In many classrooms, said Evanston Township High Sschool math instructor Dale Leibforth, there are three types of students: About a third of the students instantaneously grasp the material; another third have to really work to understand it; of the final third, Mr. Leibforth said, "You’re just talking to them. It’s an implicit contract," he added. "I pretend to teach and they pretend to listen."
But Mr. Leibforth – who is also ETHS’s Advanced Placement Recruitment & Retention Coordinator – and some colleagues are now utilizing a "flipped" classroom teaching method, wherein some intricate changes to traditional classroom formats help break down some of those barriers to teacher-student engagement.
Flipped classrooms have been around for a number of years. Lecture material is prepared by the instructors ahead of time and delivered to students on videos they watch on their computers, smartphones or tablets. Students can watch the videos as many times as they need to get the lessons down, and actual class time is saved for closer interaction between the teacher and student.
The flipped classroom setting helps students think more abstractly and become more creative in their problem solving, said to math instructor Sachin Jhunjhunwala.
Prior to becoming a teacher Mr. Jhunjhunwala worked at Expedia for 10 years. One problem many of his colleagues had – even ones who were especially accomplished – was that they simply could not communicate what they were thinking very well. This is a challenge many students contend with as well, he added.
"A lot of students can be [academically] successful without really having an understanding of the material," Mr. Jhunjhunwala said, adding that while they may be good at taking tests and rote memorization, they often could not visualize how concepts could come into play.
A flipped classroom affords them more time to grasp that material, however.
The class is designed to accommodate wide-ranging study habits and personal situations of teenagers. About 30 percent of the students watch the videos in a timely manner, said Mr. Leibforth. The rest of the class has to move through the curriculum at their own pace.
"We say to them, ‘Your job is to master this, and if it takes until April to do so, so be it,’" Mr. Leibforth said.
"By the end of each period, they should have made some progress," Mr. Jhunjhunwala added.
Though ETHS students come from a variety of economic backgrounds, only under rare circumstances will a student be unable to access the videos outside class. At the beginning of each term, Mr. Leibforth and Mr. Jhunjhunwala survey their classes to make sure that everyone has access to a platform – be it computer, tablet or smartphone – on which they can watch the videos. Most students without a computing device at home usually can access a computer through afterschool programs. But in worst-case scenarios, Mr. Leibforth burns the lessons on to a DVD. "Every household usually has at least a DVD player," he said.
Each video lasts about five minutes and, since students can watch them on their own time, they can view it as many times as they wish if they fail to grasp the material the first time around.
Though the lecture component of instruction is gone, a flipped classroom can actually be more challenging for an instructor than a conventional one.
"To an outsider, it can look like chaos," Mr. Jhunjhunwala said. With flipped classrooms’ emphasis on one-to-one interaction, the process can be laborious, he added. "I have a conversation with every student every day."
Both Mr. Leibforth and Mr. Jhunjhunwala admit that the flipped classroom does not appeal to all students. Many young people appreciate more traditional instruction and do not especially enjoy self-directed learning.
"Some kids like being told what to do," Mr. Jhunjhunwala said.
But some initially reluctant students are won over by the flipped classroom. Mr. Jhunjhunwala remembered one student who relinquished her study hall in order to volunteer in his classroom. She had been in his class the year before, and had not liked it. But she noticed that grasping difficult concepts and formulating solutions to problems in her other courses had become easier.
Very often, Mr. Leibforth and Mr. Jhunjhunwala are looking not so much at the solutions their students give them, but the process by which they go about devising those solutions.
"It is important to teach students, especially those without access to privilege, that the information is out there and that they can access it easily," Mr. Jhunjhunwala said.
"True mathematicians are often not the ones who can come up with an answer first," Mr. Leibforth added. "They often will take a long time to think about the right solution."