When will we stop judging elephants by how well they can climb trees?

You’ve probably seen the 2012 cartoon where there is a long line of animals: a monkey, penguin, seal, fish, elephant, bird, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” Welcome to the common mindset behind some of the most dominant educational policy discussions.

This cartoon relates to a conversation I once had with a school district superintendent. I was talking with her about the possibility of launching one or more magnet or charter schools within the district she serves and she was initially interested in exploring the possibility. We had trouble finding a time to meet, but a few months later I reached out to see if we could grab lunch and revisit the conversation. Her reply was something like this. “I’d love to have lunch, but I’m not sure about this charter or magnet school thing. It seems to me that if it is good for one kid, it is good for all of them. Do we really believe that? Do we believe that a uniform educational experience is the key to equity, access, and opportunity? Does that mean we think the same education or training is required for every role in family, society, and the workplace? Is this the path to helping each student discover and develop her unique gifts, talents, abilities, and passions? Is the “what is good for one is good for all” philosophy of education the best way to help people make their unique contribution to the world?

I do not question the value of a common body of knowledge to some extent, but that is different from arguing for the same type of education for every child driven by the same tests. True equity, access and opportunity will come from educational choice and a diversity of educational options. This is why I continue to argue that a great strength of the United States educational landscape is the rich diversity. On the K-12 level I’m referring to legacy public, public magnet, public charter, independent, parochial, homeschooling, unschooling, world schooling, project-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, STEM academies, bilingual schools, democratic schools, Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, and a myriad of others. On the University level I’m referring to everything from small liberal arts colleges to state Universities, blended and online options to technical and community colleges, public to private and faith-based, elite schools to a wonderfully interesting collection of alternative schools, even (maybe especially) the self-directed and uncollege options available today.

Have you noticed the recent articles and blog posts critiquing Arne Duncan for sending his children to the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Part of the critique is that he is sending his kids to a school that does not align with many of his educational reform efforts as US Secretary of Education. I appreciate that critique, but from another perspective, I commend him for selecting a school that he thinks is the best fit for his kids. Now all we need to do is to pursue more national and state policies that make such choice more widely available to the rest of the families in the country. Duncan knows that you don’t test an elephant by how well it can climb a tree, and he knows that the same thing is true when it comes to finding the right fit between a student and a school.

What does this have to do with testing and the cartoon? Standardized testing is a powerful educational technology, so powerful that it can reshape an entire school or district. It can drive schools and leaders to redesign their curriculum, schedule and priorities to make sure that students perform adequately on a given test or set of tests. That means prioritizing certain core competencies over others. It means celebrating the strengths and passions of some students while paying little attention to the gifts and interests of others. It means that some will believe that they are “good at school” while others don’t think so. It means having some students who strive to simply tolerate or survive the school day. That is a waste of a person’s gifts, talents, abilities, passions and potential; especially given that there are so many schools today that would be a great fit for these students.

Some might argue, “Haven’t you seen how poorly many charter and choice schools are performing?” Yes, there are problem schools, but there is also a problem with measuring the performance of these schools using those same tests that make elephants try to climb trees. I respect how this is a tidy want to compare schools, but it is a bit like doctors using standards for dentists. Both are healthcare workers, but they have enough differences that they probably call for a different measure of effectiveness. If we are going to measure across wildly different schools, maybe we should use measures about student engagement, holistic and personalized student growth and development, and the discovery and development of their gifts, talents, abilities, and passions.

Isn’t this just another sign of our increasingly self-absorbed culture? Students want everything their way instead of sucking it up and doing the work? I’ve talked to more than a few people who think as much, but I look at it differently. Yes, this is about a more personalized and customized approach to education. It is a recognition that people are different and we can best celebrate and maximize those differences by matching the student with the best fit school. This isn’t about catering to every whim and preference of a person. It is instead a perspective that doesn’t want to see a single student go to waste, one that aspires for learners to discover their unique contributions to the world. This is ultimately not about self-service, but it is about best positioning students to discover how they can live a rich and fulfilling life that benefits themselves and the people around them. And while some argue that focusing on STEM in our schools is the key to winning some international economic competition, I continue to defend the position that a nation and world will be better off if we invest in maximizing the potential of each person instead of sifting out those who don’t fit the STEM mold. In fact, by choosing a more personalized approach, we may find that we gain more traction than ever on everything from crime reduction to workforce and economic development.

