Stillwater doing flipped math: Good, bad, unfair?

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I read an article last week in the Burnsville Patch that got me thinking, starting with the opening sentence…

The Internet has opened up a world of at-home learning opportunities, but how much should we rely on those when many families still don’t have Internet access?

The author spoke about flipped math classes now offered to fifth graders in Stillwater, MN, where students watch video lessons at home and spend class time working on problems – or what many of us traditionally think of as homework. (Khan Academy is one of the most famous flipped class structures.) I suppose it’s not surprising that I think flipped classrooms are a great idea but it was interesting to read an article that pointed out potential issues with the structure – the first being access to broadband.

Access to broadband – and home computers – is undeniably a big barrier for the flipped classroom. But I’d like to see that as an opportunity to work with families to get them beyond that roadblock to : 1) provide computers and/or lower cost broadband access in a perfect world or 2) provide after-school access to the technology in the school as a Plan B. Otherwise I think we’re playing to the lowest technology common denominator rather than trying to raise the bar for everyone. That not only cheats the students, it seems like a bad investment in our community.

Ironically, Stillwater’s Flipped Classroom website describes the move towards flipped learning as a move away from targeting the lower common denominator…

A traditional teaching technique for math is one where the primary purpose of the classroom time is for the teacher to present content. Generally, the pacing of the content targets the average or slower learner.

I’m excited to see that Stillwater has chosen the road less taken to raise the potential for all of their fifth graders.

The author asks a second question that doesn’t directly involve technology as much as I think touch upon a byproduct technology has brought to modern life…

When society is already wringing its hands about how much homework is appropriate, what would it mean to place so much of the burden of learning on the home?

I don’t know if more time is spent working on “homework” in the flipped model versus the traditional model. I do know that last night’s homework for my oldest kid involved her saying – “quiz me on cells”. If you have a middle schooler, you know that general knowledge does not help much. They need their quiz answers to match the reading exactly. Even the younger kid’s homework started with “you know Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”. Frankly, I feel I could pass an essay test on Alexander – but not a pop quiz.

So I can tell you that as a parent, I think watching the video with the student would save my time. I feel like it would save their time too – because we wouldn’t be barking up wrong trees and we wouldn’t be making drives back to school for the text-book because “Google answers aren’t allowed”. And I feel like it would be preparing my kids for tools that are being used in the workplace today. Think about it – when is the last time you watched a video to learn something; now when it the last time you picked up a reference book. (As I librarian I type that with some sadness, but I type it.) Part of the benefit of the flipped classroom is preparing kids for technology of this century, not last century.

The other point the author raises is that school shouldn’t bleed into the whole day…

But students also have lives outside of school. They play sports. They participate in church groups. They join clubs.

In some ways I think that’s the most compelling argument – but I think where you land on that issue probably aligns with how you feel about the workday bleeding into the whole day. In this case, yes technology does potentially make for more hours of work for a kid – but just as with t an increasing number of work schedules, perhaps that hours could become more flexible. So perhaps I find this criticism most compelling because it highlights the fact that so many opportunities present themselves in education when we use technology that it challenges us to reevaluate traditional teaching methods. That’s exciting and scary – but again I think to not challenge the “regular” way will leave our children unprepared for the new century.

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