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Zhiyu Wang/MEDILL

The "flipped classroom," which turns the teaching model on its head, is getting a tryout in Evanston.

Zhiyu Wang/MEDILL

Math teacher Sachin Jhunjhunwala introduces the flipped classroom model.

‘Flipped classroom’ overturns traditional teaching method

by Zhiyu Wang
May 21, 2013

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Courtesy of Zachary Herrmann

Students engage in group discussions in class

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Courtesy of Zachary Herrmann

Under the flipped classroom model, students work on problems together in class.

Two math teachers at Evanston Township High School have turned their class upside down, an approach an expert says could help students perform better in the state standard tests.

Math teacher Sachin Jhunjhunwala, who has worked in various technology companies for many years, said he knew the students were not learning the skills needed for the workforce even though they seemed to be doing well in tests.

“They knew all the tricks they had to get through to take tests. Watch how you do problems in class and they would expect the same kind of problems on tests,” Jhunjhunwala said. “So when I started asking them new questions that require them to use this toolbox they built and apply them in new ways, they were completely paralyzed.”

Worried that the students wouldn’t have the skills in problem solving, last year Jhunjhunwala and his colleague math teacher Zachary Herrmann decided to “flip the classroom.” Students teach themselves at home with video lectures and work on homework at school with teachers or classmates.

“At first the students are resistant to that. They are used to having their hands held and someone dragging them through school,” Jhunjhunwala said. “And what I’m trying to teach them is that the tools are so readily available on the Internet, they can learn just anything they wanted to. So it takes a while for the students to switch mentality. “

The challenge of such model, according to Sarah Haavind, associate professor of education at the University of Oregon, is that it is unrealistic to expect that students will watch lectures at home, because some students do not do homework of any kind. The schools must provide the space and time for students to do the background learning as well as spend class time integrating new content with problems or projects in partners, she said.

Jhunjhunwala said some previous research showed that a lot of students under the “flipped classroom" model, as Haavind cautioned, came to class unprepared. So in his adjusted model, Jhunjhunwala allowed students to choose between watching lecture videos in class and working with partners on homework problems. Also, the students can take the unit tests after they feel that they’ve fully absorbed the knowledge, he said.

“It starts to provide a different incentive structure for them. In many classrooms it’s like they are stalling the 40 minutes to try to get out of there,” Jhunjhunwala said. “It’s now switched to ‘I only have 40 minutes and I need to use it effectively because I don’t want to do homework tonight.’”

Of the more than 20 math teachers in Evanston Township High School, only Jhunjhunwala and Herrmann have used the flipped classroom model so far. Peter DeCraene, mathematics department chair of Evanston Township High School, thinks a flipped classroom is one of many strategies that teachers should have in their repertoire of strategies, but it’s not appropriate for all lessons and all students.

“The important criteria for any strategy is whether or not the students understand the material and can apply their learning in new contexts,” said DeCraene.

Since Evanston is only in its second year trying this approach, it’s too early to see marked improvement in students’ test scores, however Jhunjhunwala believes his practice is in line with the state’s upcoming new assessment.

Illinois adopted the Common Core State Standard in 2010 and this year approximately 20 percent of the operational items on the reading and mathematics ISATs were written to Common Core Standards. The target date for implementation of the new assessment is the 2014‐15 school year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

“They recently released their prototype, and the prototype test is very much like what we are testing on them,” Jhunjhunwala said.

The new Common Core State Standard assessment is placing more emphasis on students’ ability to process information and use logical arguments to reason within a discipline, according to Peter Rennert-Ariev, associate professor of the education specialties department at Loyola University Maryland. The “flipped classroom model,” if used well, can provide the opportunity to better prepare students for this emphasis in the new assessment, he said.

“Flipped classroom model provides them opportunities to engage in discussions about math and solving problems that may need teachers to assist them,” Rennert-Ariev said. “In the traditional classroom, there isn’t sufficient time for students to be able to do that type of thing because most of the time was spent with the teacher lecturing.”

The popularity of the terminology “flipping the classroom,” especially in the math field, took off in 2011 with educator Salman Khan’s speech at a TED conference, Rennert-Ariev said. Ted conferences are a global set of gatherings of leading thinkers owned by the private nonprofit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan "ideas worth spreading." In his speech Khan discussed how the instructional videos can “flip the classroom” and the video of his speech has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube.

With the advancement of technology, Rennert-Ariev thinks the "flipped classroom” model will gain more momentum in the future.

“In the year 2000, there are maybe 45,000 students nationwide who had some sort of online learning experience, now that number has exceeded 4 or 5 million students,” Rennert-Ariev said. "You have to see it as a growing trend. “