Fort Mill teachers flip classrooms, change how they teach

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comMay 18, 2014 

— Students sit in rows at desks, listen to a teacher give a lesson, go home, do practice problems, come back to school, take a test – and then the whole process starts over again.

This familiar system is the model that most American classrooms have followed for decades.

But in January, three math teachers who instruct about 230 eighth-graders at Banks Trail Middle School in Fort Mill decided to make a change after attending an education technology conference.

They “flipped” their classrooms, and now – four months into the new system – they say they’re never going back.

In a flipped classroom, teachers reverse what tasks are done in school and which ones are done at home, said Marshall Jones, an instructional technology professor at Winthrop University.

“The idea is people will attend to (instructional) content before class,” Jones said. “Then in class, rather than listening to a lecture, they’re engaged in content more actively.”

At Banks Trail, that means the students in Leslie Nivens’, Tami Pettigrew’s and Emily Poeppelman’s math classes watch videos of math content for homework. When they get to class, they get to practice their skills with a teacher at hand, Pettigrew said, instead of struggling with them at home alone with little to no professional support, which is where the real “battle” was going on.

“If they were doing it at home, they were doing it wrong,” Nivens said.

With the video lessons, students can watch a lesson as many times as they need to to get a grasp on the material. It helps those who might learn more slowly or more quickly than their classmates, the teachers said, and it helps every student come into class on more of an even playing field.

Class time is then devoted to practice.

During a recent class, Pettigrew put her students into groups. Some worked their way through a learning module on computers, others worked in a group on practice problems, while Pettigrew led others in practice.

Despite that level of freedom, not a single student could be heard talking about anything other than math. The students were all actively engaged in learning.

“We’re more facilitators instead of direct instructors,” Poeppleman said.

The flipped method allows teachers to work with students one-on-one much more than the traditional system, the teachers said, so they can better assess how students are grasping the material well before it’s time to take a test.

Since starting the flipped classroom approach in January, grades and mastery of topics in math have improved, and the teachers have heard nothing but positive feedback from parents. More teachers at Banks Trail want to implement flipped classrooms next year, they said.

Those positive feelings and improved performance are common among students and teachers who are using the flipped classroom approach, Jones said.

“People do better when they’re doing things than when they’re listening to things,” he said.

Classrooms across the country have been implementing these methods for a long time, Jones said, but it’s only recently that the term “flipped classroom” was coined, which has made the concept more well-known.

The advent of technology and Internet accessibility also has made this approach possible in a way it never was before, Jones said.

The students at Banks Trail report that they are enjoying math class and the flipped classroom method.

“I like class more now because (Pettigrew) is guiding you through it,” said student Eli Blackwelder. He doesn’t feel like he’s trying to figure out his work by himself anymore, and he’s seen his grades go up this semester.

During a session of group work with some of her classmates, Naja Burwell helped a fellow student figure out a geometry concept. She used regular teenage language and, after a few minutes, her classmate got a problem right by herself.

“Most people understand (math), but they just need to hear it in simpler words,” Burwell said. “I’m smart, but now I get to share that.”

Asked if they’d like to go back to the “old” way of learning math – sitting in those rows and doing practice sets for homework – every single student gave a resounding, “No!”

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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