Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Students Mykaela Adams,14, Rukky Bawaallah, 14, and Alexis Davis, 14, work on their homework in physics and engineering class at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Lawrenceville last month. GSMST is using a what one teacher called a "creative conceptual way of teaching and learning" titled "Flipped Classroom".
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Mom and dad are sitting at home, winding down after a tough day at work. Their 15-year-old son wanders into the room and says he needs help with his homework.
"I can't figure out how to solve this quadratic equation," he says.
The parents look at each other with confusion, fear.
An idea that's spreading in schools across America and in several classrooms around Gwinnett County attempts to answer the question: How can I possibly help my child with homework I don't myself understand?
The "flipped classroom" or "flip teaching" is a radical take on traditional methods of instruction that some educators are calling the wave of the future. Using available digital technology, students, in essence, do their classwork at home and their homework in class.
"In a traditional classroom, we're disseminating information at a lower level, when the expert or the teacher is available," said John Willis, a physics and engineering teacher at Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology. "So what we do is flip that model, and you say, 'OK, let me disseminate the information while they're at home, then they come to class the next day, where the expert is, and they increase that cognitive load."
Added Willis: "We provide the guidance, while they do their homework in class.'"
In order for the model to work, however, students must first be exposed to the materials through a video lesson on their own time. Video lessons can be produced by teachers, students and others. Willis said it allows teachers and students to achieve new heights in the learning experience.
"We ask students to go home, watch a low-cognitive level video, jot down a few questions they may have, come to class, and then we really get into the material. We design and build and construct, and they share their work with other students, and we reach new levels of learning. That's what should be going on in class, not just lecturing and a bunch of vocabulary words to memorize."
At GSMST, a Gwinnett County Public Schools charter school, Willis and about a half dozen other teachers collaborate during the lesson or video production process. Using each other's expertise on different subjects, they lean on each other for help as they build a library of videos for students.
When students choose to watch each lesson can vary.
Many of them choose to watch the videos, which can run anywhere from five to 15 minutes, at home. Others may watch them on their way to or from school.
Students who don't have access to a computer device or an Internet connection can use downtime at school to watch the lessons.
At Buford Middle School, many students have "flex time" for about 30 minutes in the morning. They can view the lessons during that time if they wish, but teachers with "flipped classrooms" also have a collection of DVDs pupils can borrow, each containing a lesson.
Seventh-grade student Cooper Long, a 12-year-old in Robyn Wilborn's class at Buford Middle, said he often watches his lesson around 5 p.m. at home, before dinner and basketball practice.
Wilborn said that because students like Long learn their initial lessons at home, when they come to class the next day "we can all focus more on application-based learning, and we can do more meaningful activities rather than just busy work."
Fellow Buford Middle School math teacher Leslie Brigman said the flipped classroom model allows teachers to be "more like a coach or a tutor. We can apply the content in the classroom once the students have been exposed to the information."
Teachers like Brigman and Wilborn spend time several afternoons after school every week recording each lesson plan. Many of their lessons involve the use of Power Point slides with voice-overs, animations and links explaining the information.
At GSMST, teachers like Willis aim to "present the information in an engaging, creative video, where you're laying out all the materials, and you actually build the lesson piece by piece, and show them how to put all the information together."
Keeping the video lesson engaging, Willis said, is essential.
"There's a little bit of danger if you try to make it just a lecture on video," he said. "We all know that students don't deal well with lectures in class, but then we're going to ask them to watch something like that on their own time? What are the chances they're going to get through that video without falling asleep?"
To make videos engaging, he said, teachers have to include prompts in the lessons, asking students to pause the video after a couple of minutes and answer a series of questions, visit a specific website or try a hands-on activity.
Students at GSMST like 14-year-olds Jeffrey Jacob and Timothy Gieseking enjoy watching the videos, because they can learn at their own pace.
"It's nice because you can take however long you want with the lesson," Gieseking said. "You can pause the video or skip forward through what you already know."
Jacob said that teachers "do a good job of providing the information, and it's all there, available to us at any time outside of school."
He added that, much like regular, old homework, "you have to be responsible with your time."
"If they don't do the work when they're outside of class, the whole system breaks down," Willis said. "If they don't do it, then what is the teacher supposed to do the next day? So, you've got to hold them accountable, and you've got to do it everyday until you train them."
There are potential pitfalls for educators, too, he said.
"When students are in class doing their homework, that is not a time to be sitting down at your desk and grading papers," he said. "That's an error that some teachers make."
In an ideal flipped classroom, everyone is involved."They're all talking about work. It's dynamic. It keeps you on your toes, because every day is different," Willis said. "You have to be able to respond quickly and problem-solve as a teacher and allow the observations you're making of the students to help drive the direction of the class."
More importantly, he said, students are getting help when they need it the most.
"In elementary school, parents are able to help their kids out with their homework. In middle school and especially in high school, they're starting to not have the academic breadth and depth to be able to assist their students. In the traditional classroom model, we're sending our students home when there's no expert, and we're asking them to work at a higher level."
Added Willis: "This concept aims to solve that problem and address many others as well."
Watch one of the video lessons: