A new way of thinking….are we flipping crazy?

ibooks_authorThere has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the concept of the flipped classroom. I listened to Microsoft’s view of it today at the launch of their 365 service. The idea is that the teacher removes themselves as the barrier between the students and the “learning”, taking more of a support role as issues occur. I have some fundamental issues with this “new” concept.

Really good teachers have always had the flexibility to both lead learning and work in a support role. Even bound by the constraints of the curriculum and expectations such as the Literacy Hour I would be very confident in saying that the flipped classroom has been alive and well but maybe just considered part of good practice  without rearing its head as a “technique” for many years. I will give an example.

I started teaching the year that the Literacy Strategy was introduced. Although a young and inexperienced teacher, I quickly realised that binding children to such time limited, and teacher support limited, activities did not help the vast majority of children to enjoy their literacy lessons. Furthermore it made it almost impossible to be creative with teaching approaches. If children were really into a fantastic piece of writing, possibly inspired by a film clip  or an interesting international event then the structure stopped them dead in their tracks. Its aims were good, to ensure rigour and progression in what was taught but it went about it in completely the wrong way. My first school had a very strong Headteacher, Phillip McElwee, and he made it clear that he backed us all to use our own professional judgment to vary our approaches in response to the children. Sometimes direct teaching is really useful and sometimes giving children the materials (which are often teacher created or selected anyway to scaffold the learning) and supporting them through their work.

The use of devices has radically altered what is possible in this way. Access to materials is the most obvious factor as a million learning opportunities can sit in the palm of every student’s hand. Fantastic? Hmmm it can be, but I am reminded of my science tutor when I was training to be a teacher. He made the point that you can ask students to do lots of experiments to “discover” things that can easily be explained in about five minutes. Do children always need to have gone through the processes that the discoverers of oxygen or the laws of gravity to say that they have learned it? There is a balance, of course their is but if we look at the Lavoisier example from a constructivist view of how we learn then the place of the experimental “proof” maybe changes. Explaining the theory around what oxygen is, telling the story of its discovery, gives the students a mental construct of what they are looking at so when they do the experiment it has somewhere to “fit”. doing the experiment first places far more of a strain on the process of assimilation as there may be no mental framework in which it sits easily. Does that produce deeper learning as students want to know more or does it simply disinterest the student as not fitting their experience or even fit in with an incorrect understanding as enough facts of the phenomena are consistent.


This may seem a very technical argument but it is at the crux of flipped classroom concept. Simply saying to students “here’s the stuff, get on with it, yell when you are stuck” potentially leads to that situation. This is exacerbated if the students entirely led their own learning interests. Again, there is a balance. Why am I rambling on about this?

Last Thursday I hosted a day at the Inspire2Learn centre to teach a group of teachers who all have access to iPads in their classrooms how to use iBooks Author. The app is free to download as long as you have at least version 10.7 on your mac OS. It allows teachers to create books. Big deal, teachers can do that in loads of ways…however these books have distinct advantages. Yes you can add pictures, text, even video into the pages which make them full of “Wow”, but that is not what catches the eye. The teachers who attended could do that within about 5mins of my input (if they hadn’t already done it themselves anyway!), what we took time to focus on is how an iBook could support the practice in class. Where does the book sit? As a textbook for a course? As a support alongside what happens in the lessons? As a repository for all the other resources that we don’t have time for in lessons. I hope that some of these questions are answered by the work that the teachers do back in class with their creations.

We spent a lot of time simply discussing these issues, and also use of widgets. Widgets are fabulous little things that can ad such a different dimension to an iBook. Yes there are the wow ones (like the 360 panorama widget) but something as simple as a scrolling side bar widget allows a page to hold a lot more content, in context, than could previously have been done. This isn’t simply convenient, it fits with a huge amount of research based around situated learning and how meaning is heavily influenced by context and the expectations that an audience brings to that context.As teachers we need to think about this sort of research to enhance our use of iBooks, not simply saying “it can add more detail”. A sketchpad widget within a page allows a student the opportunity to create or label a diagram and then send it back to the teacher from within the book, again keeping the learning in the context in which is it created.

Something as simple as the browser widget is a godsend. Why is that important? We can add weblinks to any book, document…even an email…so what? It is massive, the book opens the webpage, it doesn’t go off to Safari and all of the distractions (the youtube widget does the same), it stays within the book so when you close it you are still in the book. Simple yet a huge help, imagine using Guided Access with this for certain situations on shared pads?

We do have some unanswered questions though. I mentioned some above relating to how it fits within the classroom context. Also, when do you ask the student to do activities within the book and when do you offer them maybe a gallery of pictures and ask them to create a presentation in an app of their choice. I don’t know if there is a definitive answer as every situation os different and teachers are the killer app that make the difference, judging when to do what. However, an iBook is a finished artefact (although you can update it) and that means that some of these decisions need to be made when creating the book and defining its role in a scheme of work.

The teachers who attended were very complementary in their feedback for my input during the day (as a teacher I used my professional judgement of when to tell and when to…..lol) but I will be pursuing them over the next few months and hopefully reconvening the group to really pin down where the book sits within the classroom context. Armed with that sort of information future users of the app will not have to discover it all for themselves but will have some guidance as a starter for ten…isn’t that where this post started?

Example of iBook from the day:


Long time away

It has been a fair while since I posted on here last so let’s make it a good one to get things back underway!

Last year I loaned a set of five iPod Touches to a student on the Graduate Teacher Programme, Lauren. She was working in a school where children have a huge range of specialist needs. She felt that the iPods would give her the opportunity to engage with the children in a different way. And…er… they certainly did! Lauren immediately found that children were keen to talk about what they could do with the devices, exploring the range of apps that we had put on there. We had very consciously decided to put fairly open ended “productive” apps on there as Lauren felt that it would allow the children to create really amazing “products” as long as they were engaged to do so.

They certainly were.

The video shows some of the range of activities that they used the pods for during a train journey (something many of the children had never experienced before). They took films that allowed them to reconnect with the experience back in class, they took notes on Mental Note to record thoughts and ideas while in the situation, again to discus when back in class and then they even used animation and the Green Screen apps in conjunction to record the short sequences at the end.

Lauren’s reflection on the children’s use of the devices suggest that it was mainly pupils that would not engage or refuse to engage with literacy or weren’t able to easily (because of their low level writing skills) were all of a sudden enthusiastic about their ideas when given the chance to record their work, ideas and act out things as characters in animation etc. There was an enhanced desire to create work, to add to what the class was doing, and the technology enabled them to make really “professional” looking results, furthering their self esteem. The only real downside was that she had to explain to them that they had to give them back at the end of the loan period.

The picture below shows some more of the work produced and some description for parents:

Lauren iPod work

There was some fear at first that the small interface of the iPod Touch would be unsuitable for children who had issues with motor control anyway but that was quickly dispelled as the desire to use the device to communicate their ideas took them beyond that and all of the children were able to use them successfully.

Lauren has agreed to present at a conference that we are organising in the Autumn Term with more detail of how this type of technology specifically supported children with a range of needs.