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Educational Publishers & Content Providers: The Future is About Analytics, Feedback & Assessment

What is the future of educational publishers and content providers? As more content becomes freely distributed online and there are more creative (and sometimes free) products and services that help aggregate, curate, chunk, edit and beautify this content; there are questions about the role of educational publishers and content providers. While there is something to be said for a one-stop-shop for content, that might not be enough to secure a solid spot in the marketplace of the future, especially given that content is not the only thing for which people are shopping.

Some fear or simply predict the demise of such groups, but I expect a long and vibrant future. In fact, over the past decade or two, we’ve already witnessed publishing companies rebrand themselves as education companies with a broader portfolio of offerings than ever before. They’ve done so by adding experts in everything from educational psychology and brain research to instructional design, software development to game design, educational assessment to statistics, analytics, and testing. These are exactly the types of moves that will help them establish, maintain, and extend their role in the field of education. This is a shift from a time when many educational publishers and content providers would suggest that it is best to leave the “teaching” up to the professional educators. Now, more realize that there is not (nor has there really ever been) a clear distinction between the design of educational products and services and the use of them for teaching. Each influences the other, and understanding of educational research is critical for those who design and develop the products and services that inform what and how educators teach students.

According to this article, the preK-12 testing and assessment market is almost a 2.5 billion dollar market, “making them the single largest category of education sales” in 2012-2013! A good amount of this is the result of efforts to nationalize and standardize curriculum across geographic regions (like with the Common Core), allowing education companies to design a single product that aligns with the needs of a larger client base. However, even apart from such moves for standardization, more people are becoming aware of the possibilities and impact of using feedback loops and rich data to inform educational decisions.

This is just the beginning. If you are in educational publishing or a startup in the education sector, this is not only a trend to watch, but one to embrace. Start thinking about the next version of your products and services and how learning analytics and feedback loops fit with them. If you look at the K-12 Horizon Report’s 5-year predictions, you see learning analytics, the Internet of everything, and wearable technology. What do all three of these have in common? They are an extension of the Internet’s revolution of increased access to information, but this time it is increasing a new type of information and making it possible to analyze and make important decisions based on the data. Now we have a full circle. Data is experienced by learners. The actions and changes of the learner become new data points, which give feedback directly to the learner, to a teacher, or the product that provided the initial data. There is a new action taken by the learner, teacher and/or interactive product and the cycle continues (see the following image for three sample scenarios).

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 2.36.14 PM

Some (although an increasingly small number) still think of the Internet and digital revolution in terms of widespread access to rich content. Those are people who think that digitizing content is adequate. Since the 2000s, we’ve experience the social web, one that is read and write. Now we live in a time where those two are merged, and each action individually and collectively becomes a new data point that can be mined and analyzed for important insights.

While there are hundreds of analytics, data warehousing and mining, adaptive learning, and analytic dashboard providers; there is a powerful opportunity for educational content providers who find ways to animate their content with feedback, reporting features, assessment tools, dashboards, early alert features, and adaptive learning pathways. Education’s future is largely one of blended learning, and a growing number of education providers (from K-12 schools to corporate trainers) are learning to design experiences that are constantly adjusting and adapting.

The concept that we are just making products for the true experts, teachers, is noble and respectable, but the 21st century teacher will be looking for new content and learning experiences that interact with them (and their students), tools that give them rich and important data (often real-time or nearly-now) about what is working, what is not, who is learning, who is not, and why. They will be looking for ways to track and monitor learning progress. If a content provider does not do such things, it will be in jeopardy, with the exception of extremely scarce or high-demand content that can’t be easily accessed elsewhere.

As such, content still matters. It always will. However, the thriving educational content providers and publishers of the 21st century understand that the most high-demand features will involve analytics, feedback (to the learner, teacher, or back to the content for real-time or nearly now adjustments), assessment, and tracking.

