by Andrew Sachs
Learning, motivation and the future of education
In education today, flipping classrooms and instruction is getting a lot of attention lately. The promises include increased motivation, mastery of content and not grades, an applicability of the approach to all types of learners, and an unmatched pace of learning. In this post, our founder details his first experiences with flipped instruction 30 years ago, and his more recent experiences: his daughter’s self-study for an AP Calculus exam, as well as his wife’s challenges in flipping a public school classroom. Finally, he details a method for families with high school students to try, by implementing flipped instruction principles, using AP exams.
Learning from books while skipping class
In the late 80s, while attending college for electrical engineering, I mastered learning from a textbook, mostly as a survival technique. I attended my early college lectures, because I had to, even though my college professors would just lecture what was in the textbook. They mandated my attendance and supplied test hints and homework assignments I could not miss, during their lectures. As an undiagnosed ADD learner, I would get bored or fall asleep in the lectures, and I accidentally discovered that I learned more quickly when studying the book directly; so, I started doing just that. Thanks to my friend Jessica, who shared her outstanding notes from my few classes that didn’t mandate attendance, I learned efficiently and effectively and preserved my grades, all while skipping class.
Resorting to lures or mandating class attendance always struck me as particularly inefficient. Why not just make the classes more interesting? I realized, only later in life, how impossible it is to make classes interesting to all students at all times. I know now that my professors were really trying to help the core body of students by doing what they felt was in our best interest.
Flipping VHS tapes and Learning at Light Speed at Stevens Institute of Technology
In 1988, I had an opportunity to take a self-paced particle physics class. The class consisted of workbooks, a textbook, chapter exams, advancement after mastery, lectures on VHS tapes and a room of talented physics teaching assistants; Sal Khan would have been excited (1). This was the flipped classroom – 20 years before Sal Khan made his now-famous YouTube videos for his nieces and nephews. To electrical engineers, the class was quite interesting because it covered the actual physics occurring at the subatomic level, which dictated the behavior of semiconductors. Effectively, the class covered the Legos of the electronics world.
The flipped class structure of the particle physics course seemed particularly suited to my learning style, and it seemed efficient too. I could attend excellent lectures, consume the content from the book, practice on modules, lean on teaching assistants when I was stuck, and progress after I mastered the material, even while I was sleeping if I wanted to. Like many engineering classes, the modules built upon each other, to give the student a comprehensive understanding of a complex subject. There was an added benefit too if you could remain focused: By taking so many modules in one day, you didn’t forget content between the modules, which allowed you to make quick progress through the content. Heck, if you wanted to, you could complete the class within just three days, which is exactly what I did.
My motivation had more to do with efficiency than anything else. I wanted to learn the material as quickly as I could, take the final exam, and be done with it. I knew I was not the brightest student, not by a long shot, but after three 12-hour days, alternating my existence between the TA room, my bed and a spot in the library, I finished the course material, took the final exam and scored the highest final exam grade in my class of a few hundred students. I credit my time-crunched life, a well-structured course, and great teaching assistants for my ability to learn at light speed.
Fast forward nearly 25 years, and my daughter was working on some AP Calculus material as a high school freshman doing self-study. She had some tutoring, and mastered most of the material within 3 days, intermittently asking her online tutor and me for help. While she only scored a 3.0 GPA on the exam, she showed how much could be learned quickly in a “flipped environment” – provided the resources and motivation were present.
Trying to flip the American Classroom, lots of stakeholders
Sal Khan, the Khan Academy, and his backers deserve all the credit for bringing the notion of a “flipped classroom” into our lexicon and making it something we could strive toward. The Khan Academy model gives us a student-centered learning model where students are not pushed ahead before they master the information; they are allowed to move at their own pace. With accessible content, exercises, and assistants, students spend their time learning and closing their knowledge gaps, not waiting for others to close theirs while their thoughts drift away in boredom or confusion. In flipped instruction, each member of the class moves along at his or her own pace. It lifts the bar on the rates at which students can learn, and this results in greater mastery of content. Students can accomplish learning and not just grades. They can find and maintain their motivation (2).
While schools nationwide work to adopt flipped classroom models, the challenges are significant for the many different stakeholders. My wife is dedicated to improving education, and this has afforded me a nearly first-hand visibility into the challenges facing teachers trying to flip classrooms. The challenges come from many areas including:
- Mandated state or district tests with particular timings – This goes against the notion of self-determined progress. Also, taking a test covering material you learned two months earlier is difficult.
- The shift from grades to mastery – Parents, teachers, administrators and even colleges still have “grades on the brain” and will require time before they see objective proof of mastery as a substitute for grades and class ranking. If a child finished the material in 4 weeks, does that make it an “A”?
- Non-universal access to broadband and equipment to watch content at home – Without supplying the equipment and services to those in need, the digital divide increases, and students cannot accelerate equally.
- Change is hard – Yes, it is. Different administrations, schools, departments and teachers will make uneven progress toward what is, quite possibly, the biggest change in education since the schoolhouse.
- Content for your curriculum – It is no small task to amass the content needed for your school’s curriculum. In a flipped classroom, it must all be available online, allowing unrestricted progress for all students.
While there are barriers and challenges, it is clear that this reinvention of the classroom holds incredible potential and will be a key part of a reinvented educational system.
How can a student or family take advantage of the technology now?
While we wait for our schools to flip, what can parents and families do now to take advantage of these resources and these new accelerated ways of learning? Clearly, leaning on these resources to augment normal instruction is great (3). However, how can a student use these resources to accomplish the whole course learning at an accelerated pace? The answer is embedded in the cost of college classes for Americans.
Almost all colleges accept Advanced Placement (AP) exams for credit from incoming freshmen. These are college-level courses, taught in high school, and credit is given based on scores earned on the final (AP) exam supplied by the College Board. Due to the unavailability of instructors in many school districts, and a push to have the exams widely available, it is not a requirement that a student takes the class in order to take the test. They can self-study, take the final and, with a four or five out of five on the exam, get credit at most colleges, thereby saving costly tuition that would have been spent if the respective class had been taken at college. AP classes, exams, and credit are great ways for families to accelerate college, make it a bit easier, and potentially save money.
So, self-studying for an AP exam is a great way to take advantage of these flipped resources. A high school student could, during a break or even during the year, self-study and take the exam for credit. Depending on the level of independence, the student might also wish to use a tutor to help with learning acceleration and a coach to help with motivation. Many students start with great intentions, but tracking progress and maintaining motivation to accomplish the goal is a critical element in actually finishing the material and earning a good score on the exam.
While we will certainly see flipped classrooms are most certainly where we will end up, the switching costs needed to implement this educational model are significant for many public education institutions. This progress, unlike learning, is not likely to be realized at light speed. However, either through enrichment or, as outlined above, with college credit AP exams, families can take advantage of these new learning techniques and help their students realize real progress on their learning journey.
There are many other aspects of reinventing learning that we do not touch on in this post. Self-directed learning, project-based learning, and mastering your own learning processes are just a few of the areas that promise continuing efficiencies in our learning organizations. My next post will focus on self-directed, project-based learning that helps activate, not just maintain, student motivations.
For those wishing to learn more about flipped classrooms and how to accelerate these changes, please visit these resources:
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