learning activities that aim for the creating and evaluating stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom, teachers can build off the basic content students receive before coming to class.

Early Adherent
In Clintondale, Mich., Greg Green became one of the earlier school administrators to recognize the power of a flipped approach in helping teachers in all subjects better use class time while leveling the playing field for students. As in many schools in communities with struggling economies, money is scarce, resources are limited and learning support outside the classroom is sparse.

Green, a principal turned superintendent, moved his 2,700-student district into a flipped-friendly environment with the hope students could more easily complete “homework” (by watching a short video) and receive individual support in class. The shift in practice resulted in lower failure rates by 9th graders and increased success in state-administered exams. (See related story.)

Very quickly, teachers who flip realize their students now spend less time on homework outside of class, and they understand the material more quickly in class. By simply flipping the order of instruction, teachers can quickly evaluate work on-the-fly, providing valuable formative assessment and feedback in a timely manner to the students. Students can receive timely feedback on their work, freeing both teachers and students from the oppression of the grading inbox.

Ultimately, flipping enables teachers to begin making a transition from a culture of direct instruction and worksheets to one of facilitation and practice, but this takes time and is a transitional process. Hence, the second act.

The Second Act
Most teachers begin flipping their classrooms with the first act. However, after one or two years of operation, many teachers make a more powerful transition. Once they recover class time by moving the direct instruction outside of the classroom, they must reinvent how to use their time with their students.

Teachers can seize this opportunity to implement more engaging activities aimed at higher-order thinking, active learning and project-based learning. Although these teaching strategies are not unique to flipped classrooms, many teachers are using the flipped approach as a stepping-stone to become comfortable using these strategies.

Doug Hinkle, a 5th-grade teacher at the da Vinci Academy, a public school in Colorado Springs, Colo., began his transition by flipping his lessons in math, followed by science and social studies. His school’s “bring your own device” policy allowed him to take an asynchronous approach to flipping. This enabled his students to access video content any time, not just at home.

Over the course of a few years, he has transformed his class to embrace student-generated projects through the implementation of Genius Hour and has turned the physical space into a laboratory of creativity and making.

Hinkle has made this transition without sacrificing student achievement. In the true spirit of project-based learning, he facilitates students competently attaining the learning standards in an environment focused on learning rather than on instruction.

Facilitating Changes
Administrators also can help bring about these desired changes in several ways:

»Help teachers make the transition from an instruction-centered classroom to a project-centered classroom by creating a school culture that supports a flipped approach and other student-centered strategies.

»Encourage Universal Design for Learning, which involves student choice and takes into account the individuality of the learner, and focuses on designing flexible modes of learning and assessment that remain rooted in content mastery.

»Model flipped learning through professional development opportunities. Through tools like EdPuzzle, principals can create videos to share with teachers and allow them to watch and interact at their own pace.

Individualization of instruction can sound daunting to a classroom teacher. “There is one of me and 30 of them, how could I possibly provide 30 different educations?”

The first act of flipping helps establish a library of instructional content and eases the teacher away from the front of the room. UDL then allows the teacher to plan carefully a few strategic options for learning. A teacher can help direct students to specific outcomes without dictating how that is done, while simultaneously providing some choice without overwhelming students with too many options. By providing options, teachers can lead all students to specific learning outcomes while differentiating for student needs and preferences to get to the desired outcome.

That’s how Macek, the physics teacher in western Pennsylvania’s Montour School District, proceeds with flipped learning. “Not every student needs me every day, but they know that I am just a shout-out away,” he says. “Face time with the students is my greatest joy. The second is not being needed, as I know that they are not just learning physics, but also learning how to learn.”

Class Time, Space
Although careful planning is helpful for directing learning and managing classrooms, overly detailed planning can have a negative effect on student engagement. A flipped classroom that is well organized but does not plan every element for every minute of class not only leads to desired learning outcomes but also incorporates choice and autonomy and allows for organic and serendipitous moments, all leading to desired learning outcomes.

However, serendipity and organic learning don’t happen to be particularly tidy. This is where the true value of the educator is observed. A masterful teacher weaves her or his content knowledge, pedagogical expertise and respect for the learner into the individualized instruction a student needs. Individualization and flexibility cannot be implemented without mastery of the art and craft of teaching, and no technology can ever replace the expertise a teacher brings to this conversation.

On the other side of the house, the masterful administrator cultivates a school culture that acknowledges the human-centered nature of the classroom and embraces the messiness of learning. When stopping into a classroom, an administrator should expect to see a certain amount of controlled chaos, noise, struggle and forward failing. This is to be expected and encouraged. Young people are gooey, learning is messy, and a classroom should reflect that. After decades of standardization, compliance and outcome-driven education, supporting a classroom culture like this could be a challenge for teachers and administrators alike.

A system of schools in Mexico called Tec de Monterrey has embraced the messiness of learning by choosing to install flexible furniture with wheels in order to allow both teacher-directed and student-driven learning to occur. This simple change in the physical space allows a myriad of structured and spontaneous learning opportunities to occur that may have otherwise been restricted by the physical layout.

A Piece or the Whole?
One aspect of flipped learning that cannot be stressed enough is that flipping should never be the main event. Even the term flipped classroom is a bit of a misnomer in that it implies that flipping is the only thing going on in the classroom. New research is showing that there is more to a flipped classroom than simply flipping.

Researchers at Brigham Young University studied multiple flipped classrooms on campus, concluding that although the flipped courses showed improved outcomes, the reason for the gains was not in flipping per se, but in the active learning that ensued as a result of flipping. Although some would see this as an implied critique of the flipped approach, we should view this as mission accomplished.

If flipping a class is what it takes for an instructor to implement active learning strategies, then more administrators should encourage it and more teachers should follow suit. If instructors can implement active learning without flipping, that is fine too. Because the goal is not a particular pedagogy or method, flipping is not for everyone, but the goal of developing thriving learners means flipping can be the gateway to sustaining an environment that encourages student engagement.

Aaron Sams (left) and Justin Aglio work with teachers on flipping their classroom instruction to ensure students become active learners.

Curtain Call
When teachers move away from the traditional front of the classroom and hand over some control of the learning process, the students become more active learners. The process of learning moves to the forefront, and the act of obtaining points or scores takes on a lesser role.

The more teachers interact with students individually, the more formative assessment can take place. Additionally, struggles that can lead to students simply giving up on their homework can be diagnosed and corrected by the teacher, allowing students to progress in their work and ensuring understanding of the material.

AARON SAMS is founder of Sams Learning Designs in Pittsburgh, Pa. E-mail: Twitter: @chemicalsams. JUSTIN AGLIO is director of innovation at the Montour School District in McKees Rocks, Pa.

Additional Resources

» Flipped Learning Network ( A compilation of research reports, tools, apps, blog postings by users and videos relating to the implementation and value of flipped instruction in K-12 education.

» A user checklist ( Helpful for a teacher to use when checking for understanding and for principals or supervisors to adapt when observing a flipped classroom.