Friday, August 31, 2012

Creativity and Innovation in the Flipped Classroom

I recently attended the Flipped Learning Summit hosted by NYSCATE at Buffalo State College.  The keynote speaker was Aaron Sams, author of the book Flip Your Classroom: Reach every student in every class every day (also available in the iTunes bookstore).  While his presentation focused on the challenges, benefits, and structure of the flipped classroom, his underlying message was his true passion.  To Aaron, using the flipped classroom approach to instruction is a tool, a way of reaching his true goal: to engage every student at a level they can work and to tap into their individual learning style to ensure understanding and ultimately mastery of the learning goals set forth at the beginning of the course.  

Today, during our final day of teacher orientation before the official start of the school year, I shared with the staff the flipped classroom approach.  I chose to flip the PD by emailing a video about flipped classrooms to all the teachers prior to the session.  I decided to select a video that showed a flipped classroom in action, instead of one that spelled out every step of the process.  This proved to be critical to the success of the session.

After teachers arrived for the professional development and I confirmed that everyone had watched the video, I asked them to share with the person next to them what they thought flipping the classroom meant and what were some of the possible benefits to the approach.  For two minutes, the teachers were engaged in excellent conversations about the video, what it told them about flipped classrooms, and why they were considering using it during the new school year.  I then asked a few of the teachers to share with the rest of the group.  The discussion that followed could have continued for the remaining 55 minutes of the session.  

Each teacher that spoke shared a unique perspective on the flipped classroom model, and expressed the perceived benefits as well as a few concerns.  While I won't go into every step of the professional development session that followed, I shared this opening activity in order to show the value of a flipped approach to learning.  The teachers were incredibly engaged in the discussion of something that was introduced to them in a three minute YouTube video viewed before the PD session began.  By experiencing first hand the opportunities for communication and collaboration flipping allows, they began to understand the power of this approach.

I'd like to take the flipped classroom conversation one step further and start the conversation about infusing creativity and innovation into the learning experiences of students in a flipped model.  As many who are familiar with the flipped classroom model already know, the activities you have the students complete are as important to the learning and understanding as the videos.  So the question I hope to explore is: how do you give the students the opportunity to learn through innovation in a flipped classroom?

The answer is quite simple, and yet requires a leap of faith on the part of the teacher.  According to Tony Wagner in his book Creating Innovators, "more and more students are saying that education which is merely content delivery doesn't work, doesn't stick... It's about applying what they know, in order to connect the dots." This is where opportunities for students to make, do, build, shape, and invent things in response to problems posed by the teacher can encourage curiosity, engagement, and innovation in all students.  This can occur regardless of a student's abilities and academic standing.  

In a flipped classroom that is focused on developing skills in creativity and innovation, we would see students collaborating on projects and using all available resources (including networks, online resources, and the videos provided by the teacher in the flipped model) to solve often complex, multidisciplinary problems.  Students would feel empowered to take ownership of their learning and feel a sense of intrinsic motivation to learn and grow.  

The last, and often most critical component necessary for the success of a flipped classroom focused on innovation is the support of students when they take risks.  Our current educational model discourages risk and punishes failure, and yet innovation requires failure as a path towards success.  In the words of Tony Wagner, we need to nurture students who are "unafraid to try new things, to explore the world, and to face unexpected problems." They do not view failure as something to avoid, but instead a "step in the process of learning."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fly fishing and the art of teaching

Fall is quickly approaching, and that can only mean one thing... Any guesses?

Beginning of a new school year?  Well, yes, that is something that happens in the fall, but I was thinking of something else... Fall fly fishing!

At this point you're probably wondering why I'm talking about fly fishing on an education blog... Well, it's because educating kids and fly fishing are actually more similar than you would think.  Let me explain...

Fly fishing is a very skills-based activity, although some would argue it's more of an art.  I tend to agree with the latter, although there's an incredible amount of skill that goes into the success of catching a trout on the fly.  The same could be said for educating kids.  While there is a high degree of skill needed to manage a classroom and have successful students, there is an art to the practice.

The similarities do not end there.  I want you to imagine yourself preparing for a day of fishing.  You grab your rod and reel, some waders, a box of flies, and a good hat to keep the sun at bay.  You roll out the door before the sun is up to get a jump on the day.  You head down to the river, tie on a fly, and make your first cast.  Chances are, you are not going to catch many fish all day, no matter how many times you cast that fly in the water.  You might get lucky and land a few fish, but your chances are low and are based more on luck than anything else.  

There is a reason why you won't catch many fish: you haven't gotten to know them.  If you just barrel down to the river and throw in any old fly, the trout are not going to be fooled.  You see, trout are actually very intelligent fish, and they know when you're just winging it.  They're not impressed by your perfect casting, and they don't care that the same fly worked last Saturday...

In order to be a successful fly fisherman, you have to get to know the fish.  You have to observe them in their surroundings.  You have to watch what they eat, when they come to the surface in search of food, and what type of water they like to spend their time swimming in.  You have to be a patient observer, and treat every trout as an individual.  When you finally get to know them, you make your fly selection and pick the best water to present that fly to them.  You'll know you're successful when they rise up and take that fly.  

The challenge does not end there... You still have to land that trout, and that can be as difficult as selecting the right fly.  You see, some trout are very reluctant to go without a fight.  If you fight back with aggression, chances are you'll break your tippet, the trout will escape, and will be much more cautious the next time it feeds.  Your chances of catching that trout again are slim.

