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Flipped learning – The approach that can help you teach without time restrictions

Close-up photo of a stopwatch

Faced with too much course material and pushed for time in lessons, Dave Hillyard adopted a flipped classroom approach and never looked back…

Dave Hillyard
by Dave Hillyard
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SecondaryComputing

Back in 2014, I’d been teaching for around 17 years and had became aware of three major issues relating to my practice.

The first was a series of incoming changes to the A Level specifications for my subject, computer science. This can often be a catalyst for prompting teachers to change their practice, where it might have previously not seemed necessary – but in this case, the new specifications covered too much content for the lesson time available to me.

The second problem I had was that my students were simply too passive. I’d allowed myself to become a ‘PowerPoint teacher’, reliant on slides and other display content that I’d go through while the students made notes of varying quality. In fairness, that’s how I’d been taught to teach, but I could tell that my students were bored.

And yet, because my results were consistently good, I hadn’t had much reason to consider what I’d been doing too deeply. I’d convinced myself that the most enjoyable part of the course for students was programming; that it was a case of ‘getting through’ the theory before advancing to the ‘fun’ stuff, but therein lay the third problem – I would plan different lessons for when I knew I was going to be observed.

We’d do the ‘boring’ stuff when nobody was watching. If somebody from senior leadership was intending to observe my lesson, I’d want to show to them the great teacher I could be and thus deliver a completely different style of lesson in order to demonstrate what I thought they’d be looking for.

After a certain point, I concluded ‘This can’t be right…’ When the school eventually moved from a system of giving four or five days’ notice before observations to one of unannounced drop-ins, and this ‘different planning’ approach became no longer viable, I knew things had to change.

‘Contemporary pedagogy’

At the time, however, there seemed to be few teachers working in a comparable curriculum space but teaching in what one might describe as a ‘non-traditional’ way. Having identified those three core issues, I simply Googled the words ‘contemporary pedagogy’. I was looking for ideas and inspiration from anywhere.

Scanning that first page of results, the term ‘flipped classroom’ caught my eye. What could that mean? Probing further, it turned out to be an approach that was catching on in America. From reading further articles and watching YouTube videos on the topic, I was amazed at the potential it seemed to have.

I was fortunate in that my school was happy to adopt a ‘risk taking’ approach to developing innovative practice. Trying things out was highly valued, to the extent that it was considered better to experiment and have something not quite work than to have not tried at all. So, after securing permission from the school’s headteacher, I was clear to give flipped learning a go. The question then became – how would this new approach help me address my problems?

Needless waffle

Lacking the time to teach the entirety of the course specification, one of my goals was to gain time in lessons. I needed a way of removing that time-consuming process of me imparting the knowledge. The students were learning something new with me stood at the front, but I wanted a way of taking that out of the lesson and instead using the time for richer activities.

From my research into flipped classroom pedagogy, I discovered that the way to do this was to have the students watch videos outside of lessons that covered the relevant material. The consensus seemed to be that these videos should be around 12 minutes in length. 15 minutes was pushing it, while any longer risked losing their attention.

This caused me to question my prior practice. What was stopping me from delivering tight, 12-minute ‘learning episodes’ from the front of the class? Why was it taking me as long as 20, sometimes even 30 minutes to simply explain and go through something on the board?

I came to realise that it was down to something many of us do – drifting off in different directions. Sometimes it might be prompted by students’ questions and comments, and I’m not saying it’s always a bad thing, but it can certainly lead to lots of needless waffle in your delivery.

The key to producing the videos successfully was to remove the material that was less important, so that’s what I did. After closely studying the specification, picking out the most essential areas, analysing some sample exam questions and reappraising the textbooks, I was eventually able to boil the material down to the most important details, and capture the substance of these in a snappy way while still retaining the wider context.

Beautiful notes

Interestingly, I found that the process of producing the videos wasn’t actually all that difficult. I’d anticipated it being extremely hard, but when it’s just you alone talking into a microphone, you end up saying a lot less than when you’re stood in front of a class of students.

Once the students started using the videos, I immediately observed how they now remembered those important details and struggled to recall less crucial material, which felt very gratifying. Having previously tried to create a positive atmosphere in class via the occasional bit of fun and banter between myself and the students, I’d find they often remembered the funnier parts of lesson instead of the core knowledge.

Well, it turns out that when you present that core knowledge via videos they’re tasked with watching at home, it’s more likely to be retained. Though, as I quickly learned, just solely watching the videos wasn’t quite enough. Apart from anything else, I had no way of confirming whether they were actually watching the videos or not. I simply assumed they were, which, on reflection, was perhaps naïve.

The answer to that problem came from another school that liked what we were doing and had opted to pursue a flipped classroom approach of their own. They recommended teaching the students how to use the Cornell note taking approach, and taking appropriate notes in their exercise books while watching the videos. The final touch for me was to add visual cues within the videos themselves for students to pause the playback and take notes before resuming.

That way, the students could return to class with beautifully written notes that demonstrated a consistent level of baseline knowledge. This not only gave me a way of monitoring whether the students had watched the videos – they either had notes to show me or they didn’t – but also fostered a deeper level of engagement with the material.

Accelerated lessons

Looking back, I’m conscious now of how alien this approach would have initially seemed to the students. Up to then, they were used to homework that served to consolidate what they’d learned in their most recent lesson, or encourage deeper exploration of a particular topic. They hadn’t previously completed homework by way of preparation for a lesson they were yet to have. It took some time at first for them to take the approach seriously.

I’d advise any teachers interested in implementing something similar to anticipate a bumpy ride for the first few months. Once past that, however, you’ll be able to dispense with lengthy recalls of knowledge at the start of the lesson, thanks to the established baseline knowledge students will arrive with. At a stroke, you’ll have accelerated your lesson and levelled the knowledge playing field, while giving yourself time and space to focus on students’ questions regarding the material they’ve watched and address any misconceptions.

If anything, the approach can almost leave you with too much time in class, affording opportunities for engaging activities you might have previously had to cram into 20 minutes during the latter half of a lesson. You’ll have time to spend with individual students that you didn’t have before.

A common misconception of the flipped classroom approach is that having students learn core knowledge at home means that teachers barely have to do anything in class. In actual fact, I’m considerably more active now as a teacher than I ever was before. I’m reviewing students’ work, examining what they’re doing, overseeing class conversations that explore topics at a deeper level – all because I’m no longer battling the time constraints of my lessons.

Dave Hillyard is a computer science teacher; the flipped videos discussed in this article and many others can be accessed through Craig ‘n’ Dave For Students – a service co-founded by Hillyard and Craig Sargent. For more information about Craig ‘n’ Dave’s resources for teachers and Smart Revise online revision tool, visit craigndave.org

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