Bringing practice back to class


What if kids listened to lectures on their own time, and spent class time in guided practice instead? (Dan Pink’s blog this week calls it “flipping homework.”)

That’s the technique used by many pioneering teachers, including Karl Fisch, a Colorado high school math teacher and blogger. He makes YouTube videos to explain key concepts and procedures to his algebra students—who view them after hours.

During class, students actively work on solving problems, collaborating in various ways as they try out the concepts for themselves.

Meanwhile, the teacher has the time to watch, assess, and coach kids as they puzzle through the problems in the moment. He can offer just the help that each needs in the moment, stretching their learning to the next step.

That approach makes sense for any subject (math, science, foreign languages, etc.) where a teacher wants to introduce background knowledge via direct instruction or sustained silent reading. Delivered during traditional “homework time,” that information has a chance to come alive the next day — and “stick” as kids make it their own in the messy, generative ways that deliberate practice demands.

Just today, Fisch’s students conducted a Skype interview with a geothermal engineer from the National Renewable Energy Lab — but as homework beforehand, they prepped for their interview by reading a package of background information. (Find out more here.)

Have you tried a strategy like this in your classroom? Do you have other ways you’re accomplishing the same goal? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

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14 thoughts on “Bringing practice back to class

  1. This is an amazing idea. So many math teachers spend most of the class time showing kids how to do the problems, which the teachers enjoy but is not a very effective way for kids to learn to work the problems. Students learn much more effectively from ‘guided practice’ and at the same time are learning the power of practice in developing mastery. Teachers are able to respond to individual needs of students and students are actively involved in the learning. This is a great idea on so many levels.

  2. I agree with Jan, this is an amazing idea. I think that it can be modified and used for a variety of content areas. Currently, I am student teaching AP US History and AP US Government courses. The students are all quite motivated to learn and put a great deal of effort into the class. Problematically, AP classes have to move through the content so quickly that there is little time for creativity or even debate/discussion–which are so crucial to making sense of history.

    For a while now, I’ve been toying with how I can supplement classes in ways that keep the students “hooked”–or keep those fires burning. I am toying with the idea of making a private class blog. On there, I can put photographs, videos, speeches, anecdotes–anything that might make history come alive. I have also thought about making videos and podcasts as review (because we spend a whole day reviewing in class). Dan Pink, and your book/website, have given me lots of new ideas on how to do this! Thank you!

  3. I agree–too many AP courses skimp on classroom discourse and inquiry, so as to focus on reviewing information for the test. How could that be “flipped” with confidence? I’ve been exploring a little free application called Anki, a free, open source, flashcard program that lets me create a “deck” of flashcards (or download one that someone else has made). I practice my Spanish vocabulary that way, using my iPhone or computer, but I see that someone has loaded a deck for AP history, too.

    The system that Anki uses to order the cards is called “spaced repetition.” It is based on an algorithm that uses how you rank each card to determine when it will show that particular card in order to maximize retention (and save time). The harder you rank the card the sooner the information reappears, and vice versa. You get to decide the pace of learning by setting the amount of new information introduced every session. It allows you to share your created decks, and offers the option to upload them to the Anki website where you can access the cards anywhere with an internet connection (and sync them across multiple computers). A downloadable version of Anki is supported on all the major operating systems (OSX, Windows, Linux) as well as iPhone, Android and Nintendo DS. Let me know if it’s helpful to your students!

  4. I would love to be able to use these strategies in my classroom, but the majority of my students do not have computer access outside of school. For me to ask my students to view youtube videos as homework wouldn’t work. I think this is true for many rural or poor communities across the US. The digital divide is still a problem.

    But there are other technologies available that can be used in innovative ways. Students may not have access to computers, but I’m sure many of them own a cellphone. According to a 2010 Speak Up Report, about 98% of secondary students have their own cellphone. My school district and others around me have a strict cellphone policy and do not realize the potential phones have in facilitating learning. For example, if a teacher used Google Voice, the teacher could give the students a number to dial where the students could leave the answers to their homework. The teacher can check messages later that night, which allows the teacher to check understanding and modify lesson plans for the next day if students are struggling in a certain area.

    It is exciting that there are so many different ways in which we can use technology in the classroom to help our students learn!

  5. I really appreciate reading about this idea! It seems so simple, and yet, many schools and/or teachers have yet to implement the idea of having students listen to lectures on their own time in order to focus on working and practicing the techniques from the lecture during class. I could really benefit from this idea in my own class!

    For instance, one day in my literature class, I wanted the students to work on an activity that had them looking through the text and highlighting the metaphors and similes in the story. Since this is a senior class, and the students had previously told me they were aware of craft and different writing techniques, I was confident in their success. However, after detailing the assignment to them, many students raised their hands. Each one was concerned about the differences between similes and metaphors and the definitions of each (provided with many examples). I spent the rest of the class period going over metaphors and similes, and as a result, had to wait to do the worksheet.

    If I had given the students the lecture of similes vs. metaphors as homework, then the class would have run much more smoothly the next day. Even though posting lectures online might lead to some problems: personal computer usage, as Mallory Glenn pointed out above, or the actuality of students watching the lectures on their own time, I believe that this practice has more benefits. Students will be able to repeat the lecture as many times as they want in order to understand it perfectly. In addition, students will be able to write down any questions they have, and instead of going over the whole lecture the next day, I can answer the questions. Lastly, I could try out different lecturing styles to make sure all students have the ability to learn (talking the whole time, writing notes on a whiteboard, providing examples, etc.).

  6. I like your idea of calling in homework, Mallory–especially if it encourages students to explain their thinking, rather than just give answers. Still, I worry about the inequities that arise when cell phones are involved, just as much as when we depend on kids’ computer access. As you point out, most students have cell phones. But for many of those I interview, cell service goes off and on all the time, depending on whether they can pay their bill. It’s a little-noticed example of the pervasive digital inequity that many forget when they look to technology as education’s great hope for the future. (Gives a new and harsher spin to “differentiated instruction”!)

  7. I read about this idea of “Bringing Back Practice to Class” a few months ago. I thought that it was a really great idea especially in a math class where the students tend to get lost in lecture and where a portion of the classtime is spent reviewing the homework anyway. It seemed like a much more efficient use of everyone’s time. The students run into more problems on the homework when they try to practice what they just learned. Also, the students could play the lecture at a comfortable pace and generate more thoughtful questions for class.

    I brought the idea to my mentor teacher along with a recommended site — The Khan Academy. Here, Khan has recorded literally hundreds of videos on the very topics that we teach in class. Each video is under 15 minutes which is much more manageable amount of time for my students. The videos play on Youtube which is available on smart phones or iTunesU which is helpful if a student only has internet access at school where Youtube is blocked. Also, teachers could record themselves to ensure that the students received material tailored more closely to the needs of the class.

    My mentor teacher liked the idea and passed it on to others in her department. However, she did not embrace it in her classroom. Instead, she decided to show the textbook videos during classtime. The students absolutely hate it. The video goes too fast, and they cannot get down all of the notes. She has to stop the video continuously and insert her thoughts and clarifications. Then, the students receive homework to do at home. I talked to several students and they now dread “learning” from a video. I am fearful that they will forever view the video format in a negative light because they have had this negative experience and it will be much harder to try this when I take over the classroom in the spring.

  8. I read about this idea of “Bringing Back Practice to Class” a few months ago. I thought that it was a really great idea, especially in a math class where the students tend to get lost in lecture and where a portion of the class time is spent reviewing the homework anyway. It seemed like a much more efficient use of everyone’s time. The students run into more problems on the homework when they try to practice what they just learned. Also, the students could play the lecture at a comfortable pace and generate more thoughtful questions for class.

    I brought the idea to my mentor teacher along with a recommended site — the Khan Academy. Here, Khan has recorded literally hundreds of videos on the very topics that we teach in class. Each video is under 15 minutes which is much more manageable amount of time for my students. The videos play on YouTube which is available on smart phones or iTunesU, which is helpful if a student only has internet access at school where Youtube is blocked. Also, teachers could record themselves to ensure that the students received material tailored more closely to the needs of the class.

    My mentor teacher liked the idea and passed it on to others in her department. However, she did not embrace it in her classroom. Instead, she decided to show the textbook videos during classtime. The students absolutely hate it. The video goes too fast, and they cannot get down all of the notes. She has to stop the video continuously and insert her thoughts and clarifications. Then, the students receive homework to do at home. I talked to several students and they now dread “learning” from a video. I am fearful that they will forever view the video format in a negative light because they have had this negative experience and it will be much harder to try this when I take over the classroom in the spring.

    I still want to try it if only for a lesson. However, I am in a district where the majority of students are from working class families and they have prepaid phones with poor service. I wonder about a podcast because they definitely have mp3 players…but math is something you need to be able to see. The challenges of teaching seem so overwhelming at times.

  9. I am student teaching in a high school where my content area is Latin. I think that the idea of “flipping homework” can make a lot of sense in Latin pedagogy. I am going to leave the digital divide issues aside and simply brainstorm on the benefits. Hopefully, the day will come when we can find our way around the issues that constrain the “through-put” from the repository (a website, blog, or whatever) to the student.

    Many tasks for the beginning Latin student center around memorization. My own personal experience is that this memorization goes best when the student pursues it “multi-modally.” If he not only looks at a paradigm, say the declension of a noun or pronoun, but also hears it, speaks or chants it, and writes it from memory while speaking it, his chances of memorizing it go up exponentially. The model “chant” of a paradigm, which is simply the various forms of a given word pronounced correctly, could easily be presented in the form of a podcast. The ability of the student to access such a presentation after hours would dramatically increase the number of times he or she would hear it pronounced correctly; this is essentially the only way a student can be sure to perceive correct pronunciation without having to synthesize discrete bits of knowledge presented in disparate records in a text book or notes, a process that opens the door for error and confusion. Another way of presenting it might be a small YouTube video where the student can not only hear but see the paradigm, and I could more easily speak to the patterns of the forms in the paradigm as they relate to students’ prior knowledge. Pointing to the different forms would be the most efficient way to discuss patterns. It would also be beneficial for the student to have a homework assignment directing him or her to upload his or her own chant of a paradigm as a small podcast file; this would require the student to practice the chant in order to be able to speak it correctly. Additionally, this would provide a means for assessment for me.

    As I have begun lesson planning, I can see that there has to be a base of information “in play” in order for there to be something around which to plan lessons; this is certainly true for cooperative type lessons, but it is even the case with direct instruction lessons. The “lecture” component takes up precious lesson time, and could easily be done as a podcast or multi-media presentation of some kind that the students could access as homework. Not only does this free up class time, which helps ensure a lesson’s success, it also allows the student to have a durable resource that he or she can experience multiple times, pause as needed, and return to later in the class term. For those students who do not transfer information well from hearing into notes, it would be an extremely valuable resource. I know that, as a student, I would have found (in fact would still find) such a tool to be of immense help. I especially think, here, of students with certain learning challenges, and of English language learners.

    In sum, I think the more presentation material can be stored in a durable location in order to be able to be re-accessed, experienced again, referred to, and interacted with, the more effective it will ultimately be. Also, this form of presentation allows class time to be a time for strategic trouble-shooting, for making connections, fielding questions, and the building of shared understanding between me and the students and among the students themselves. I absolutely plan to pursue this. If in no other way than as a backup resource for students who can access it.

  10. I am almost finished with your book, but I felt the need to comment on the homework chapter, as I felt like it really hit home with me. I look back to my high school experience and remember wasting my time on countless hours of worksheets. These worksheets simply tested my ability to look through the text find a word, and copy down the definition. I never learned anything from these assignments. I felt like homework needed a makeover.

    The idea of having new information learned through YouTube videos or otherwise at home, followed by a discussion in class is an intriguing one. This idea sounds great in principle, but I don’t think it would work in every classroom. I work in a low income school district and many of my students do not have regular access to computers. Unless they were to spend hours at the public library, it would be very difficult for them to complete their assignments. Another problem I see with this is the time factor. If students are watching a 45 minute YouTube lecture for each of six classes, they will have limited time for other extracurricular activities, which are essential for developing social and teamwork skills outside the classroom.

