When Khan Academy burst onto the scene my initial reaction was to laugh. What was so special about it? The more and more I thought about Khan Academy and the idea of “flipping your classroom” the more I became frustrated with the general public’s perception of teaching and learning.

If the media and public believed that watching videos at home the night before school was a solution to all of our educational problems, then what was the point of teaching at all!

I was annoyed, a bit angry, and generally confused at how this platform could be seen as such a “savior”.

In the midst of my frustration, I went to look at what others were saying about Khan Academy and the idea of flipping the classroom with video. I was an English teacher at the time, and it didn’t make sense to me. We had always sent the content home in the form of reading and done the work in class in the form of conversations, formative assessments, Socratic seminars, and analysis.

This led me to first realizing I didn’t truly know what teaching looked like in other subjects besides my own. Like many teachers, I had been so wrapped up in my own content area, that I forgot students went to six other classes a day in our high school.

Two years after this epiphany I left the classroom. As a K-12 Technology Staff Developer, my role was to help integrate technology into the classroom, and help run our 1:1 laptop initiative at the high school. The role itself was something I always wanted to to do. I loved working with my colleagues, and I was especially passionate about the transformative role technology can play in the learning process.

That year I grew more as a teacher in than any other time in my career for one reason:

I watched other teachers teach.

I helped teachers plan, watched them teach, talked about their subject areas, or their grade levels (in elementary), and reflected on what worked well and what could be improved. Although my focus was on technology, the real discussions happened around instructional strategies, pedagogy, and quality teaching/learning practices.

I better understood what the entire scope of an educational experience looked like. I had previously held assumptions about subjects like Science, Math, and Social Studies from my own middle and high school experiences as a student. Sure, I had cross-curricular conversations over the years with my colleagues in these areas, but never before had I seen what it took to plan and execute a lesson, activity, or assessment in their subject areas.

Without a doubt, I was most blown away by the Math teachers in our school. Students came into their classrooms with a preconceived notion about whether they were good or bad at math. Most of the math skills built upon each other, so if students had previously struggled and “just got by” the year before, they would come in behind, possibly fall farther behind, and struggle again throughout the school year.

It was a snowball effect, and the snowball got bigger and bigger each year.

Math classes were also where I saw some of the biggest need to differentiate. Students were on various levels of understanding for all kinds of concepts. There was no possible way you could “teach to the middle” and actually help the students who were struggling, or challenge the students who had already mastered the concept/skill. Teaching “to the middle” left two-thirds of the class with ineffective instruction…and the teachers I worked with knew this struggle all too well.

I was planning with a third-year Math teacher who caught me off guard when she said:

“I’m constantly checking to see if they understand what we are doing, but when 80% of the class gets it…that means five of my students are falling behind when we move forward. Not only that, but another five to ten students understand the material so well, they could possibly teach most of it to themselves at the pace we are going…”

There had to be a better way we thought…

This is when I went back to the idea of Khan Academy. Instructional video lessons were a possible solution to this problem that was most likely seen in schools across the country and world. The videos could serve as remediation, or to push some students farther ahead who worked at a quicker pace with that concept.

In theory, the idea was great.

In practice, the idea didn’t work too well. Students had to want to watch the video, just like any homework; and students had to understand the instruction in the video for it to work, and sometimes it was not that high quality of instruction. There were no teachers to ask questions to when the video was playing…

When we discussed the idea of “flipping the classroom” in our Math classes we wanted to focus on how it could help teachers differentiate, instead of just send home instruction for homework.

What came out of this discussion and planning was an amazingly simple and effective way to differentiate and provide some structured choice in the learning process. Simple for the students to understand. Effective in how students could move from a low-level of understanding to a high-level of understanding. And it was an engagement boost!

The difficult piece was designing the lessons and activities in order for this type of differentiated flipped model to work successfully. Luckily, we had some amazing teachers who worked incredibly hard to develop this model.

Let’s break it down.

The Three-Tiered Flipped Model for Differentiation

As I walk through these 10 steps to “flip” your instruction and set up a working model of differentiation in your class, keep in mind a few things.

First, realize that this can work in any subject area. In order for it to work successfully, a teacher must come up with clear objectives on what students need to know, and how they will demonstrate that knowledge. You’ll also have to be able to teach the main concept through video, and students will need a way to access that video at home.

Second, don’t spend too much time thinking about the resources you use to make the video. I’ll share some that work really well in the final part of this chapter, but often teachers get stuck in the technical side of things instead of just making it and getting better with production over time.

Third, make sure you use this strategy to find out what your students know and what they are missing…then get them to a place where they can demonstrate that understanding. Differentiation may sound difficult, but really it is providing various pathways for students to achieve the same level of success. When you pre-assess students, the goal is not to see “who did the homework” but instead how your instruction can meet students where they are at in their current level of understanding.

A Step-by-Step Guide: Choice in Differentiation

Here are 10 steps (some longer than others) to get this model working with your class:

  1. Teachers identify a particular concept or skill to focus their instruction (often dictated by your curriculum).
  2. Teachers create a short video screencast (using Screen-cast-o-matic.com) walking students through the concept, explaining the reasoning and steps, providing examples of the skill in action.
  3. Teachers edit and upload the video to Youtube or Vimeo.
  4. Students watch the video the night/day before class and take notes or answer some quick comprehension questions.
  5. When students arrive at class the following day, the teacher hands out (or gives digitally) a short 5 question pre-assessment based on the video and instruction from the night before.
  6. Students answer the questions to the best of their abilities and then score a partner’s (or self-score their own assessment).
    1. Students end up in three tiers based on the pre-assessment score.
      1. Score a 0-1 and you are in Tier A.
      2. Score a 2-3 and you are in Tier B.
      3. Score a 4-5 and you are in Tier C.
  7. The goal for all students is to end up in Tier C by the end of class.
  8. The first third of class:
    1. Tier A sits down and re-watches the video from the night before with a teacher created handout with new questions.
    2. The teacher gets Tier B into groups (or partners) to work on refining some of the skills and concepts together. They can use the video as a guide and call on the teacher to help during their group work.
    3. Tier C is given a higher-level application challenge.
  9. The second third of class:
    1. Teacher heads over to Tier A after the video is complete to answer any questions they might have on the concept and give the entire group some questions to answer. Then they answer questions individually. They move onto Tier B.
    2. Tier B takes another short formative assessment (individually) to show their understanding after the group work on the concept. Those that score a 4-5 move onto Tier C.
    3. Tier C continues to work on the challenge or completes it and begins to help new students coming into their group.
  10. Last third of class:
    1. Tier B students work in partners or groups and take the next formative assessment when they are ready. Teacher floats between Tier B and Tier C helping and challenging as seen fit.
    2. Tier C students finish the challenge and work to create a challenge for the following class (or next year’s class).
    3. Tier B students are helped by classmates and teacher to move to Tier C before the end of the class.

Let’s recap:

First, you start with some type of work at home or at the beginning of class. Then you assess quickly on base knowledge of that concept. The pre-assessment separates your class into three tiers of understanding. The goal is to move students through tiers and provide different levels of support. With all students landing at the final tier for a challenging activity by the end of class.

The trick to making this successful is to embed choices into the activities during class. Allow students to pick partners and groups. Give students multiple types of questions to answer and activities to complete. Give the second tier options on how they are assessed before moving to the final tier. Provide the final tier with options and choice to challenge their understanding and move past the application to a higher level of thinking.

I would personally start with a concept or skill that some students typically master quicker than others. In this case, you’ll have experienced the frustration of having students at all different levels of understanding, and know that there has to be a better way to go about instructing the entire class.

Start small with a short video, and quick activities at each of the levels. This way, when you move into bigger units of study, students will be familiar with the process and expectations. It’s amazing to watch the negative “snowball” effect of students falling behind stop immediately. In this model, there is no “falling too far behind” because students are all expected to reach a certain level of mastery by the end of the class. Choice and formative feedback are the fuel that gets them there!

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