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'Flipped Learning' Lets Kids Do Homework at School and See Lessons at Home

By Amy Zimmer | January 27, 2014 6:31am | Updated on January 27, 2014 8:53am

HUDSON SQUARE — When Elinor Krichmar misses something during her algebra lesson, she can just hit “rewind” and play it again.

Many of the ninth-grader's math lessons are 5- to 10-minute videos she watches at home. She can ask for help the next day in class, which is often spent discussing practice problems or doing activities in small groups.

Elinor’s math teacher at the iSchool — a small, technology-focused, selective high school in Hudson Square — has embraced a method known as “flipped learning” that flips school tradition on its head, with class time used for "homework" and video lectures watched at home.

A small but growing number of teachers in New York City public and private schools are flipping their classrooms, saying it lets students learn at their own pace and gives teachers more class time to devote to individual attention. It also helps reach different levels of learners: struggling students can re-watch videos when they’re stuck on something, and those who get it instantly can skip ahead and review when needed, teachers explained.

 A student at the iSchool, which uses "flipped" classrooms, where homework is done during school after watching lectures or tutorials at home.
A student at the iSchool, which uses "flipped" classrooms, where homework is done during school after watching lectures or tutorials at home.
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“Students are better online learners," said Elinor's algebra teacher, Sarah Prendergast. “Many of them can self-correct any confusions after watching a video an extra time.”

Elinor said being able to hit the "pause" button made note-taking less stressful, contributing to improved math grades that have shot up from the mid-80s to the high-90s.

“I got frustrated in past years with math,” the 14-year-old said. “I would just give up if I didn’t understand a concept right away.”

Prendergast began making videos as review guides when she started teaching four years ago. As technology has made it easier to record and upload videos, she’s incorporated more of them into her instruction.  She now uses a “blended learning” model, flipping some lessons and lecturing in class at the 131 Sixth Ave. school.

While some teachers use pre-made videos, Prendergast and her iSchool colleagues make their own using an app called Educreations, which features a white board that the teacher writes on while narrating off-camera. Prendergast said she prefers Educreations since the videos don't need to be uploaded to YouTube, which is blocked in many schools.

“It allows my students to learn in my classroom and out of it," Prendergast said. "Students are no longer only getting information from a textbook, instead they are watching videos on their smartphones at lunch and Googling something when they don't have the answer. Flipping the classroom is a way to catch education up with the 21st-century technological tools that our students have available to them.”

Since using more videos, Prendergast has seen standardized test scores go up, and she’s been able to move through her curriculum at a faster pace. She expects to be finished a month early, giving her class time for special projects and Regents review — which students can tailor through different videos.

The city’s Department of Education is beginning to offer professional development for teachers who want to flip classes or offer blended learning through the “innovation Zone” or iZone  — a network of schools using more technology.  There’s also a national-based Flipped Learning Network, which counts roughly 140 members from New York City who are flipping or interested in learning more about the method, according to the organization’s Jerry Overmyer.

There are some hurdles to flipping a class. It often takes away the predictability that many teachers are accustomed to with lecturing. Instead teachers are responding more to questions inspired by the videos, educators say.

“It can get hectic in the room because sometimes everyone wants me at once,” explained Eileen Sullivan, a chemistry and physics teacher at the Riverdale Country School, one of the city’s top private schools.

“But if I can’t get to them, they turn around and ask somebody else the question and often another student can answer it. How great is that?” said Sullivan, who has 24 years in the classroom and began making videos two years ago.

Many teachers are sensitive to issues their students may have with computer access at home. The iSchool, for instance, has a computer lab that students can use after hours. In Sullivan’s class at Riverdale, where she also uses videos in class, she has iPads available for students who don't have smartphones.

“Too many teachers say 'Put your phones away.' I say, ‘Take out your phone and look that up.’ Teach them what their phone is good for,” Sullivan said, noting the occasional student text does occur.

Sullivan admitted, however, she wouldn’t be able to give such personalized attention if she had many more than the 16 students she teaches. Prendergast’s class size tends to top out at 19, even though public high schools can have as many as 34 kids in a class.

“It’s easier to individualize instruction for 15 kids than 25 or 35 kids,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor with Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Whether flipped learning is “old wine in a new bottle” — akin to a homework reading assignment before class — or a method with lasting impact, remains to be seen, he added.

“Web-enhanced instruction is currently a fact of life, whether it’s a teacher assignment or a student going online to do their report,” Bloomfield said. But “you become very dependent on the kid doing the assignment beforehand, which we all know, as teachers and parents, isn’t always the case.”

Elinor said she wouldn’t skip a lesson and risk falling behind. When she started the video assignments, she would sometimes listen to the audio while looking at Facebook.

“In the beginning, I’d get distracted,” she said. “When you’re an adult no one is going to tell you to get off Facebook and do your taxes. This is teaching me to be in the zone.”