February 4, 2013

Flipped instruction

Winamac science class balances tech with effectiveness

by Sarah Einselen

WINAMAC — Seventh-graders in Darlene Gordon’s science class balanced thick textbooks and razor-thin iPads on their small desktops Friday as they finished a 17-question quiz using Socrative, an iPad app Gordon chose for some class activities.

It’s not quite “flipped instruction,” but that’s on purpose, Gordon said.

“At this level,” she explained, the “flipped” style of classroom teaching “didn’t work very well because they need more direct instruction.”

One of Gordon’s science classes this year became the pilot group for using iPads to teach via flipped instruction — meaning she sent her students home with videos to watch or a section of an online textbook to read, and then when they came to class, it was to do the homework with her looking on to help out.

One of her seventh-grade science classes was the only class in Winamac Community Middle School where all students got iPads beginning in the fall. Fellow seventh-graders all got iPads shortly before Christmas and are using them in most classes now.

“We are getting more technology with our teachers but you may or may not use the flipped concept,” said middle school principal Ryan Dickinson. Teachers have to be fairly tech-savvy to go to a flipped model of teaching, he said.

“That’s a new concept for a lot of teachers and it is pushing them out of their box in a lot of ways.”

Piloting flipped instruction with one class allowed teachers and administrators to see the pluses and minuses.

It worked for some students, Dickinson said, but not for all.

That’s what Gordon noticed. A 22-year veteran science teacher with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, she spent this past summer writing a whole new curriculum for her fall semester, and “did a lot of learning myself,” she said. “I had to think differently.”

It was the same content she was used to, she said, but presented differently, and using a digital textbook the students would access on their iPads.

Her students were “guinea pigs,” said Hollie Parish, a 13-year-old Winamac resident in Gordon’s science class. “At first we only used [the iPad] for science class, but now that the whole seventh grade has them, we use them for all our classes.”

Hollie and classmate Linlee Scutchfield, 12, had both used family members’ iPads before, and liked being able to get their homework done while Gordon was around to answer questions.

They’d watch YouTube videos at home and take notes in Evernote, an app that saves their notes online so they’re not lost every time the school updates the iPad software.

They can type faster than they write by hand, they said, and appreciated not having to tote a heavy textbook around.

Another classmate, Harmony Wireman, 13, said she prefers doing her homework on paper because “I’m not the fastest typer and I like to get it done quick.”

“And if you mess up when you’re typing, you can get totally lost,” she added, saying that’s not the case when she writes out her homework on paper.

The devices themselves “have been very friendly for the students,” Gordon said. Most caught on quickly how to use them and were more than willing to help out those who needed it.

But when she asked students how they liked using their iPads exclusively, she got a surprising answer.

“They’re like, ‘uh, we like having the book a little bit better,’” she recalled. She suspects the physical textbook provides the security of familiarity, and students are still slightly intimidated by having to learn on an iPad.

Maturity factored into the effectiveness of flipped instruction, too.

“They had to be more responsible with watching, reading and coming to class with questions,” said Gordon — but some students hadn’t matured to that level.

About six weeks — two-thirds of the first grading period — passed before both teacher and students were comfortable with the iPads. The benefits have been clear, said Gordon.

“It opened up worlds my kids have never seen before,” she explained. They could look up picture after picture of a cycad plant, found in the tropics, or realize that something they’ve been talking about in class is actually the same “puzzle weed” they find on the Panhandle Pathway just outside town.

“They had a way to relate what they’ve seen to what they’re learning in school,” said Gordon.

She’s returned to a more traditional form of teaching this spring — teaching the concepts and directing lab experiments in class, while her students take notes on their readings at home — and no longer assigns videos as homework, citing the lingering divide between the “haves and have nots” which means some students don’t have any Internet access at home.

Still, Gordon anticipates a future without physical textbooks.

“We’re trying to take our students in to the future,” she said, which includes soft skills like discerning whether a website is credible.

But it’s sad, she said — maybe just because she’s “old school.”

“There’s nothing like a book in your hand.”

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at or 574-732-5151.

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