Are you flipping your teaching?

ImageI have been “flipping” through one of the well-known, widely published works on flipped classrooms: Flip Your Classroom, by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams. It is a pedagogy (of sorts… but possibly an ideology also) that most astute educators should by now recognize and be familiar with. The technology to do it well is simple enough. Use your MacBook and Quicktime, or get an iPad with a free app like “Show Me” and you’re set to put together cheap, high quality screen casts. Of course there’s folks like TEDed and Khan Academy who put together high quality lessons for mass audiences.

But to start off, you don’t really need to get that sophisticated. I do believe that everyone in teaching, of any grade, should at least once, put together a flipped lesson if for no other reasons but to explore other media and intentionally use modern technologies for teaching (instead of passive consumption). Personally, the faddish hype that has affixed itself to flipped teaching has never really caught on with me perhaps because I have usually taught languages, history and social studies. The face-to-face discussions, debates, case studies  and roleplaying that I use to facilitate thinking could never be effectively replicated (using todays technology) in an asynchronous online environment. Let’s never forget also, that simply delivering a passive online lesson is no better than a passive face-to-face lesson (except that you can watch it repeatedly), and that covering material is not teaching.

A lot of flipped lessons simply summarize, synthesize, organize or explain the material being covered in the curriculum – but this is precisely what students should be doing. Summarizing, synthesizing, organizing and explaining are examples of the kinds of thinking teachers should be encouraging through lesson design if they ever want students to truly understand and learn the content. Learning is a derivative, or a product of thinking… I like best Daniel Willingham’s comment that “learning is the residue of thought.” Good expert teaching fosters thinking. Learning (understanding, knowledge) doesn’t happen without thinking. (Ever wonder why those tens of hours students spent on a powerpoint presentation never resulted in much learning of content? It is probably because students spent most of the time thinking about colour schemes and slide design, and little about the actual content.) Lectures/direct instruction, online or otherwise, still have their place, but not as the main instrument of instruction. And they’re probably best used to demonstrate, introduce or inspire. Direct online instruction is also probably more effective for teaching a routine skill that can be reproduced, like calculating area or perimeter, but less effective for teaching something like analyzing the causes of a war. Used well, the best lectures challenge us to think about the content they are exploring, and they stimulate further inquiry through arousing curiosity to find out more about the content.

One reason that I never flipped a lot of my lessons in say for example, an IB History class or grade four Social Studies class, was that there are so many good video clips online that explain the concepts I would have made a screencast for. Why reinvent an online lesson explaining the reasons for European exploration of North America when the CBC has already produced a great five minute segment in Canada: A People’s History (keep in mind, you should also have students evaluate the claims in the film). The one thing that “flipping” some of my lessons did help with was to make reading assignments (which some high school kids never did) something we did more frequently during class. But this isn’t ideal either. At my best, a flipped lesson might have provided me with the time to do a really thorough document analysis activity or debate with my classes. In my French classes, it allowed some kids to watch videos on how to conjugate verbs while I simultaneously conducted dialogues with small groups of students… But to the flipped purists, this isn’t really flipping my classroom, and sounds more like just differentiating your classroom instruction.

Another reason I’ve never really got that excited about flipping my teaching is that we know that one the most powerful things teachers can provide for students in classrooms is formative feedback. John Hattie’s meta-analysis of educational research places feedback at the top of the instructional hierarchy (0.73 effect size on achievement) – of the things teachers control and can do, it is really powerful. Providing just-in-time learning and feedback to students’ thinking is hard to do when their thinking isn’t visible to you because they are not in your classroom. Of course there’s lots of creative things that “flipped teachers” can do to mitigate this, such as asking students to bring their questions to school for discussion the next class, or creating an online discussion forum. But, so much of what expert teachers do is unplanned and unscripted, such as the verbal cues and comments they make that help guide students’ reasoning or problem-solving. So, I am not denying that flipped classrooms can be powerful, especially if your main goal is improving student achievement on standardized exams, but that there are limits to what they can replace, especially in schools where there are an abundance of “expert teachers” (rather than “experienced teachers”). Is Khan Academy really the school we envision for our future?

On the “flip side” however, towards arguments in favour of flipped classrooms (or generally just increased use of online teaching tools), I am always aware of Clayton Christensen’s argument in Disrupting Class that fewer and fewer schools will be able to afford “best practices” such as the ones that I constantly strive to learn and deploy in my classrooms (as messy as it is sometimes). Therefore it follows that it is possible that in most schools and school districts, where resources are strapped, “best practices” will be replaced by practices that are “good enough” for the cost. Which is why, you may see more online content delivery and assessment in schools of the very near future. Staffing and facilities eat most school budgets, so the simple math and logic seems to dictate that the technology will allow “good enough” practices to disrupt the “best practices” in a lot of educational environments. There’s also a lot of potential for flipped classrooms to be really effective for teaching skills that require repetition and drill to master. Students can work at their own pace of learning, freeing the teacher from delivering mass lessons, holding everyone to the same pace, and instead allowing him to work with the students who are struggling. For schools that have invested significantly in bricks and mortar, there should be some discussion about whether the kinds of teaching typically being done in their classrooms could be easily replaced by hybrid or flipped models of instruction – if the answer is “yes” then there’s some work to be done to make sure that the academic experience of their school can’t be replicated in a cheaper virtual classroom.

…Back to that book I was “flipping” through. Probably the most useful advice is offered by the authors on page 21. This is probably published somewhere else on the web and I could just link to it, but I am curious what others think about it, and I changed them slightly. Here are five bad reasons for flipping your classroom:

  1. …because some cool teachers are doing it.
  2. …because you think it will make you more “21st century”
  3. …because you think it will make you cutting edge and innovative
  4. …because it will make your teaching better
  5. …because you think it will make your job easier

What do you think about flipping your instruction?


Leading learning – BCPVPA Conference @ UBC 2013

e5c84d10eaa711e2a1bd22000a9f1361_7Over each of the past five days my colleague Cathy and I have braved the commute from South Langley out to the UBC campus, putting in long days at the “short course” – an intense, engaging administrative leadership conference hosted by the UBC Faculty of Education and the BCPVPA. The workshop sessions, the discussions, the new professional relationships forged, and the ideas we’ve explored have been transformational. Many participants have stated that this might have been the best professional development they’ve ever attended. However, five days of sense-making and learning is difficult to capture in a single reflection. Undoubtedly, many of the arguments and ideas we’ve explored will continue to linger long after we return to our individual schools. In a way, this has been a spiritual experience that will have transcendence and permanence in my journey.

My goal for this conference were to find out what experience, research and wisdom could reveal about the characteristics and elements that are necessary to effectively build and lead innovative, creative, effective and globally-impactful schools. From insights delivered by some of the most successful principals and superintendents in BC, here’s some lingering ideas and thoughts that I gleaned over the five days. The one big idea, if boiled down to a single enduring understanding: Educational leadership is moral stewardship and commitment.

  • There is only one important time and that time is now. But, you are not in charge of time. The most important one, is the one you are with. The most important thing to do is to support (listening, attending, caring for) the one by your side.
  • Your job is important. You are one of the key leaders in your community, with enormous responsibilities. The educational leader is essential to the success of the school and student achievement. But, you aren’t the most important – the teacher is. Teachers are also educational leaders and you must recognize and embrace this, as well as help them to create the conditions to build capacity. Your job, primarily, is to establish, cultivate and tend to a culture of collaboration and a community of learning.
  • Lead to learn. Learning is joy. You, the educational leader, must exude a life of passionate pursuit of learning and growth. If you don’t passionately pursue growth and learning, neither will your staff, and consequently, your students will be affected too. You, as the learning leader, have a learning obligation.
  • You get to the “how” through the “why” – nothing meaningful is achieved without careful consideration of purpose and vision. If there’s a problem to be fixed, first ask what conditions caused the problem in the first place.
  • Everyday in educational leadership there will be an opportunity to be upset, angry, frustrated, annoyed and anxious. But there will also, simultaneously, be opportunities to help, inspire, reward, grow and serve. Some see the rain, some see the sun.
  • You are watched closely as an educational leader – if you can’t handle this or don’t embrace it, you are in the wrong profession. People take cues from your behaviour. They learn from it. You are observed, critiqued and scrutinized. Most of the influence and impact you have, you never see. Your actions shape the culture of the school. The way you behave and respond is your leadership – this speaks volumes about who you are.
  • People will forgive, support and follow you if you are incompetent in some areas, but they won’t forgive, support and follow you if you have a record of questionable character and integrity.
  • You need to approach educational leadership with reverence and respect – it isn’t about you, it is about the school, the community, the learners and the teachers you’ve been entrusted with.
  • You need to learn from your community, to discuss and know the people in it on a regular basis.
  • Educational leadership requires BOTH/AND – it isn’t either/or. You have to be able to live with, and function within: complexity, ambiguity and the tension between contrasting realities. Confusion and ambiguity cannot always be solved, but just have to be lived.
    • Schools are bureaucracies AND communities. Bureaucracy is goal driven; community is purpose driven. Purpose is different from a goal; purpose includes vision and values, and it is compelling. Bureaucracy based on rationality, policies and procedures; whereas community is based on relationships of unseen networks.
    • Educational leadership is BOTH leading out front, commanding, exercising authority; AND it is servant leadership, which requires you to be inspirational, but not commanding. You have to earn influence and lead by permission. Many administrators never get influence. Your authority can be terminated in an instance, but your influence can linger long after you are gone.


How soccer explains what doesn’t work in education

lucasRecently, on a flight to and from the Netherlands to work on a curriculum design project for the International Baccalaureate Organization, I had some much needed headspace to read something for pure enjoyment and interest. I chose a book that I had wanted to read for a long time: “How Soccer Explains the World”. In this great little read, a New York Times journalist, Franklin Foer, documents his travels to soccer Meccas around the world, and attempts to use this most un-American of all mainstream sports as a lens to explain the affects of globalization on phenomenon ranging from mass culture, to violence, crime, corruption and ethnic identity. 

I’d like to propose he add an additional chapter: How soccer explains what doesn’t work in 21st century education.

You don’t have to look far to find condemnation of mass compulsory education, …

…or to find allegations that how we do schooling around the world is un-engaging, uninspiring, lacks creativity, is irrelevant, boring, and is a relic of our industrial past. Soccer is anything but these descriptors, … except perhaps that its roots originate at the same time England was industrializing.


My 8 year old son is a bit fanatic about the game, to the point that my wife gets a little worried sometimes. The other night at dinner, when he turned a question about what he was learning in school into a statement about the recent exploits of FC Barcelona, she commented that maybe he was becoming narrowly focused to the detriment of interest in other topics: like the ones you learn at school.

I retorted that that was hardly a fair comparison. Soccer is way more interesting to an 8 year old boy, and me too, than regular school tasks like multiplication tables, spelling tests and the numerous worksheets a grade three comes home with.

“Now,” I said to my wife, who in her own right is an amazing special education teacher,  “what IF?”

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach basic economics and mathematics to my son?

  • Why can Barcelona afford to pay Messi but not AFC Ajax in the Netherlands Eredivisie?
  • How many tickets would you have to sell to pay Messi’s salary?

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach science?

  • Why does a ball curve in certain directions when kicked different ways?
  • How can you grow really green grass for a soccer stadium?

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach history?

  • Why was there so much violence at Rangers-Celtic games?
  • What happened to Jewish soccer clubs in Nazi-occupied Europe?

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach geography?

  • Why do Catalonians feel such a strong connection to their Barca club, while people in Vancouver don’t feel the same way about the Whitecaps?
  • Where are the best players in the world from? What local social and economic conditions create good soccer players?

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach ethics and social responsibility?

  • Is it fair to charge children to play on community soccer clubs?
  • What is more important, winning or how you play?
  • Did Juventus bribe a referee before their recent Champions League game with Celtic? (Okay, maybe not that one…)

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach Language Arts?

  • Write a persuasive paragraph explaining which team is better: Barcelona or Manchester United.
  • Write a descriptive story about the sights, sounds and smells of a soccer field on a rainy day.
  • Collect a variety of different kinds of media (books, newspapers and magazines) about an important issue in sport.

These probably aren’t even good examples of what I am getting at. I am sure there are more creative teachers/soccer dads out there who could come up with better lesson ideas.

The point is that a child’s passions and interests should be gateways that we use to encourage them to explore meaningful questions about the real world. These aren’t frivolous obsessions that we should discourage and put to death once kids enter four walls of a classroom.  There should not be any difference between “school subjects” and out of school subjects. We know a great deal of learning takes place outside of school, especially when kids are interested, engaged, curious and motivated. We need to bring those interests and curiosities into the classroom and make them part of our curriculum. In compulsory schooling – both independent and public – we simply don’t make the time and space in our “official curriculum” to design learning experiences in personally engaging and relevant ways.

But, WHAT IF we could? WHAT IF we tried, maybe if even it was just once in a while?

Designing learning spaces

Some professor told me about 6 years ago when I was completing my masters degree in Curriculum Studies at UBC that there was a lot of research to support the notion that learning environments had a direct impact on student achievement and a whole host of other things, including student confidence and enthusiasm for school. The argument went that if students went to school at a dumpy building with dumpy classrooms they were less likely to feel good about learning and less likely to do well. It also seems to make sense that how individual teachers organize and present their classroom might have an impact on students, how they learn, and what they think the teacher values. SO, I am trying to find research that supports these positions and post it here.

It also seems to reason that the kinds of learning spaces schools create dictate what kinds of learning take place. Most schools seem to only design two kinds of spaces that look largely the same no matter where you go: science labs and multipurpose classrooms (usually with desks or tables, a projector and white board). Some schools might have a drama room, or computer lab too. Increasingly however, schools are removing the computer labs as the computers get mobile and wireless. This will leave a lot of schools with spaces in their schools that they never had before. How to use them? What might we do to diversify the kinds of classrooms we have in schools and thus change up how we deliver education? So again, any potential answers to these questions I am posting here too!

  • D. Gordon, Multipurpose Spaces (2010) Examines multipurpose spaces in schools. After a brief review of the history of multipurpose spaces, the document covers a variety of key issues to be considered for optimal performance of space that will serve various functions and various student and community populations. These issues include location, technology, food service, acoustics, lighting, seating, ventilation, outdoor space, and stage use. Design advice addressing the space a school symbol, and creative adjacencies is included, as are 12 references.
  • S. Harris, SCIL Place of Virtual, Pedagogic and Physical Space in the 21st Century Classroom (2010) This paper outlines work connected to the successful convergence of digital, pedagogic and physical space. The Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL) has been focusing on the gap that has existed in schools where the physical layout is often stuck in an industrial-era education model, rather than reflecting the possibilities of ICT-enhanced personalised learning. SCIL has been working to create digital spaces so that students can consistently transition from the real to virtual world.
  • Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 21st Century Learning Environments (2009). Proposes that learning environments must embrace a diverse and complex world of people, places, and ideas. While a tremendous amount of attention has been paid to standards, assessments, professional development, and curriculum and instruction, the paper finds that learning environments are an essential component to supporting positive 21st century outcomes for students.
  • What I like about these guys is that they haven’t drank the “collaboration” kool aid. I think schools, especially middle schools, should embrace pedagogies that encourage collaboration, but we also have to make sure the pendulum swing doesn’t go to extremes. There’s still a need for traditional and independent learning spaces.

The once and future library

This posting isn’t so much anything I’ve got to say on this subject, but rather a collection of ideas from others who are talking about what libraries should look like in schools. I love books and will probably always love them. But, increasingly I am getting used to reading digital books and like the ability to take hundreds of books and scholarly articles with me anywhere I go and be able to put up a resource and email it to a colleague, instantly pull up quotes or data to support a position, or send a link via Twitter to something I know other teachers will find interesting.

So, what do you do with all this space schools invested in simply to house thousands of resources that can now fit on, or called up on, a phone or e-reader and put in the hands of every student? As the internet proliferated in the last decades, how many of those resources were actually getting used anyway? Were libraries essentially just computer labs that stored books too?

In short, within a few years, libraries won’t look anything like what we’ve been accustomed to in the past. And ironically, they might actually be more effective in encouraging literacy by being more versatile and attractive to students seeking learning spaces for a variety of purposes. The role of librarians has changed too, from being people who once catalogued books and provided services like maintaining databases and teaching research skills, to now having to be uber-information experts and fluent in a variety of digital literacies, with an ability to help students sift good information from poor, use online tools and teach critical media literacy skills. Teacher-librarians are probably more indispensible now than ever, but need an entirely different set of skills.

Here’s some concept ideas for a redesigned library – email me if you think there’s something being overlooked.

The following links explore the possibilities for future libraries.

Debating the Exam: The 1948 Palestinian Exodus

“As a general rule, every war is fought twice: first on the battlefield, then in the historiographical arena.”  – Efraim Karsh, Israeli historian

Lies My Exam Taught Me?

More than ten years ago, educator James Loewen wrote Lies My Teacher Taught Me, a scathing commentary on textbook writing in the United States finding that a great deal of material in widely-used high school and college level history textbooks was flawed, incorrect, or fell into the category of myth propagating.[i] Undoubtedly, many of the materials we use in British Columbia classrooms to teach historical themes and topics, from a popular teacher-created History 12 text to DVD documentaries, suffer from similar problems.[ii] These flaws of course can always be overcome by the classroom teacher,[iii] so what is more concerning is when these historical flaws and inaccuracies find their way into the standardized examinations our Social Studies 11 and History 12 students write.

History might be the only discipline regularly taught in schools where half-truths and misunderstandings are regularly tested as facts. Having marked hundreds of history exams from British Columbian students, and hundreds more from history students in other schools around the globe, I can assert with fair confidence that there are many students graduating with very strong perceptions of important events in the past that may not be all that accurate. This is not entirely the history teacher’s fault. Too often, the examination questions themselves are the culprit as they are frequently based on false or faulty assumptions, or do not adequately encourage the historical thinking that pedagogically sound examinations should be designed to assess.

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What do we mean by “21st century” education?

What is shaping the dialogue? Where are we going? Who is coming along?

There is, like any other educational concept (critical thinking, cooperative learning etc.), a lot of confusion, jargon, ideology and rhetoric in the world of education today around the issues of “21st century skills” or “personalized learning” or any other of the names these discussions are using to discuss the directions and trends that or occurring in education and leaving many teachers, administrators and learners behind and out of touch. It is still surprising to find educators who haven’t at least heard of these terms and at least heard some staff room discussion about them.

There is a lot written about the history of educational trends and the revolutionary, disruptive technologies that have caused massive upheavals. The written word was one of them. Socrates lamented the day men would no longer rely on their well-developed memory but instead resort to the written word to record knowledge. The printing press was another disruptive technology. However, in the history of mankind, nothing has been as revolutionary as the mobile information technology. But has it fundamentally changed educational structures, models and organizations? In some places yes. In others, no. The later are the places that will simply, I predict, cease to exist as we know them or find it incredibly difficult to maintain their facilities except for those consumers of education willing to pay top dollar for a “traditional education”. These changes we are seeing are massive, and they will affect how we think about learners, schools as places, and the role of teachers.

My own thoughts are mixed, but generally I agree with the consensus opinion of educational thinkers that the current delivery model is hopelessly out of date, expensive, inefficient and largely ineffective, except to perhaps somewhere between 20 and 40% of our students whose learning preferences fit the model we have grown accustomed to. Changes are coming, and in some places, they are already well underway. Here’s a snapshot of some of the discussions and ideas taking place. Continue reading