Flipped learning: From cynic to believer

Penny Humm, a physics teacher at Bellerbys College Cambridge, puts flipped learning to the test

“You want me to stop teaching in the classroom and switch to video? Really?!”

This was my initial reaction when I heard that Bellerbys, the international college where I teach GCSE physics, was to trial flipped learning. I’d only recently adopted concepts from the Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) programme to take on a more interactive style. Flipped learning – delivering my lessons via pre-recorded video before class and using class time to complete tasks that would normally be done as homework – appeared to reverse this approach. I could see some immediate benefits – international students, who are also contending with learning a new language, would certainly benefit from being able to pause and rewind material to gain a better understanding (something British classrooms, filled with students of varying abilities, would also benefit from). But I was also concerned that my role as a teacher might change to something more resembling a facilitator and that our students (who were expecting to be taught in class) would think we were asking them to do all the work themselves.

Yet, despite this initial reluctance, my scepticism meant that it was important I took part in the trial. I would be able to provide more constructive criticism than someone who was already a convert. I also wanted to test myself with something new, and Bellerbys has always had a culture of innovation, which is an environment that I enjoy working in.

Putting flipped learning to the test

Essential to trialling any new way of learning is its proper introduction to staff and students. We outlined the trial, explaining that it was compulsory but that we’d also be relying on honest feedback to get the most out of it. In the first lesson I showed students how to use the videos and explained that watching them was only part of their homework– at least an hour’s worth of preparation would be required before class.

 We decided early on that creating our own videos would maintain the personal touch the college prides itself on. I had tried using a video from an external company with one class but it was a complete disaster! Although the video had a high production value, the students hated it precisely because it was missing the connection that only a teacher that works with them regularly has.

However, trying to ‘teach’ to a camera was a completely alien experience to me and it took several retakes to get the first video right. I was concerned the students wouldn’t learn much because the video wasn’t good enough. In fact, they responded really well to it, preferring being given the most important information in bite size chunks, and being able to pause and rewind and learn at their own pace. A special mention must go to my colleagues who spent so long finding suitable software for video creation and training us in its use.

A noticeable difference

It took some getting used to in the first lesson; however my fears that I might be side-lined were eased when the first hand went up for help. Because they’d already gotten to grips with the basics at home, students were asking me not for knowledge but instead how they could apply it. It was no longer “I can’t do this” but, “how do I do this?”

The extra time afforded by getting the ‘boring’ bits out of the classroom meant more opportunities for student-teacher interaction and I had a far clearer idea of my pupils’ understanding and knowledge. The improvement in the pace of learning was remarkable, and very exciting indeed.

In reflection

Ultimately, the flipped learning trial has been a success and we intend to continue with it for the foreseeable future. We’ve been proved right in our initial predications that international students would benefit from being able to pause and revisit any elements they may not have caught first time round. Another thing we’ve learned is that flipped learning isn’t suitable for every topic or lesson, but there are certainly times when it’s the best way to ensure students understand a subject. It’s a bit like decorating: priming the students with an undercoat of knowledge so that they’re ready to paint in class. It’ll never replace teachers but should instead be viewed as an addition to your box of teaching tricks to engage your class and get them learning.

My initial concerns have lifted and I’m happy to say that the response of students and staff has been better than I’d ever expected.

Penny Humm is a physics teacher at Bellerbys College Cambridge whose pupils are all international students studying in the UK.