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5 Predictions About Educational Credentialing in 2024

I am doing a bit of consulting later in the week, and one of my tasks is to make a few predictions about education in 2024. My part of the day is focused upon alternate and micro-credentialing. With that in mind, here are five predictions. I don’t necessarily like all these outcomes, but based upon the trends, I see many of them as highly likely, especially as they relate to adult and continuing education; and education for trades and regulated professions. What do you think? As you read this short list, you may be surprised about how much does not seem to be directly tied to credentialing. That is because, at least in much of American higher education, credentials and assessments tend to shape and direct much education practice.

I’ve always seen assessment as a bit boring until I started to recognize how it has become the most powerful aspect of many education environments. Change or add a given assessment or evaluation practice and you can quickly see a transformation in an entire system. Look at the conversations about Common Core in K-12 education. It was when the use of assessments started to take root that the debates become most intense.

Do you have any predictions of your own?

1. Unbundled Education – Education will become increasingly unbundled and aggregated across networks and contexts. This will give way to increased grass-roots educational initiatives, the capacity for learners to self-blend learning experiences from multiple sources and organizations, and cross-organizational credentials. Highly regulated sectors and those with strong centralized professional organizations and standards will be most insulated from some of this. It will lead to significant turmoil and disruption in many higher education institutions.

2. Networked Learning will become a fundamental life and work skill. While the most regulated industries will be more insulated, there will be significant conflict between democratizing and authoritarian models of education and training. Regardless, a fundamental aspect of lifelong learning will be the development, maintenance and ongoing expansion of a personal learning network. Related to this, we will see massive formal learning networks within geographic areas, specific fields and professions, and other distinct physical or virtual communities.

3. For many professions and trades, competency-based education and assessment will largely replace assessment of readiness through traditional letter grade systems, GPAs and similar measures. Systems like traditional letter grades will be phased out with the emergence of more accurate and granular measures of learner progress and competence. This will impact both initial training and continuing education.

4. Depending upon the context, alternate and micro-credentialing systems will replace or supplement letter grades, course, credits, and degrees (but the most regulated industries will be more insulated from this disruption). These emerging credentialing systems will have features like expiration dates and detailed information about the criteria met to earn the credential.

5. Educational experiences will provide significant learner control and/or learner-specific adjustments of time, place, pace and learning pathway. As part of this, adaptive learning and robust learning progression designs will replace many industrial or one-size-fits all models of education and training. For better or worse, with the maturity of adaptive learning tools, there will be a renewed and invigorated battle between the  “science of teaching and learning” and the “art of teaching and learning.” Learning analytics and big data will drive the design of high-impact, competency-based individualized learning experiences.

5 Simple Steps to Developing a Self-Determined Learning Plan

Learning by doing is not new.  One such example is 4-H, a series of clubs around the United States that formed in the early 1900s. While some think of 4-H as focused entirely on tasks related to rural life, that is far from an accurate picture of 4-H today.  Instead, it is a diverse and robust model for promoting learning by doing, whether it be robotics, building rockets, raising pigs, photography, growing flowers, gaining public speaking skills, or getting leadership training.  In addition, as youth sign up for projects in 4-H clubs around the United States, one of the first categories from which they can choose is “Self-Determined Project,” a chance for young people to set the agenda, choose their own project and run with it. Consider this document/guide for the self-determined project.

It starts with the following:

“You can design your own 4-H project. Design it around something of interest to you. It can be a hobby, an interest, or something you have wanted to do.

The world is an exciting place with unlimited things to do and learn about.  Think big! This is your chance to expand your horizons.”

Do something you have always dreamed. Investigate micro-organisms, the starts, or the way government works. Write a newspaper column. Don’t be limited by what has been. Produce something that no one else has ever produced before! This is your chance to start something new for you and 4-H!

The document/guide provides a simple but excellent model for self-directed learning. Following is my paraphrased version of the five steps.

  1. Decide what you want to do for your project.
  2. Develop a plan for how to do it.
  3. Determine what help you need to do each part.
  4. Design a means of documenting your progress.
  5. Disseminate (share) what you did and what you learned along the way.

The document also helps one develop a timeline and find a “helper.”

Self-directed learning is not complex. It is just increasingly foreign in a formal contemporary education model that elevates pre-determined standards and outcomes above most anything else. This simple model for self-directed learning works well as a guide, and it can be used in any context:

  • for informal learning,
  • as a tool for teachers helping students experience a bit of self-directed learning within a traditional school experience,
  • for home-based education,
  • as a professional development plan for someone in any field of work, or for
  • graduate student working on a thesis or dissertation.

What are the benefits? 

  • It builds confidence.
  • It builds competence.
  • It builds character.
  • It builds skill in problem-solving.
  • It builds research skills.
  • It builds goal setting skills.
  • It builds skill in self-direction.
  • It builds…literally builds something of value to you and others.
  • It is intrinsically rewarding.
  • From the positive psychology perspective, it gets at all five elements of the PERMA model: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

How many other learning experiences in a person’s formal education get at this many different benefits?

Example of a School That Embraces the Unbundling of Education

In Plano, Texas, Faith Lutheran High School is offering live online high school classes using a two-way video streaming solution.  This concept is nothing new, something that we have seen in many high schools and Universities around the country. While there is not necessarily anything new in the “how,” there is something noteworthy in the “why.”  They are using it to reach a new population of students…home schoolers.

Let me explain why I think this is worth noticing. For almost two decades, Universities and high schools have used two-way video conferencing to offer live classes from school to school.  This allowed high schools to offer combined classes for expanded offerings.  It also provided a new way for Universities to offer qualified high school students the chance to take college courses. This is a technology that provided increased access and opportunity without requiring anyone to explore a significant approach to teaching and learning. More recently, the price of the technology dropped enough that it became possible to also connect students from home with these live face-to-face classes. This is used, for example, in instances where student health concerns might prohibit a student from attending in person for a time. With these instances, the technology was used to further support the otherwise traditional operations of the school, serving mainly the students who were full-time students at that school or a partner institution. It was not used to reach a different population of students.  What is new about this latest offering at Faith Lutheran High School is that they are using the two-way video as a tool to offer unbunded services.  This is a private tuition-based school and instead of offering a single package service (full tuition and full participation in the school or nothing), they are offering an à la carte menu.  Choose the courses that interest you, and use them to support your otherwise personalized home school curriculum.

I am aware of other instances where private schools are reaching out to home-based learning communities, offering part-time tuition packages, access to certain extracurricular activities, or free access to the school resources (like a computer lab) when they are not used by school personnel. All of these also speak to the growing awareness of schools that the demand for unbundled, personalized learning is a present reality. The fastest growing sectors in K-12 education are those that are the most personalized, catering to the distinct needs and/or interests of each learner (namely distinct charter schools and home schooling).

I continue to argue that this unbundling provides us with a glimpse into the future of k-12 education, especially k-12 education that provides an alternative to traditional public schools. Separate all of the distinct attributes of a given school and imagine a model where families and students can pick and choose from those services, paying only for what they use (in the case of private schools). This requires leadership that is willing to follow the trends and respond to them with courage and creative practices. It also requires an ability to see schools as partners with families and learners, collaboratively designing unique experiences for individual learners. It is not simply a professional prescribing an educational intervention.  I suspect that this shift in thinking will be a greater barrier for some than any potential technological limits.



What Schools Can Learn from the History of Mr. Potato Head

The first ( of what I hope is an annual) Online Home School Conference finished on Saturday, August 24 with an excellent lineup of speakers. It was an action and content-packed event with a wonderfully and unusually diverse group of speakers and attendees.  There were unschoolers, faith-based homeschoolers, world schoolers, learners of a types, free and democratic school advocates, teachers and leaders of traditional and alternative schools, researchers, faculty, authors, consultants, and community activists. It was also encouraging to see such diversity of perspective represented.  My understanding is that they plan to run the conference a second time in January, so keep your digital eyes open for announcements and a call for proposals. You can check the web site, or my guess is that new information will also show up on Twitter under #homeschool14.

