Homework: To Flip? or to Toss?

Forays into Flipping

I’ve been edublog silent for a long time now, but buzz about the Flipped Classroom actually hit me human-to-human instead of via the interwebs. Teachers in my school are experimenting with it way out here in this Texan colony that is northern Singapore.

When it comes to social studies, though, I have a hard time seeing how assigning at-home readings for extension in class  –  a pretty traditional approach in history classrooms, in my experience  –  is not already “flipped.”

I did toy with the idea of flipping my classroom over the summer, though, was briefly active on the FC Ning, and played with podcasting and vodcasting content as homework during the first quarter of this school year. The experience left me with

  1. concerns that students read even less than many already do, possibly undercutting their readiness for college and adulthood generally, which expects advanced reading skills (but I could be wrong here; when I was in high school, I never read assigned hw because I wanted to read more interesting things like sci-fi and — if you laugh at the next one, you haven’t read the research — ’70s-era Marvel Comics);
  2. hard-won appreciation for how time-consuming the creation of quality podcasts or vodcasts is, and relatedly –
  3. ditto for how sadistic and morale-killing, good intentions aside, a poorly made teacher podcast or video can be.

I’ll add that students have overall volunteered their appreciation for image-enhanced podcasts. Last September, walking home from school after classes all day on Chinese philosophies, enjoying a thinker’s high about Confucius and the gonzo Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (“Jesus doing stand-up comedy” is the best hook I can come up with),  I sat under a tree and tried to share that high with my students in a talk into my iPhone voice recorder — the first 12 minutes on Confucianism, the last 12 on Taoism. I went home, slapped some images on top of the audio in Garageband (and took a photo from my 16th floor apartment of the very tree under which those thoughts found voice), and that was that:

Another similar “walk and talk” into that machine about “what goodness means” to a Hindu, a Hebrew monotheist, and a traditional Chinese person for my ninth-graders:

These got good feedback (“It’s interesting” is a nice review of homework, as is “it helped things make sense”). Occasionally students have emailed me special requests on topics we’ve covered in units since those efforts. I’m pretty convinced I’m more interesting talking into my iPhone than trying to deliver the same ideas live in front of the class. I’m less distracted by the clowns and corpses, more focused on the ideas, and less inhibited in letting my own impassioned interest come out.

But man, editing images in in Garageband takes a lot of time, and that time is just not available. I keep thinking I should go minimalist and do audio-only podcasts, and gauge student response. If still good, that’s much easier to pull off. Another option I’ve considered is having students collaborate with me by finding images for the audio lectures, and making them edit them into AV podcasts. Yet another possibility is to assign a crowdsourced transcript of the lecture by having each student transcribe, say, one minute of the audio lecture. 30 students could do 30 minutes and slap it all together on a Google Doc or wiki. That would provide a text that could replace the boring textbook.

But this semester my interests have changed. I want my students to have time to sit under trees too.

(Next to) No Homework: The Sweet Spot?

My current experiment involves not so much flipping homework as (almost) ending it.  I’m using document-based lessons in which all reading and discussion is done in class, and the only homework is a reflective blog post about the day’s content on a team blog — which student team-members read and comment on with corrections, extensions, challenges, etc. I like this so far, for several reasons:

  1. it ensures all have actually done the reading and received the input (never a certainty with homework assignments)
  2. it ensures, moreover, that more students have actually understood the deeper implications of the readings, through the discussions clarifying the concepts and understandings following our read-alouds (we’re currently reading 3,000-year-old Western Zhou Dynasty passages from the  Confucian Five Classics that bring out the teachings of Confucianism more powerfully than any textbook summary can, but that require close reading and clarification. So we read, stop, ask, and discuss; read, stop, ask, and discuss)
  3. it eliminates the “I read it last night but forgot most of it after waking up” that is as true for many adults as it is for students. We read and annotate based on front-loaded questions/reading purposes, take a couple of minutes to gather our impressions, and launch into talks with it all fresh in memory
  4. it makes the student peer-teaching via comments on the team blog more reliable (they read it and discussed it with the teacher’s guidance in class, so odds are at least two in a five-person team comprehended the finer points of the lesson and can reinforce them in blog comments by catching and addressing misunderstandings in their peers’ posts)

The short version: we read homework in class, discuss it in class, clarify and debate it in class — then briefly write about it at home. Hopefully this leads to less homework and deeper learning at the same time — and above all, to less aversion to school because of all that homework.

