Don’t flip out: Urban tries a new approach to classes and homework

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Photo Illustration by Kyra Bergsund

Eli Dinkelspiel, Staff Writer

It was a warm Monday evening. Birds were swooping and chirping outside my windowsill. The net of the basketball hoop was swaying in the breeze. I was thinking of all the videogames I could be playing.

Unfortunately, I had missed a day of school and had to do both my homework and somehow reconstruct the day’s lessons from a combination of my classmates’ jaded explanations and the constantly crashing SmartBoard notes. “I wish I could see the lessons at home,” I dreamed, but sighed in resignation and put my nose to the grindstone.

Unbeknownst to me, schools across the country, including Urban, are developing a method of teaching that could save countless students in my exact situation.

The new method, called flipping, initially “flipped” class time and homework. Students watched teachers give lectures via video at home, and do what is thought of as homework in class, under the supervision of a teacher.

However, flipping today is different from when it first saw use. Nowadays, teachers keep the video watching but eliminate much of the in-class “homework,” and instead focus on a more deep and enriching class time experience, such as labs or discussions, according to an article by Education Week.

Early adopters of flipping praise its flexibility and its ability to greatly diminish traditionally more boring lectures. By putting the basics online and in video, flipping aims to eliminate the boredom that is often synonymous with school. Flipping is described by Head of Student Life Charlotte Worsley as “a way of rethinking what goes where.”

Science teacher Geoff Ruth experimented with flipping in his six-week environmental chemistry class last year. When asked how the experiment went, Albie Brown (’12) replied, “It was a very positive experience that fit well with my learning style.”

In a flipped school, there’s more learning and doing than slogging through page after page of worksheets and practice problems, and because a flipped student enters class with a basic comprehension of the topic, students can enhance their understanding by exploring topics and questions normally glossed over for the sake of time.

Although I have not been in a flipped class, I have watched videos and clicked through flash animations for homework. These assignments are always easier to understand than dry chapters long and thick textbook.

“It’s nice watching videos vs. doing the reading,” said Kyle Fa (’12), who took the same course as Brown last year. “No one does the reading anyways,” added Michael Shigezumi (’12).

Brown reported that Ruth used flipping to eliminate boring factual lectures necessary for understanding. With the basics out of the way, Brown and his fellow classmates discussed more real life applications of the things they learned rather than the technical details of environmental chemistry.

“It was a much more thorough approach,” said Brown. When asked if class time differed in ways besides content, he responded, “Yeah … it was fueled by international curiosity vs. typical information that we would normally cover.”

The abilities to ask deep questions and discuss topics at length are two of the biggest reasons why I went to Urban. It’s one thing to know the facts of a subject; it’s another to understand it. Flipping allows for what I believe is the most important aspect of Urban: teaching so students learn, not so they merely pass a test.

Flipping is much harder to implement in a few areas of learning, as certain classes, such as English, are too abstract or discussion-based to replace even a small portion of their time with videos. Ruth suggested math or science as optimal classes for flipping, as those lessons are more concrete in terms of right-and-wrong answers, and easier to understand by way of lectures.

Suzanne Forrest, assistant head for academics, told me that Urban is “the perfect place to try (flipping),” since flipping works well in communities of independent learners, something Urban prides itself on supporting.

While reading about flipping, I wondered if the videos might undermine a student’s focus on their teacher, a problem that does not exist in the traditional classroom because the teacher is physically present. Brown assuaged my fears, saying that watching the videos was, “as if we were in the class with him.” In case any of my fellow procrastinators are reading this, be warned: Teachers often give out pop quizzes to see if students watch their flipped videos, according to the Education Week article.

Flipping would also eliminate assigned reading for classes like science. I find that reading something in a textbook at home frequently makes me more confused instead of bringing me closer to comprehension. I usually have to rely on in-class “recaps,” because those are tailored to my current knowledge.

From what I’ve seen and heard, flipped videos serve the same purpose as at-home reading and lectures combined, but instead of wasting both productive class time and my personal time, they effectively utilize both.

Not everyone loves flipping, however. According to Shigezumi, flipping “didn’t really change much.” Although the students of the class had very little complaints, teachers may resist the change from their well-established systems of teaching. With such a big change like this, resistance is to be expected.

Flipping deserves to be considered by all teachers and educators, especially those at Urban. Nationwide, the biggest obstacle to effective flipping is the lack of a way to ensure each student has access to videos. Urban does not face this problem because every student has a laptop. In fact, Urban could help lead the way in a flipping revolution just like we did in our laptop program and educational model. Best of all, according to Brown, flipping, “made class a lot more fun.”

According to Fa and Shigezumi, Ruth gave “(tons) of worksheets” for students to complete in the classroom, something that gave me pause. However, I believe that will change. As teachers create more informative and understandable flipped videos, the need for review and practice in the classroom will go down.

I told Forrest that I enjoyed doing more interactive flips, where I listen and interact with lessons online, rather than just listening to them. She agreed, explaining that that was harder for Urban teachers to implement but worth considering.

Ruth wrote in an email that making videos was initially an arduous process, but “(he’s) gotten faster at making them with time.” Considering this, it is unlikely that a flipped classroom will go beyond videos in forthcoming years.

Get ready, because flipping could be here to stay, seeing that it perfectly fits Urban’s educational model. With the support flipping is gaining from both teachers and students, it seems unlikely that it will be rejected by the Urban community. It might be awkward at first, but give flipping a try; it may bring Urban back into the forefront of pedagogical advancement. With the new grading policy and expanded student body, Urban has slipped into educational conformity. It’s time to reclaim the position of the Bay Area’s most revolutionary school.