Aaron Sams says his chemistry students often learn more messing around with experiments at their desks after they get their regular work done than they do from class assignments.  We talked with him about what that means and how educators are changing their teaching practices to reflect that learning.

Educators are gathering in Stillwater, Minn. this week to discuss flipped learning, moving direct instruction from the classroom to the individual learner. We talked with Sams who, with Jonathan Bergmann, is author of “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day.”  Sams has recently moved to Pittsburgh to become director of digital learning at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He’s at work on a second book.

You came up with this flipped classroom idea with Jonathan Bergmann in 2007.  It poses a new instructional model—that students get more one-on-one time with teachers in class, while watching lectures on video outside of class—and it’s generated tons of attention among educators.  How has the model evolved since you first came up with the idea?

Aaron SamsAaron Sams: What we’re finding these days is that a lot of teachers are using the flipped classroom model as just an entry point, but no one really stops there. If kids want to work ahead, they’ve got all the instructional content they need. And teachers’ time can be freed up to help the students who struggle. We call this evolved version a “flipped mastery model” based on work by Benjamin Bloom. He believed that most students can reach mastery if given enough time. With digital video, content delivery is much less of an issue, and we are able to just meet kids where they are.

We did that for a couple of years, tweaked and modified it along the way, had some successes and some failures, and then we moved on to the universal design for learning  model, which is work out of Harvard. There are two important ideas from this model—one was that students need multiple ways to learn content. The second one was that students need multiple ways to express their understanding. Once we adopted that idea—we said our instructional videos are now optional—75 or 80 percent still watched, another 25 percent chose not to, and others said they were just going to Google the learning objective or figure it out on their own.

And this changes assessment?

Yes, with the assessments, 75 to 80 percent still took my test, 25 percent chose to demonstrate their understanding some other way. I allowed them to pick, as long as you show understanding.  Some kids designed their own video games, graphic novels, or made videos. A lot of the students who were adopting that form of assessment were students who never bought in to the whole “I teach and you spit it back to me on the test” mode, kids who sort of rejected the game of school, if you will. I observed a lot of students really come alive by really demonstrating their learning in their own way.

What’s the role of teachers in a 21st-century classroom when you have Google, MOOCs, and YouTube?

I think part of it is, prior to internet days, we went to physical school because that’s where all the information was.  If you wanted an education, you had to get to that place where the information was: the books, the libraries, the teachers. We’re not really limited by that anymore. And I don’t want at all to diminish the role of the teacher. The concept of brick and mortar school is different now, but it’s not at all obsolete. I believe there’s something different that happens in a face-to-face relationship. The change today is that we don’t go there for information, but to learn how to access information, more how to apply information, how to manipulate it, how to create something new from what we already learned. What I was doing in my classroom was giving kids some choice and autonomy. I said “Here’s some of the stuff of chemistry we need to learn. Do any and all of it, and if you want to try something else, do that.”  I was giving kids a menu. Content it still important. But if kids don’t take ownership, it’s not as valuable.

How do you find the balance between self-guided learning and guidance from teachers in classrooms?

Some of the balance comes in that a lot of students don’t know what they don’t know. They might have an interest in something, “I want to make a solar-powered cell phone,” for example. Something they can charge that works at night. “How do you want to make that?” I’d ask. She knows conceptually what she wants to do, but she didn’t know where to start looking. I gave her a question to drive her research.

A lot kids need a sounding board. They need to talk to someone who is a content area expert and can help them ask the right questions and talk to them Socratically. This helps them really dive deep into unpacking what they want to know, to help guide them instead of drag them through the learning and the curriculum.

In my classroom, I noticed that my students would often learn more from just messing around at their desks doing an experiment after they got their work done than they did through the regular curriculum. I’ve tried to change my practices to reflect that learning.

How is a flipped classroom different from a MOOC?

I think a flipped classroom is kind of subset of blended learning. MOOCs are a large-scale version of blended learning that is heavy on the online side of things. The flipped learning model is more of a hybrid of online and face-to-face. I still see the value of kids being with a teacher vs. a student in isolation learning on their own.

That being said, if a K-12 classroom wanted to leverage the power of MOOCs here and there, go for it. If you have a student, for example, that wants to go further, wants to learn Java, here’s an online course from a computer science prof from Stanford.  I’d say “you don’t need me, it’s all here, go ahead.” I think MOOCs are filling a niche that’s very much needed.

Does flipped learning work in every situation or do teachers have to be selective?

I’ve been a part of the founding crew of a network of teachers interested in the flipped learning model. We have about 12,000 people in our online network sharing ideas. What I’m observing, in conversation, is that elementary teachers don’t like the idea of an entirely flipped classroom. They think more of flipped learning as something that we can apply when appropriate. We can leverage it for one lesson, five lessons, or 100 lessons. It’s just another tool in your toolbox. We’re seeing younger teachers use it more strategically with fewer lessons.

It’s got to work for this particular unit of study. This has made me be more deliberate. When we started, we just did it for everything and I think we took the wrong approach, we put everything on video, some of which never got any traffic. Once we started to think through it more, we understand that there are some units that are, for example, more inquiry based, and others that make sense to learn through direct instruction.

What about those students who aren’t self-motivated? How do they fare under this new model?

I provided as much support as I could. I had all the learning objectives. I gave them a packet. At some point they had to make the conscious choice to learn. It was by no means the answer to solving the dilemma that all teachers face for the unmotivated learner. By giving kids more choice and autonomy, there is more buy in. I still had some kids that still didn’t want to do anything. But they got my attention.

Some students don’t know how to manage their time. They would say “Can you help me plan out my week?” And I would make them a weekly schedule; I would do that for a lot of kids. “If you want to be on track, here’s where you want to be by Friday.”

What about kids who don’t have internet or computer access at home?

If we backed out to a flipped classroom 101 model, every kid has to have access to a computer outside of class.  Where I was teaching, 25 percent of kids didn’t have internet access at home. Some students had computers at home, and we gave them video on a flash drive, some had DVD and we’d put the lectures on DVD so they could watch it on their TV. I was prepared to buy a portable DVD player for a student, if necessary, but I never had a single kid who I had to do that for.  With those methods, I was able to work it out.

We need to provide something for the students. A laptop you can check out. It’s a problem, a hurdle, but it’s usually something that can be resolved. I don’t think it’s a deal breaker.

You’re new to Pittsburgh. How do you like it? What’s special about the region? What does Pittsburgh have that other cities don’t?

Pittsburgh is just a great, great city. It’s a wonderful place to hatch a new idea. There’s high tech, there are startup opportunities, wonderful opportunities for kids to be creative. My kids are having a blast. There is so much going on in this town. We have opportunities coming out of our ears here. We love it.