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Flipped Math

Authored By: 
Kate Bendrick, Math Teacher

I recently bought a kindle book for $0.99. It was written by a friend’s mother, and I was pretty excited that the Internet can reduce barriers to publishing to the extent that I can buy from a friend on Amazon.com.

Imagine that book was $99,000.00. Would you buy it?

The history of education is a largely a story of scarcity. Around the time of the earliest universities, books were extremely expensive. Before the printing press, written material had to be copied by hand, meaning that books were, well, scarce. The very word “lecture” comes from Latin root of the word “read.” Surprising, given anyone who has been to a lecture knows that it’s more about talking (or being talked to, rather) than reading. But at its origin, a lecturer would read from a book to students. The best access they had to the book’s material was orally, not visually, since 30 people can listen to a single book being read.

Fifty years ago, the scarcity was not so much in paper or prevalence of books, but in information. Naturally the teacher didn’t need to read straight from a book, since everyone could just go out and buy it without sacrificing anything near a month’s rent. What was scarce was someone to deliver information content, who really understood the material from the book, who could explain it.

In the past 5 years alone, we’ve seen another radical shift in where the scarcity lies in the learning process. The internet offers instant access to a huge amount of humanity’s knowledge. There are kind and giving YouTube participants the world over offering their explanations on every topic you can imagine, and many are extremely good. Khan Academy offers all of a typical high school’s math curriculum, for free. ALEKS offers the same for a fee that undercuts a typical cable bill. So if books aren’t scarce, information isn’t scarce, and neither is content delivery…

…what is scarce now?

The answer is: individual interaction between those-who-understand and those-who-don’t-yet. However, where it was unattainable before, the last 5 years have brought high quality one-on-one interaction between teachers and students firmly within reach. When information delivery happens at home, as it does in a “flipped classroom,” class time becomes a time when students can struggle in the presence of someone who can help them through that struggle. Instead of working on new types of problems in isolation, students can struggle through the hard parts with the support of other students and their teacher. This helps all types of students. Particularly in math, this means students have no option to give up. For a student on the verge of understanding a new concept, the moment of giving up can have a long lasting negative influence, and is entirely avoidable with the proper work environment.

Teachers Tim Kelly and Spencer Bean have both won the presidential award for mathematics and science teaching, the nation’s highest honor. They are two of the four self-appointed “Algebros” who decided to flip their classes…after having won this award. “We tried lots of things — we tried project-based learning; we tried cooperative groups,” Kelly said. “The bottom line is, we would get students that were not prepared. They come to your classroom ... they don’t know things they should know already. Then we expect them to learn algebra at a higher level. It just wasn’t happening; they weren’t doing the work. They were confused.”

The flipped classroom allows class to be a place where teaching is adapted to the individual. One-on-one interaction with a teacher means that the teacher can assess what type of learner the student is, and craft the right explanation on the spot. It means students take charge of their own understanding, realizing when they don’t understand and naturally come to advocate for themselves.