While I appreciated and learned from many excellent presentations, the one that provided me with largest aha! moment was with Elliot Washor of Big Picture Learning. More specifically, it was his comparison of schools to Mr. Potato Head. I should note that Elliot’s comment informed and inspired this post/article, but his comments are mixed with my own commentary.  Elliot explained that Mr. Potato Head was originally sold as a box full of pats with push pins that you could insert into an actual potato (or perhaps a cucumber, banana, orange, or even a pumpkin). It was up to the individual to decide what and where to add the items, and my guess is that young people often improvised by adding their own self-made items from around the house. That is how it started.  As noted in the Wikipedia history, there was push-back about the idea in the earliest days because of the food rationing that occurred in the previous years during World War II. Nonetheless, it started as a toy in some cereal boxes. Not much later, as it became a stand-alone toy, it continued to be just the parts, with the users contributing the potato.

(Note: I did not do much fact checking on this.  I’m largely leaning on the Wikipedia article and the sources cited in that article, but I verified the general concept with a couple of people who experienced these early toys firsthand as kids.)

Things changed in the 1960s due to government regulations.  Those push-pins were too sharp so they required the makers to do something about that, and the small parts were a choking hazard.  In response, the next iteration of the toy included a plastic potato body with holes that allowed the add-on parts (with dull edges) to be inserted in the pre-determined locations. Then there was a third version.  This was similar to the last, but the parts were all larger (to decrease the choking hazard and/or to minimize the need for some of the fine motor skills, perhaps?). The shapes of the holes in the plastic potato body were also changed so that parts could only be inserted in certain holes and in certain ways (Although I think that changed back as the last time I played with a Mr. Potato Head with my kids, we were free to add the parts as you saw fit.).

Elliot Washor used this as an illustration of our school system.  We have regulated and industrialized the system.  There is even arguably good cause for some of the decisions (e.g. safety).  Nonetheless, what did we lose in the process? As I reflect upon this illustration, I can’t help but think about alternatives to the highly regulated and increasingly standardized approaches to standards and curricula. As shown at the Homeschool Conference, The Alternative Education Resource Organization and many such events and communities, the possibilities are nearly endless and there are many exciting and promising communities in place, ones that seek to offer learners an environment that is characterized by discovery, experimentation, and self-directed learning.

As I often note on this blog and elsewhere, and as I was reminded during this conference, we are in the Wild West Era of education today, and that is exciting. I am honored to live, take part in, and learn from the many promising possibilities for learning and community in the 21st century.  How about you?

Depth Over Breadth – Studying the Same Topic for 12 Years?

When I speak to audiences about project-based learning, the depth versus breadth conversation always comes up.  I am usually the one to bring it up, but even if I don’t, someone else will ask a question or make a comment related to it.  Project-based learning provides students and/or small groups of students with an opportunity to spend an extended period of time digging deeply into a driving question or perhaps seeking solutions to a relevant problem or challenge.  As a result, learners walk away from a successful project with deep knowledge about the topic at hand.  Given all the time that the project takes, one criticism is that project-based learning sometimes results in learners missing out on a broad overview of a subject.  In response, the project-based learning advocate might argue that the learner is developing skills that will last a lifetime, allowing one to learn many more things in the future.  Another response might be to challenge the value of broad but shallow knowledge and whether it will last.  These sorts of conversations can go back and forth, with several valid points coming from both sides.

For some, the resolution to this debate comes by seeking to balance between project-based learning and other learning experiences that offer more breadth.  One such example is not new, but I hear little mention of it in the United States.  This is the Learning in Depth Project, championed by people like Kiergan Egan (who is also known for being a critic of Dewey and the progressivism philosophy of education, as well as his work on Imaginative Education).

The Learning in Depth concept is simple.  You keep a more traditional curriculum, but you add one significant element to it.  In addition to all the other courses, you add a “Learning in Depth” course (although it may just be a few minutes a day) to the curriculum.  The idea is that you randomly assign a simple topic to every learner, or if you are starting with older students, you might let them choose from a list.  There are specific criteria for what constitutes a good topic. The topic might be something like dogs, light, sacred buildings, apples or mountains.  In some schools, this topic is assigned in grade one and the student continues to study this topic for the next twelve years, developing an immense amount of knowledge, exploring it from dozens of angles.  If your topic is cats, then you might study the biology of cats, learn about different types of cats, draw cats, take pictures of cats, study myths and legends about cats, look at environmental topics related to cats, or perhaps examine the role of cats in literature and film.  By the end of twelve years, there is little question that the students will each have an area of expertise that exceed almost everyone else that they know.  Advocates of this approach argue that it teaches research and inquiry skills, helps students discover the power of sticking with something for a longer period of time, that it build confidence, that it helps students cultivate creativity and imagination, and that students learn any number of other skills along the way to becoming experts about their topic.

There are schools around the world that adopted the Learning in Depth program with fascinating stories about student learning. You can read some of these stories firsthand by following the links to participating schools on the Learning in Depth web site.

5 Examples of Self-Blended Learning

Self-Blended LearningWe read a great deal about blended learning, but I remain amazed and excited about growing examples of self-blended learning. The Innosight Institute describes self-blended learning as instances where, “students choose to take one or more courses entirely online to supplement their traditional courses and the teacher-of-record is the online teacher.”  According to this use of self-blending, it is largely focused upon individual students taking some courses online and others face-to-face.  However, many today describe blended learning as instances where students learning within an individual course includes a blend of digital and face-to-face learning experiences.  With this notion of blended learning in mind, it seems to me that self-blending refers to courses in which individual students or groups of students take the initiative to add or supplement learning experiences in a course with digital and/or face-to-face learning activities.  Here are five examples:

1) Online Learning with Group-Based, Student-Generated, Face-to-face Supplements – Two or more students take an online course together, but meet in person to study, discuss the class, or work on projects for the online class.  This is not unheard of in graduate education programs, where two or more teachers from a school take an online course together. They might meet weekly to help each other with the coursework.  They may also help one another apply what they are learning to their work environments.

2) Face-to-Face Learning with Group-Based, Student-Generated, Online Supplements – Students take a face-to-face class together, and they decide to leverage digital tools to collaborate during and beyond the regular class time.  They might choose to take shared notes using a tool like Google Docs.  They might text back and forth during and after class about course topics.  Or, they might gather in an online chat room or Google Hangout to study for a test.

3) Student-Selected Mixing or Blending of an Online Course and a Face-to-Face Course – A student takes a face-to-face course and participates simultaneously in a separate open or traditional online course with related content.  A single course or learning experience works for many students, but others want the opportunity to compare concepts across different classes.  These are often classes from completely different schools, and the student leverages work from one class to aid in the other.  For some academics, this is verging on self-plagiarism.  From another perspective, the student is creating a personalized, self-blended learning experience that is not limited to the plans and agenda of a single instructor or institution.

4. Face-to-Face Course with Individual Student-Generated Digital Expressions and Reflections – A student in a face-to-face class might create digital study aids to aid with reviewing content, reflecting upon class concepts or preparing for an exam.  One example that I see quite often is the face-o-face student who chooses to blog or comment in a social network about the course learning experiences.  At times, this might involve venting about class frustrations. In other instances, it can turn into deep and substantive musings about the course content, comparing it to life beyond the class, contrasting it with diverse disciplines and ideas, or adding personal commentary to topics discussed in the class.  This also shows up in other creative expressions like the creation and sharing of infographics, YouTube videos, Tweets about learning experiences, mind map study aids, digital stories, etc.  Note that these are not assignments for the class, but rather student-initiated resources, musings and experiments.

5. Online Course with Individual Student-Generated Face-to-Face Reflections, Extensions, and Experiences – Individual students in an online  course discuss what they are learning with family members, friends, and colleagues; sometimes using the course content analyze problems or needs in the physical world.  As with each example, I’m describing situations where the learners do this on their own, not because the instructor suggested or required as part of the class.  The online learning simply and seemingly naturally flows into the face-to-face interactions and activities of the learner.  In some cases, what the students learn in class prompts them to informally interview someone, go on a self-generated field trip, or invite people to gather for lunch or coffee to discuss a topic that captured their interest during the class.

All of these examples invite us to consider the power of self-directed learners who take the initiative, becoming co-designers of the learning environment. They are not passive participants of an instructor-controlled context, but are active creators that connect and extend their learning beyond the domain of the instructor.  Isn’t this ultimately what we hope for learners, that they will grow as courageous, connected, creative, collaborative, self-directed, and self-blending learners?

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A Flipped Classroom Primer

There are a variety of working definitions for the flipped classroom.  Some define it in a functional way.  They might refer to it as having students experience the lecture (or other content) outside of class and using classroom time for deeper learning.  Others define it by highlighting an affordance of the flip.  It might be something like, “Using technology in a way that allows the teacher to spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.”  Or, it might be “Using technology in a way that allows the teacher to spend more time addressing individual needs of learners instead of lecturing.”

It can also be valuable to understand the flipped classroom by comparing it to another phrase, blended learning.  For some, blended learning involves replacing some classroom time with other digital learning activities.  Others define blended as simply a mix or blend of face-to-face and digital learning experiences, regardless of whether or not the digital experiences replace or supplement face-to-face learning activities.  Where does the flipped classroom fit with regard to blended learning? I like think of blended learning as the broader term, and the flipped classroom as one way of going about blending.  For a helpful visual example of this, check out the Innosight Institute’s “Classifying K-12 Blended Learning.”

The term flipped classroom has some synonyms.  You may come across journals and blog posts that call it by other names: the inverted classroom, the reverse classroom, or the backwards classroom. In these instances, the name still depends upon one’s understanding of a traditional classroom.  Largely, it is named by what it is not, or how it is different from a traditional classroom where the teacher devotes most of the time presenting content in one form or another.  Of course, many teachers do not spend the majority of time presenting content, but teach using a variety of cooperative, collaborative and project-based formats.  Nonetheless, the very name “flipped” as the opposite of a lecture-based class comes from the history of the term.

The idea of the flip has clearly been around longer than the name “flipped classroom.”  In fact, we can trace the beginnings of the flip back to the time when books and pamphlets were able to be mass-produced and made available to each learner.  As soon as media could be mass-produced, aspects of the flip became possible.  Prior to that, one of the most important roles of the teacher or professor was the dissemination of content in well-chuncked, clear, and understandable ways.  As various forms of media became more readily available (e.g. textbooks. libraries, cassette recorders), new teaching and learning strategies became possible.

With regard to the flip, the history goes back to the turn of the century, with a presentation at the International Conference on College Teaching and Learning entitled “The Classroom Flip: Using Web Course Management Tools to Become a Guide by the Side.”  Note that the title of this presentation actually popularized two phrases.  The first is the “classroom flip.”  The other is the phrase, “guide by the side.”  This is the first instance that I recall reading an article that referenced the teacher as a “guide on the side” and not a “sage on the stage.”  The article highlights a new affordance of the learning management system, allowing the instructor to make classroom lecture materials available to the learners before the start of the face-to-face class session. This allowed the instructor to plan class activities where students applied, analyzed, created, and experimented.  Having the basics down before class, students could engage in deeper and more substantive activities.  Note that this early reference focused on the affordance of taking students to a deeper level of learning.

A second article, published just a year later, focused on yet another afforadance of an inverted or flipped classroom: the ability to customize, differentiate, or meet the individual needs of each learner during the classroom. In, “Inverting the Classroom: A Gateway to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment”, Lage, Platt & Treglia note that inverting the classroom allows the instructor to move from an industrial model of teaching and learning or a one-size fits all approach (not that they used these same metaphors in the article), to one where the teacher coaches, guides, mentors and helps each learner during the class period.

Only a few years later, between 2004 and 2007, we saw the multimedia revolution on the web.  This is the time period where companies like YouTube, Vimeo, TeacherTube, and Khan’s Academy started.  For the first time in history, people with inexpensive cameras, microphones or other capture devices could quickly create and easily share video with people around the world.  All of this, especially Kahn Academy, served to amplify the possibilities of individual teachers flipping their classroom with video lectures (not that video is required to flip…you can also have a flipped classroom with text-based content).  It is during this same period that we see the open learning and open courseware movements gaining traction, especially in the form of things like iTunes University, and many Universities creating sites where they freely distribute lectures from excellent (or at least willing) instructors.  With these developments over less than a five-year period, the teacher electing to use a flipped classroom model gained the power to leverage pre-existing media from places like Kahn Academy or iTunes University.  Or, they could just as easily create and distribute their own video content, whether it be just for their students, or freely shared on the web.

Given these developments, most any teacher with a laptop and Internet access can flip a class (of course, one is wise to also ensure that students have the necessary technologies).  For those who are interested in designing a flipped classroom by using pre-existing media, there is now a massive collective of resources at your disposal.  Check out my Diigo List as a good place to start.  It includes links to places like YouTube U, iTunes U, Academic Earth, Open Yale Courses, and more. For those who want to design their own video or multimedia, many simple and free options are also available. If you want to do screen sharing or speak over Powerpoints, you might want to try something like Camtasia Studio, Jing, SnagIt, or any number of Android and Ipad apps.  If people want to start with a straightforward video lecture, I often suggest that they try YouTube, especially given that it is free and has a very easy to use video recording tool built right into the web site (no additional software needed).  Once one creates the video content, I often encourage people to try the TedEd site, which has everything that you need to design a flipped lesson (quizzes, checks for understanding, instructions, embedded video, etc.).

Of course, it does help to think about learning experience design as well.  For that, I offer this simple visual below.  It divides the planning into three stages: before class, during class, and after class.  Many times, teachers spend almost all of their planning on the during class stage, but effective flipped classroom designs require one to be just as intentional about planning the before and after class activities.  Note in this visual that you also get three different times to check for student understanding.  You can use quizzes (formal or informal, graded or ungraded), have students reflect upon what they understood or didn’t understand (See this article on recursive teaching practices for formative assessment or checking for understanding ideas), or any number of assessment activities.

Another part of the visual below is Bloom’s taxonomy. The pre-class activities turn into times where learners focus on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: remembering and understanding.  This is a time to get familiar with the terms, phrases, and concepts.  Too often, teachers with significant content knowledge and professors with graduate degrees spend entire class periods focusing on these lower levels, when what they most have to offer to students is their expertise and guidance in learning to think about the content at a higher level.  This visual shows that the flipped classroom design allows room for classroom activities that focus upon those higher levels of thinking as students explore projects, cases, problems, and questions.  These are often more collaborative, cooperative, student-centered, experimental or experiential activities.  Finally, once the class is over, there is yet a third stage of planning, one where the teacher can design more experiences that require the learner to dig even deeper into the content (or just to review a few basic concepts once more).  This follow-up allows the learners to test out their newly found knowledge and skill away from the class and support of the “guide on the side.”

By the way, you will notice a quote at the top of the three columns in the visual.  Those exist for a simple comparison or illustration. I compare learning new things to dating.  The “before class” stage is like meeting a person of interest for the first time.  That is where you are just trying things out a bit, simply learning about each other. Next, during class, that is like going out on some sort of date, doing something together.  That is where you really get to know each other as you spend time with each other.  Finally, in the “after class” stage, you decide to commit, perhaps in some sort of formal relationship.  That represents the stage when the learner comes to really own the content or the learning, to develop a deeper and more intimate relationship with it.  People don’t just jump to the commitment stage in relationships, and it doesn’t work well when learning new things either.

Ultimately, this simple outline for a flip helps us to design learning experiences that reflect the way that we are wired to relate and learn.

beforeduringafter flip

There you have it.  That is my quick 15-minute primer on the flipped classroom.  I hope that you find it useful.  If you have other resources to suggest or questions, please feel free to send me a quick voice message using the tool on the right of your screen (might not show up on all mobile devices).  Or, consider posting a comment.

“We Learning in Different Ways and Different Time Frames”

In this seven-minute video, Bea McGarvey points out a key to cultivating student-centered, post-industrial learning organizations.  According to McGarvey, it is about creating learning spaces that are shaped by two simple facts about how people learn.

  1. We learn in different ways.
  2. We learn on different time frames.

The differentiation of learning experiences and the differentiation of time remain two of the more difficult challenges for many teachers in traditional classrooms.  Students in need of these differentiations (although all can benefit from them) are often labeled the problem, rather than considering that the environment may be the problem.  McGarvey suggests that a simple way to progress toward these customizations is to take a student, start with a goal, and help the student chart out a plan to achieve that goal.  Along the way, give the student the needed feedback and resources.  She argues that everything else is “bath water” rather than the “baby.” The 100 point grading scale, traditional daily schedule…all just bath water. What do you think?