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Biology teacher’s Flipped Classroom: ‘A simple thing, but it’s so powerful’

What is your teaching background?

I’ve taught for 20 years. I’ve taught sciences, math and now all I teach is Senior Biology. In B.C. that’s Grade 12 – Biology 12 is what it’s called. I teach as AP (advanced placement) Biology as well. It is the biology course set by the College Board. They’re the same body that does the SAT and that’s taught internationally; it’s not a provincial curriculum. The students write the AP exam in May. My class size varies from 24 to 32.

What caused you to change your style of teaching?

I had been successful with what I was doing. I had amazing provincial exam results. I had positive feedback. I had great relationships with students. But three or four years ago students began changing in subtle but significant ways. They didn’t have to get the biology from me anymore. They could sit there and look it up on their phone. They could go home and watch a lecture on YouTube. They weren’t buying into me spouting off – you know, the fountain of knowledge – anymore.

To me the cornerstone of my practice was that I had strong connections with students, and I didn’t want to disconnect.

It wasn’t like all 30 kids, but one or two kids would say “I watched this video last night on YouTube” or…  “I read somewhere on the Internet that . . .” and it started to be this slow trickle into the classroom that kids were shopping around. So I thought hmmm, they’re watching a lecture on biology on YouTube and so when they show up here maybe they’re not hearing it for the first time. It was a very subtle change, and also kids were more interested in texting and Facebook; they wanted to interact in different ways. I admittedly was very unfamiliar with that. I was like whoa, what are you doing? What do you mean you want to spend an hour texting? I really did not get it. But I realized I had to change if I was going to connect with them in the way that I had really enjoyed. To me the cornerstone of my practice was that I had strong connections with students, and I didn’t want to disconnect.

I had tried many changes in my classroom but I found that nothing was transformative; nothing really shifted or changed the setup. It was more like layering more on top of what I was already doing. I spent 20 years trying to reinvent the wheel and it didn’t happen, and then I stumbled upon an idea that was so simple and all of a sudden it all fell into place. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s so powerful. And it’s what I had been searching for.

How did the Flipped Classroom change how you organized and conducted your class?

The flipped classroom starts with making the videos, using the lecturing and organizing tools I already had. Having made and archived the videos, I’m now free from repeating the lecture that I’ve done for 20 years. My time has been repurposed. Wear and tear on me is diminished, because I’m not lecturing, not dealing with so many behaviour problems in class. My time is now focused on trying to differentiate the classroom and the learning experience, trying to work with students where they’re at in a timely manner, and remediate when they need that remediation.

My design for the Flipped Classroom evolved over the year. For the first semester I thought, oh, I’ll just give them all these choices and I’ll be free and oh, this will be great. That did not work at all! Students are not ready for a leap into a whole class of self-directed time. They didn’t know how to do that. They’re used to being controlled by teachers.

So the second semester I structured it differently.  I started with 10 minutes of what I call “flex time” (where students are invited to make choices) and we grew that time to 20 minutes to 30 minutes to 40 minutes until at the end of the semester students could self-regulate and get engaged in the learning all on their own for the entire class.


Caption: Math teacher Graham Johnson with two students in his Grade 12 Flipped Classroom
Credit: Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lewington

I also did a little bit of “stand and deliver” because I found that some students were angry at me when they showed up in Grade 12 and said, “What do you mean you’re not going to teach me. That’s what you do. Come on.” They needed proof that I was still their teacher, that I do know the content, I still can entertain. I think that’s still a big part of what students like about being direct-taught, and that’s part of what makes you a good direct-instruction teacher: you’re very good at entertaining kids, and I was good at that. So it was a bit of a loss, a grieving process for me to let go of that persona. It was a change that I had to work with them to buy into and demonstrate to them that I was still their teacher, and then slowly let go of the old role. Students didn’t notice that by the end of the year I wasn’t doing any direct instruction, that they were in charge, that the classroom was run by them and that I was really just a facilitator.

You have to be ready to change and you have to be ready to embrace failure.

But it took time to develop those self-management skills. So at the beginning of each unit I provided a packet with a list of the possible activities, with the lectures, the screencasts, that should be watched for that unit. Some things are optional activities. Some things we’ll do as a group, like a lab. They get the packet of choices at the beginning of each unit. The students during the flex time can decide what they should or want to do next. I tried to decrease the time in class that I organized, and increased the time in class that they organized. I weaned them off of me and weaned them onto themselves.

You have to be ready to change and you have to be ready to embrace failure. It’s really hard. And as I tell other teachers, as a 20-year teacher I was used to my class running perfectly, I had everything “tickety-boo-lovely.” To go from that to not-so-lovely was very uncomfortable. I was very stressed because it was not perfect; it was rather messy and discombobulated. So I had to embrace failure and learn from it and change to make it better.

How do students respond to the Flipped Classroom style of learning?

It’s funny. A lot of people say the flipped classroom is probably only good for high-end students, and not good for struggling learners. I find the reverse is true. Students that are most angry or frustrated with this change at first are high-end students, the ones best at “playing school,” regurgitating exactly what you said yesterday back to you. They are really good at playing school but they are not necessarily connected to their own learning. They have the most to lose, because they’ve always done really well at the old system. They don’t want to take risks because they’re the perfectionists – girls, a lot of them.  They want the 96, the 97 and if they don’t get it, it really upsets them. So you have to spend time appeasing their anxieties.

But I think they are recognizing that learning is not about regurgitating the notes the teacher gave you, that learning is messy, that learning can be risk-taking and it takes time. Regurgitating is not really a satisfying activity nor is it really meaningful to the bigger picture in moving ahead in life and moving on to university or whatever their next challenge is.

If you point these students in the right direction, they will do the extension activities you have provided them. You can kind of light the fire within them and then set them on their way. They’re also the ones that you can leverage to help – and when I say that, I don’t mean carry or be burdened by, but to have conversations with – people that are perhaps struggling a bit on another unit. They just need that freedom to know that it’s not for points, it’s not going to affect their GPA, and rightly so, because they’re going to get into university based on their marks. 

I found running the classroom this way created, initially, more of a separation, almost like the middle group has disappeared a little bit. Kids now are much more motivated because there are opportunities for retesting and more than one opportunity to show what they know. I saw a whole bunch of kids who might have been traditionally B’s want to work harder and go back and relearn things and understand them more and move into the A range. As well, my students who would be low A’s (88-90) want to work harder to push their learning into the high 90s because they can.

Another thing I noticed was that students don’t necessarily learn in a linear fashion. It looks like nothing’s going on and then all of a sudden they have this huge breakthrough. I think they realize they have to do something. It’s different data from what I’ve experienced in the past. In the past I was very data-driven and now the data that I’m trying to collect is not just based on points and numbers. I’m trying to have conversations and I’m trying to have students offer their input into their learning and I’m trying to focus more on learning rather than on achieving “7 out of 10.” I’m trying to focus on what did you understand, what did you not understand. So I’m having very different conversations; in the past I was collecting data but it was more like data extraction.

How has the Flipped Classroom shifted the classroom dynamic?

The basic idea of the flip, of me archiving my lectures permanently somewhere where students can access them when they need to or when it’s appropriate for them, fundamentally shifted the dynamic in the classroom like no other thing that I’ve tried in my career. 

The dynamic had always been that I was the driving force in the classroom. I decided what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. When kids have to sit, be quiet and listen for 40 minutes, you’re always trying to redirect their attention and a lot of my energy went into getting their attention back when I want them to do the learning because they all supposedly had to do the learning at the same time and in the same way. So my energies in the classroom have been repurposed. 

Archiving my lectures means the students now have choice as to when they access the video or the lecture or if they want to access it at all. They now own the learning.

The most fundamentally transformative thing I’m doing is having meaningful conversations. When I was standing and delivering, I felt obligated to cover the curriculum because students are getting prepared for university, so I never had that time to have deep, meaningful conversations and connect with the students where they were at. Now in class I have time to talk to students in a meaningful manner. I also have time to do more involved projects and more inquiry-based labs. More peer-to-peer interaction goes on, and there is more time to reflect on the learning process.

So are students now taking responsibility for their own learning?

The whole power of the flip is that that students grow into becoming responsible, self-regulating learners, but that doesn’t happen over night. It’s definitely scarier than me controlling their learning, because if I control it, then I feel that they are going to learn it. So it’s that release of control and trying to offer them many entry points along the way so they can connect to learning in a way that’s meaningful for them. For some kids this takes a week and some kids are very stubborn; they don’t want to take responsibility. Some kids take two months. We use the term: “supported failure.” They have to experience the failure of not doing something for themselves and then they have to make the decision: “Oh! I don’t want to fail. I want to succeed and this is what I have to do.”

Kids have been trained to “play school.” They fill in worksheets, they do labs, they hand in assignments and they get points. But they don’t really know how to play learning. You have to keep offering quality activities to students, and sooner or later they will see the light:  “Wow! This lab IS exciting!” Some kids take right to the end of the course for the light to go on. The lights go on for them in the last two weeks of the course, and then they pull it all together. Some students realize that their efforts are too little too late and have selected to do the course again, because they realize that they want to do better. But this was their decision.

What about the depth of their learning?

I think I’m getting more understanding, whereas before I think I was getting a lot of memorization. For example, in a unit like The Cell, students would memorize the parts of the cell, but if you talk to them about what a cell is, they really wouldn’t understand that a cell is a building block of life. To me, the enduring understanding that all life is made of cells is much more important than memorizing the ten parts of a cell. If you understand how it’s connected to your life and life beyond the classroom, it’s going to deepen your understanding about the world, about biology, and about science. 

Learning becomes more authentic because students are now honest: “I don’t understand that, Ms. Durley.” They can say that without fear, because it’s not a point-driven game. I won’t take away points if they admit they don’t understand something; so we can have an honest conversation: “Well, let’s talk about that, or let’s do this or let’s do a lab.” We have to have time and opportunity to look at what they don’t understand in many different ways. 

We’re doing interactive labs now. We’ve also done some inquiry-based labs where the student is trying to design or come up with a question. Then they design a lab to try to answer that question, and they run the experiment to collect the data and make sense of it for themselves. I give them time to reflect on what they’re doing using learning journals. Some students aren’t used to that habit. 

My passion is teaching, but I’m also passionate about biology. For kids going off into life, you hope they have some understanding of life and their own bodies. I think it’s important, just for that scientific literacy, that they have an interest in how science affects their life and keep them over the course of their lives open to that.

How do you deploy technology in your Flipped Classroom?

I invite students to bring their technology to class and we use things like Facebook and Twitter in an effort to communicating in ways that are authentic to them. Facebook was controversial but now I think it’s becoming less so. I have a Facebook group. I don’t have to “friend” students but they can join the group. Students take pictures about what’s going on in class and post them to our Facebook page and then students will interact around those pictures. That’s really authentic to students. That’s how they live their lives. I think of it like a living bulletin board.

I do tutorials on our class Facebook page. I tell students I’ll be online Wednesday night between 8 and 9, so it’s kind of a modern version of the tutorial. I don’t stay after class; instead, I’m online for an hour at night answering questions. It’s been really effective. That’s what I mean by many entry points. It’s like having different invitations. Something will catalyze the reason why they want to buy in, and for some students it’s: “Oh, the teacher is on Facebook.” For some it’s they can do a hands-on lab. For some it’s that they are writing in a journal. And so it’s just trying to provide many different rich, authentic activities for them.

The Facebook page is a private group. At the end of the course I dissolve the group. It’s not for personal interactions. I want to be very clear about that. It’s for what is going on in the classroom. But it does have a fun feeling to it and it is light. But it is interactive and I think for students it’s very, very authentic. That’s what education or learning has to be. It has to be authentic. 

Most of the Grade 12 students in front of me have smartphones; why not leverage that? That’s what they’re doing. They’re talking to each other. I have a Twitter account just for my classroom. I use it as a daybook, how I used to write on the board – and I still do write on the board – “next day we’re going to do the lab on such-and-such; remember to bring this to class.” So instead of writing it on the board, I tweet it out. I tweet out reminders, I tweet out little hints, so if students – and parents – want to follow me to get those reminders; again an easy way to keep in touch with them.

I learned how to screencast (making the digital recording for the YouTube-based lesson) on my own. I didn’t take a course. I learned by watching videos on how to screencast myself. I’m middle-aged, so if I can learn it, I say to anyone who wants to try: you can learn it too. I really wanted to change. I knew that things were not working and I really, really wanted to make something happen. It’s doable, but there’s definitely a learning curve there.

How do you measure academic progress?

What has been the impact academically of the Flipped Classroom? It would be premature [to draw conclusions] after one year of flipping my classroom. In general we traditionally have wanted empirical data in terms of testing results. For myself, it is important to have test data. But I think it is more important that when I interact with students it is meaningful; that is an important piece of data for me. My relationships with students have improved, the time for making relationships has increased, and my stress and student stress has reduced. From students that’s what I hear consistently. We did feedback sheets at the end of the year and that was one of the big ones that students say: “I have less homework; I am much less stressed because the teacher is available to talk to me and help me when I need help.” That speaks to me more as a teacher than standardized test results. I used to have really good test results but it came at a cost of a lot of stress on me and a lot of stress on students. My goals have changed.

I think they find their learning more authentic. I think they feel more connected to the process of learning; they are aware of what they’re supposed to be learning whereas before I was aware of what they were supposed to be learning. And some kids say: “oh it’s much harder when I (as the student) have to do the learning.” Yes, I agree, it is harder when you have to do the learning.  For the most part they speak of the experience in a positive way. For many it is not until the course is coming to an end that they are able to explain the advantages.

What are the must-haves in developing a Flipped Classroom?

You have to be willing to fail and that’s what we want for students. I have to be willing to model to students that it’s not going to be perfect for me or for them. It’s also critical to have a collaborative person or team in your school; that was my lifeline. I don’t think I would have made it otherwise. We worked closely together and he [Graham Johnson, Math teacher] was my support network. When things went badly, we would debrief it and find a better way. I think that really accelerated our growth in developing the Flipped Classroom because he’s a very different person and teacher than I am, and so we have different ideas. Also, I think it’s beneficial to work with someone who’s in a different discipline from your own, because they see things differently. They often know how to fix the problem because they can see it in a different way. 

I have a community of support – people doing flipped classroom around the world – out on the Internet via Twitter, so when I’m looking for solutions to problems, I can tap into hundreds of different people if I’m challenged by something in particular and I can do it really quickly. Technology has allowed me to be connected beyond the walls of my own classroom, so to be connected is essential. And then there’s the support of your admin. That was fundamental. Our principal supported us 110 percent. He said go for it. He bought into us taking that big risk and he was there all the way. He listened to our problems and our challenges. I think that support is fundamental.

How does Flipped Classroom accommodate student self assessment?

We move as a class through the course. But I found that students, regardless of where you’re moving, move at their own pace. If they are still stuck on the first unit or they’re still stuck on the second unit, and they are very aware about what they do and do not understand. If we have an assessment [test] covering units A, B and C, and the student’s learning for unit A was not in place when that assessment was written, they have the opportunity to apply for a re-assessment, they show up again and do a different assessment to show the learning that they now have in place for that unit A. Students really want to show what they know and figure out what they don’t understand.

They can rewrite that unit A any time throughout the year. They have to fill out an application and show that they have done some work (we call it evidence for learning) and have done some growth in that area. They can’t just show up and hope that they do better. They have to have a conversation with me. That’s been very powerful. Students are trained in the idea that they only get one chance to show what they know. For some of them it took three months. Finally three months in they would say: “You mean I can redo that test?” and I would respond: “Yes, you can redo that first test.” At first, they really couldn’t understand that idea, on an intuitive level because it was so fundamentally different to them. So some of them, when they realized they can show you what they know because now they understand it, were willing to do that. That was a fundamental shift for them in terms of how we operate in the school. 

How do other teachers view the Flipped Classroom?

There are a lot of misconceptions about what the Flipped Classroom is. I think a lot of people get hung up on the idea that it’s like the Khan Academy, that it’s just kids watching videos and that it’s all about homework. It would be good for teachers to visit a Flipped Classroom. I have an open-door policy. If teachers want to see it, I think that’s the best way.

This movement for us was really from the bottom up, and all the other ProDs [professional development activities] that I have been to were top down. Anything else that I’ve been involved with has been kind of directed from the principal or other administrators, so the buy-in was not as great. Our development of the Flipped Classroom was completely self-initiated and self-directed. To me it parallels exactly what I’m wanting for my students in my class. I don’t want them to feel that they have to try something because I said it’s good. You have to want it for yourself and you have to choose it for yourself. I think it’s word of mouth a lot of times and I think it is beginning to grow by word of mouth.

At the Flipped Classroom conference we sponsored at our high school in June 2012, 40 of the 100 teachers who attended were from our district. For some, they had bought in and were ready to go. Some, I think, were intimidated by the use of technology. Some older teachers look at it and feel overwhelmed. You have to give teachers some time, space and a sense of safety to learn something new, because it is really scary to learn something new. But I definitely saw a lot of teachers who were ready, willing and wanting to change.

A reality about real, sustainable long-term change is that the teacher has to own it; it has to be authentic to the teacher. It is slow but I think a lot of teachers are ripe for change. They feel the same change is afoot in their classroom and they’re looking for a way.

The Flipped Classroom is not a silver bullet. You’re still working with kids and they’re still teenagers. They still have struggles and challenges along the way. It won’t fix all the problems, but it fixes a lot of problems that I could not fix with any other method that I had tried.

Any feedback from parents?

We haven’t had any bad feedback, so in teaching it’s a good thing, because sometimes that’s the only kind of feedback, especially for Grade 12. All the feedback that we’ve had has been really positive. For high-flying kids who are really into athletics and are on the road a lot – I had some skaters and skiers, some hockey players – they wouldn’t have been able to do the Biology 12 course at this level and do as well in a regular setting.

EN BREF – Carolyn Durley est une enseignante de biologie chevronnée qui a opté pour la classe inversée pour l’année scolaire 2011-2012, la même année que Graham Johnson l’a adoptée en mathématiques. Ils enseignent tous deux à l’école Okanagan Mission Secondary School à Kelowna, en Colombie-Britannique. Voici ses observations sous forme de questions et de réponses.

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George Pearson

George Pearson is a freelance writer and editor. His website, UpWORDlyMobile.com, is an accessible, non-preachy source of grammar and plain-language writing tips.

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