Flipping the script: The students have become the teachers

Flipping the script: The students have become the teachers

URBANA — Two Urbana teachers are shaking things up in the classroom this year.

Introducing flipped classrooms: where the students teach themselves material and the instruction time is devoted to activities, experiments and discussion. If it sounds familiar, the idea aligns closely with many university science and math labs, only differing in that lectures are kept out of the classroom.

The fearless local innovators are Urbana Middle School advanced seventh-grade math teacher Jessica Brown and Urbana High science department chair Alicia Burge. The two are the first in the district to adopt the reverse model of instruction in their classrooms, a change which they say adds to their prep time but triples students' ability to learn and remember material.

"There is so much research backing the idea that students learn and retain more information when they are doing hands-on activities versus in class lectures. That's the whole goal with this flipped model, to give them something to do and remember each day," Burge said.

Here's how it works:

— In the evening, students are required to learn material either through reading class notes or textbooks, watching videos or movies online or by listening to podcasts produced by the teacher.

— During class, the teacher designs activities, experiments and discussions revolving around the material the students learned on their own. Because students have to be prepared in order to participate in classes, the responsibility for initially learning the material falls on them, not the teacher.

— Class time is then devoted to mastering information and seeking support from the instructor through interactive activities.

For Burge, who has been using the flipped classroom model in her AP Environmental Science class for three years and just started it in her Earth and Space courses, this method is the best way to conduct class, even though it requires extra work on her part. In her AP class, students prep each evening by reading textbooks and watching videos. At the end of the week, they're quizzed on the items they learned in their free time.

"Almost every student in my APES class is prepared each day because they take the initiative to learn outside of class," she said. "Discussions are deeper and they are able to work on applying material to other concepts."

Brown has also found the model the best way to run class, but students are not generally familiar with it.

"It can be a culture shock to my students at first and the most challenging part has been figuring out what to do with the students who don't prepare each day," she said. "You have to have two different types of activities planned for those who did their homework and for those who didn't, so it can be hard feeling like you have to be two different places at once."

When one student falls behind, it can affect the whole class, according to Chloe Percival, a senior in Burge's AP Environmental Science course.

"I like how all of my classmates are able to come together and learn off of each other," she said. "It definitely makes you more independent, too. It's all on you if you don't come to class prepared because it affects everyone. It's hard to move forward if someone is behind, but when everyone is set and prepared, it's great."

For Gabrial Owens, a seventh-grader in Brown's flipped class, the structure has helped him mature as a math student.

"This type of classroom really builds our self-learning capability and the belief that we can do anything if we work hard and put our minds to it," he said. "I used to really depend on teachers to teach me, but now I have a better confidence in learning by myself."

The flipped model has been adopted by educators at all grade levels in schools and universities across the nation. Its main critique? Students don't feel they are getting as much bang for their buck if teachers aren't lecturing in class.

For example, Mia Radanavong, a junior in Burge's AP Environmental Science class, said she learns more in her flipped class than any other, but sometimes wishes she had more learning time with her teacher.

"I learn more in a flipped class because I feel as though the pressure to learn is at a faster pace. Therefore, you have to really understand what you are learning to organize information correctly in your brain," she said. "Preparing for class is sometimes challenging when I am stuck on what we learned the day before or last week. ... I like learning with a teacher and being taught one-on-one, so I would say there should be half and half."

Burge and Brown say the lack of lecture time doesn't mean less effort on the teacher's part. Both say they spend a great deal of extra time designing enrichment activities that correspond with what students are learning on their own, while also making lesson plans for homework.

Brown, who often records herself teaching a lesson or explaining a concept for her students to watch online as homework, sometimes feels like she's working double-time.

Aside from pushing students to take ownership of their own learning, the model also helps prepare them for college and future careers, the teachers say. In Burge's classes, students don't get a grade for simply completing their homework and preparing for class the next day. As in higher education and the work force, there isn't always an immediate reward for work, but it always pays off in the long run, Burge said.

Despite the challenges, Brown and Burge agree: Now that they've started teaching like this, they won't go back to a more traditional model.

"The benefits are incredible. When a kid tells me they had fun learning something or they understand a concept better because they got to do a fun activity, it makes my heart melt," Burge said. "That's the whole point of being an educator."

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