So what does all this have to do with teaching?  Kids are very much like the trout in the stream.  As a teacher, you have to begin by being a patient observer.  You have to get to know the children as individuals, what motivates them, what scares them away, and what you can do to get them to take that fly.  You have to watch how they interact with their surroundings... Do they like working with others? Are they solitary students?  Are they auditory learners, or do they need to see it before they can understand it?  Are they more comfortable sitting or standing when they do work?  Is there a part of the classroom they seem to gravitate towards?  Only after you have gotten to know your students can you shape a learning experience that draws them to the surface where your fly is waiting.

There will be students who resist, even when you think you've created a great educational experience for them.  They will want to run, not because they don't want what you have to offer, but because they are scared... Some will be afraid of the unknown or trying something new, others will be afraid of failing.  If you meet this resistance with aggression, they will withdraw from the class and avoid engagement.  Instead, you must respond to resistance with a gentle touch, slowly bringing them closer and closer to the goal of learning.  

So as we start this new school year, we must remember that it's not enough to show up on the first day and expect the trout will be biting... We must take the time to get to know our kids and then select the right fly and present it in a way that draws them in and never lets them go!

Thursday, August 16, 2012


The idea for the #bold_ideas hashtag was born after watching an inspiring 5 minute talk from ISTE 2012 by Will Richardson (@willrich45):

iste-presentation from Will Richardson on Vimeo.

In the video, Richardson discusses 19 bold ideas for change in education.  I won't go into a discussion of each of the changes, but I would like to comment of two of them.  The first is his 4th bold idea "Flip the power switch".  As he stated in the video, we need to turn the control of the learning experience into the hands of the students.  We need to let them define their own path to learning and understanding, and support their exploration of the ideas and topics that they feel passionate about.  And if you don't believe young students have passions, just ask my two-year-old son.  He loves anything mechanical.  He is fascinated by trains, construction vehicles, tractors, cars, and motorcycles.  Now you might say that most young boys are interested in these things, and I wouldn't argue, but where did that interest come from?  

My wife and I are both very creative people and love nature.  We introduced our son to artistic activities and to the outdoors.  And while he loves both, he would pass on either one for the chance to see a train.  There's something about mechanical objects that drive his interest.  Six months from now, it might be something different... And that's okay.  The important thing is that he is given the opportunity to explore his interests and passions.  We need to give our students the same opportunity daily to explore their interests and find their passions.  I will be talking more about this in future posts.

The second bold idea from Richardson's talk that I feel warrants discussion is his suggestion to "Disrupt the system".  He encourages educators to try new things, to create an environment that nurtures innovation, and to stand up and say 'no, I won't teach to the test'.  And while most of us are required to administer standardized tests, it doesn't mean we have to standardize the educational experiences of our students.  This concept is what led me to create the bold ideas hash tag and tweet:

@javarob: Until we can standardize kids, we shouldn't be standardizing their learning.  Kids are individuals, their ed[ucation] should be too. #bold_ideas

We need to work towards individualizing the learning experiences of our children, and that customization can be done in many ways.  Educators are exploring strategies such as flipped learning, asynchronous lessons, understandings-based grading, and gamification of the learning environment.  We need more teachers exploring these approaches.  And if those approaches don't work, educators can look for other ways to create opportunities for their students to explore and discover, to create and evaluate, and to work collaboratively to solve real-world problems.  

My plan is to continue using the bold ideas hashtag, sharing bold ideas that can change education.  In time, I hope other educators will add their own bold ideas, and rich conversations about ways to change and improve education will follow... 
In the words of Will Richardson, it's time for us to help our students "change the world"!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Welcome to create-Ed

"It's very formal- it's good if that's what you're going for, otherwise it's a bit resume-like"

Wow... Brutal honesty from my wife. I guess it's a good thing I had her read my first draft... I'm certainly not going for resume-like. For those interested, here's an excerpt from my rough draft for the opening post... It's a real page-turner:

Welcome to create-Ed, a new blog dedicated to sharing thoughts and ideas on creativity, technology, and innovation in education. First off, a little about me... I have been an educator in public schools for the past eight years, first as a science teacher and then as an administrator. I chose to move to administration early in my career because I wanted to explore opportunities to shape the educational landscape of my students in ways that were limited as a classroom teacher...

Yikes... After reading it again, it does seem a bit business-like. I suppose I should try again...

So welcome to create-Ed, a blog dedicated to creativity, tech, and innovation in education. I joined the education community about 8 years ago, after spending time as a professional photographer. While I enjoyed taking pictures, the job left me unfulfilled. I considered a few different career paths, but ultimately my wife convinced me to try teaching. I had previously taught rock climbing at a local gym, so I knew I enjoyed working with kids and sharing knowledge and experiences. That decision proved a critical turning point in my life. Within days of starting my student teaching, I knew without a doubt that I was meant to be an educator.

By February of the 2011-12 school year, I was starting to feel burned out and disillusioned with my career... I had made the move to administration after only 5 years of teaching, and the changes in regulations, the move towards more standardized testing, and cuts in education funding left me wondering if I needed to find a new career path. And just when I was ready to quit, I was saved by a 20 minute TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson.

The video reawakened a passion for creativity and innovation in education that had been dormant for quite some time. I was back, ready to help shape the future through the education of kids. I started building my Personal Learning Network (PLN), joined Twitter (@javarob75), and began planning the first Edcamp in western New York for spring 2013 (@edcampbflo). And that's just the beginning!

This blog is an open journal for me, an opportunity to share all the discoveries, insights, and visions that I experience on my journey. I am also looking forward to comments and questions readers might share. Thanks for joining me and I hope you enjoy reading the posts as much as I enjoy writing them!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad