It’s 5:30 p.m., after a long day at school and after-school activities. Dinner’s on the stove, reminding everyone how hungry they are. Books are open, pencils are out. And the questions start up: Can you help me with this math problem? How do I analyze this experiment? What is this supposed to mean?
If you’re a parent, you know what this is: Homework time. And chances are, you’ve also known the frustration that comes along with it. When’s the last time you took Algebra I? What is this new Common Core math? And what does this mean anyway? Parents often have no idea how to help their kids, who may not have followed, or remembered, the lesson they learned in class.
Which is really the whole point of the “flipped classroom,” in which teachers record their classroom lessons for students to watch at home, as homework, and spend class time together doing problems and projects that students used to tackle at home. The advantage of this is clear: Students (and their parents) can watch and re-watch lectures at home until they understand them. Then, in class, they can get hands-on-help from the experts—their teachers—to solve problems they might otherwise not understand. It’s a concept that emerged around 10 years ago, with the increasing popularity of online tutoring programs like Kahn Academy. Since then, a few schools around the country have flipped all of their classes, and thousands of teachers have used the technique at least some of the time. Studies are underway now to quantify the success of flipped classrooms, but results so far are anecdotally promising.
“The advantage of flipped classrooms is clear: Students (and their parents) can watch lectures at home. Then, in class, they can get hands-on-help from the experts—their teachers—to solve problems they might otherwise not understand.”
“Flipped classes let teachers reinvent class time to be interactive,” says former chemistry teacher Aaron Sams, one of the biggest proponents of flipping. “Students are deeply involved in their learning, not just passive recipients.”
Sams was a chemistry teacher in Colorado in 2006, when he started recording 15 to 20 minute lectures for the droves of students who left school early every day to hit the slopes. The following year, Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, another chemistry teacher, entirely flipped their classes. This allowed students to work at their own pace, and for the teachers to spend class time on projects and experiments. Sams and Bergmann now run FlippedClass.com to bring the concept to teachers nationwide; their network has 25,000 members around the world. Sams says the biggest benefit of reversing the traditional classroom model is that it makes more time for learning.
“I know a math teacher who says she got 20 percent more time for students to pursue their own interests, and science teachers who could increase lab time by 50 percent,” he says. “They use video as an information transfer tool, and class time for the hands-on work.”
Philly’s String Theory Charter has flipped every classroom, replacing textbooks with iPads.
Would it work in Philadelphia? One Philly high school, String Theory Charter, has completely adopted the flipped classroom for every student and every subject. But it has an advantage most schools do not: It provides all students with their own iPads. Before String Theory opened in 2013 with 9th graders, Christine DiPaulo, the school’s “innovation specialist,” convinced administrators not to buy any textbooks. “The iPads can do everything we want from a textbook, and so much more,” she said. “We don’t need both—we just need to maximize the use of the devices.” Instead, teachers at the school create curricula for each class in iTunesU; record or locate relevant online lectures or apps; write their own texts, when needed; and create exercises, problems and projects all for the iPad. Now in its second year, String Theory has expanded to 10th grade and a middle school; all students in 7th through 10th grades do their work exclusively on their tablets. “We’ve been able to do so much more challenge-based, inquiry-based learning,” she says. “The kids are doing some crazy good work in their classes.”
It is unlikely that flipping classes will become as widespread at other District or charter schools any time soon—in part because many schools simply don’t have the technology or expertise to upend their entire school days. And watching online videos requires two things many Philadelphians lack: Computers and Internet access. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, more than half of Philly households had no way to get online. That may now be shifting. Comcast in 2012 launched Internet Essentials, a $10/month plan for customers who have children eligible for free or reduced lunch, and a recent Pew study found that more than 80 percent of Philadelphians could access the Internet on smart phones. DiPaulo says many of String Theory’s students take advantage of Comcast’s deal, and that in the school’s two years of flipped classrooms, only one student has had trouble accessing the material, much of which can be downloaded at school and used later offline. And Sams says other poor districts have developed creative solutions to give kids access to their online programming: Opening the school early so students can access the on-site computers; making a deal with a local Starbucks for discounted drinks and access to the free wi-fi; even purchasing portable DVD players and DVDs that can be burned for students to take home, if needed.
Still, Internet access and physical devices are not enough to make flipped classes work. In fact, studies have shown that just dropping technology on middle schoolers has the exact opposite effect Sams and others are hoping for: Two Duke economists who followed a million disadvantaged students who were given computers found their reading and math scores plummeted for five straight years. They speculate this is because students spent their time surfing the web and playing games, rather than studying math or learning to read. The key seems to be pairing the technology with appropriate lessons, and with teachers who can use the devices to enhance, not replace what they do in the classroom. In any case, Sams says he has rarely seen a school that flips all its classes, or even a class that flips all its coursework. Even he’s not sure that every class warrants flipping. But he is sure that the practice will become more widespread, even in places like Philadelphia, as teachers experiment with flipping—and see results.
“What teachers are realizing is how easy this is to do, once they get started,” Sams says. “It’s a growing grassroots movement, from teacher to teacher.”