    However, I did really enjoy your section on alternative homework assignments for students. I completely agree with your idea to let students choose what they think is a good homework assignment. This not only makes them more engaged with the work, but it would give me a whole new bank of creative, student approved homework assignments to use elsewhere in the class. While I understand that not every single one of my students would give me the perfect assignment, I would imagine that quite a few would come up with ideas that I (or many other teachers) would never think of.

    When I look back to my high school experience, the most memorable learning experiences which I had worked the hardest on were all fun and practical tasks that allowed me to use my creativity to present a solution. I will take the suggestions from this book and attempt to tailor my students homework to make it just that.

  11. I think this is a wonderful idea! Teachers so often worry about covering the content that we often do not get to what is more interesting –- discussion! It is especially important to assess whether students are making the appropriate links in history and that is difficult to do without actually speaking to the students: Lectures minimize this opportunity. I think it would be a great idea to make videos to assign for homework. Teachers can test for completion of this by assigning short journal responses or by assigning a question to be answered via text. What is also convenient for the students is that they can keep these videos to study and review before tests.

    As a student teacher in a low-income urban area I can anticipate certain obstacles that might make this difficult. Firstly, I know that not all students have computer and Internet access at home. Since many students depend on the city bus to get home it is hard to require students to stay after school. Also, non-participation is another problem and it would worry me that students would simply not view the videos and come to class unprepared. Nevertheless, I think this is something I would like to scaffold.

    What intrigues me especially about this idea is the opportunity to introduce different people and places from all around the world to my students. This is especially important because many of my students have had very little exposure to places other than their city.

    Kathleen Cushman, I just finished your book and I find your recommendations very helpful. I intend to incorporate the ideas you offer in my classes when I begin to teach full time, particularly about differentiated homework to meet individual needs and offering my students choices in assignments. I am struggling with lighting those fires in the minds of my students: They are convinced that school and learning is boring, so my goal is to show them otherwise. Thank you for your suggestions!

  12. I think you’re right about introducing your students to the broader world, so it’s worth our while to think of ways to solve the equity problem posed by hi-tech solutions that students with more economic privilege take for granted. However we do it, the trick is to catch kids’ interest, whatever the subject. This past weekend I sat in on Dan Meyer’s terrific webinar for math teachers and he was saying that sometimes all it took for them to get interested was to “create perplexity”–that is, he asks kids to take a guess about what an answer is to a puzzle he poses. Once they actually do take a guess, his experience is that they are invested in finding out which of them is right. I’ve seen this with debaters, too, and I wonder if it could work in history class that way…

  13. I recently attended a student advisory meeting at my high school. One of the students brought up the idea of “flipping homework” so that they could practice with teacher guidance. I was so excited to hear that this student was investigating his own learning. This student has become an advocate, and his comments will help change our culture. It’s amazing.

  14. The idea of flipped classrooms is very appealing to me! What I find most exciting about flipped classrooms is how direct instruction is moved out of the class and onto the computer as short, manageable mini-lectures that students can view at their own pace.

    I currently teach in a high-poverty school where many students have limited access to both computers and the internet. The thought of leaving students behind because they do not have the resources to view the content at home has bothered me since I first started reading about flipped classrooms. Recording lectures and posting them to a website like YouTube is the model most teachers seem to be following when they flip their classrooms, but there are alternatives for reaching students at home.

    If you think about what goes into preparing a flipped classroom, most of your energy is spent recording, editing, organizing, and (finally) posting the videos to whichever site you decide your student should use. But the internet is not the only choice when it comes to delivery. The internet might meet the needs of a large population of students, but there are other options for reaching the students with fewer resources.

    If a student has a computer without internet access, it seems easy enough to load the video files onto a CD-R or DVD-R so they can be viewed from a computer without an internet connection.

    If a student does not have a home computer, burning a DVD to watch on a television is not very difficult or time consuming. After all, you have a library of completed videos ready to go.

    And finally, if a student does not have access to a computer or a television, it might be possible to request additional computer time for specific students during the school day.

    These are just a few thoughts I had as I prepare to launch my classes on the internet in the next year. I hope that with all the work that goes into creating the videos, teachers do not get discouraged because of an accessibility issue that can be overcome with a little creative thinking.

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