11 thoughts on “Homework: To Flip? or to Toss?”

  1. I’m teaching 4th grade in a private, tuition-free school and a challenge is internet access at home/parental assistance to use the computer.  However, I’ve played with a couple of “optional” blog entries for students to our class website, and the students seem to really enjoy it.  I do assign more reflective writing assignments as homework than I do worksheets (come to think of it, the only worksheets I give are couple of math reinforcement problems), and I find the discussions the next day to be far more rich in content.  If I could ensure all my students had the access at home, I would drop the other older method in a heartbeat!

    1. Hi K,

      I wonder if analog alternatives might work — maybe have the students circulate their written journals in a small circle and have other students “comment” underneath the most recent entry?

  2. Wow, we must have talked about the read, discuss, debate in the class and reflect at home concept a couple of years ago.  Flipping, in the lecture at home project at school model, makes no sense to me as to why do it.  However, the read (as a class, with a partner, silently, although silently does not guarantee they are reading the material either) in class, discuss/debate, let it simmer, reflect at home is working for many of my students.  Oddly, it is Facebook where the reflection happens most.  It worked so well, that I gave up on the class blog this year, and conduct the reflections on Facebook.  it also allows for me to post current events that allow for review of some topics.

    Peace, Clay.  And I’ll see if I can keep Rossville out of trouble for you. :)

    1. Hi Rick,

      Nice to hear from you, and to be thrown back to Grandma’s house on Lakeview Drive, near Lake Winnepasaukah (sp?), c. 1967. Blast.

      I’d like to hear how you use Facebook. I ignore it, so I’m at your feet. Have you blogged about it so I can just go snoop?

      Take care and peace to you too. Here’s hoping 2012 is not the Year of the Newt. Or the Mitt. Or the Barrack. (Sheesh.)

  3. I bet you’ve written about it before Clay, but what kind of Sci-fi did you read when you were in school? Or even, what do you read now? I find myself reading Orson Scott Card, liking it, so I’d love to hear what you recommend :-)

    1. Oh god, Gunnar, you’re asking me to remember over three decades ago when I can’t remember three minutes ago.

      What were we talking about? Oh yeah.

      My HS reading, as far as I remember, was nothing special: Tolkein, Herbert’s Dune stuff, an endless series of novels by a guy named Norman, if I remember right, about a place called Tor or Gor, I forget.

      And I probably should have avoided sci-fi since the above list seems as much fantasy as sci-fi.

      I’ve heard great things about Card, but never read him. I don’t know how old you are or if others experience this pattern — it’s probably influenced by the fact that I teach history — but I read less and less fiction as the years go on, and more and more non-fiction, ancient texts (particularly Chinese, which comes close to sci-fi because ancient China was as separate from the rest of Eurasia as Mars — in fact, watching the film Avatar seemed an allegory about the West invading planet China 200 years ago), biographies, and so forth.

  4. I’m an English teacher in San Francisco, and I like your approach to emphasize reading and discussion in class and then reflection/writing/blogging at home. I also think it’s smart to get away from tech (as much as possible) during class time and to promote it to deepen learning at home.

  5. Hi, I just found this blog post and I’m exploring different pedagogies for teaching World History after a decade in the classroom.  My concern is about students being able to critically read a textbook or any other book, or having the discipline to get work done on their own.  I’m concerned about preparing them for college where they will have to do most of the prep work outside of the classroom.  Have you addressed any of this?  Also, how do you make sure students are engaged in an outside of class lecture?  I’m sorry to overwhelm you with questions.  I’m just really curious.  Thanks!

  6. I like your concept. I find that homework robs the valuable time you can spend with your child to build a strong relationship. what no home work mean to me is more news from the school and more time to hear what my little one say.

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