In 'flipped classrooms,' teachers lecture online, use class for practice

Sand Pine Elementary School student Luke O’Brien works on a math review in Stephanie Sheridan’s fourth-grade class Wednesday. Sheridan uses a “flipped classroom” model that presents material and quizzes online to be digested at home.
Sand Pine Elementary School student Luke O’Brien works on a math review in Stephanie Sheridan’s fourth-grade class Wednesday. Sheridan uses a “flipped classroom” model that presents material and quizzes online to be digested at home.
Published Feb. 23, 2015

Stephanie Sheridan uncapped her dry-erase marker and started scribbling on the tabletop in the middle of her classroom.

"3 x 2/5," the teacher wrote in large, looping digits. "4 x 2 5/7."

She then called over a few fourth-graders to demonstrate their skills. The criteria: whether they had done well on an online quiz taken at home, after watching a short lesson on YouTube.

"She makes a video for us and she makes a quiz," said 9-year-old Justin Velez, who got called over because he forgot to do the lesson. "Then, depending how we do on the quiz, we get separated into groups the next day. I like it."

Sheridan is among a growing number of teachers using a "flipped" classroom structure, in which students learn concepts outside class, leaving more time to practice with teachers and peers during school. She adopted the model last year, and positive results led to an expansion this year into the second and third grades at Sand Pine Elementary in Wesley Chapel.

"We see an increase in collaboration," said Sand Pine principal Scott Atkins, whose daughter participates and has improved her math skills. "I've just seen a difference with our kids' understanding."

The concept of blending online and face-to-face learning is gaining so much traction that even Florida Virtual School is straying from its usual format to give it a try.

Next fall, FLVS — known for online distance learning — will open a brick-and-mortar campus in Orlando. Its primary objective is to give up to 150 home-schooled ninth-graders a place to collaborate on projects.

"I am a big fan of flipped learning," director Amy McGrath said, stressing the campus is another option and doesn't replace the all-online model. "This is taking some of that practice and putting it into the FLVS campus. . . . We know this is good for kids."

Much research supports this view, with studies showing that flipped and blended classrooms generate increased learning gains over the traditional lecture model. A U.S. Department of Education analysis "clearly found blended learning was the more effective way for students to learn," said Cynthia Brame, assistant director of Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching.

"What I think makes it effective is, it gives instructors the opportunity to incorporate active learning into their classrooms . . . focusing on the hardest tasks you're going to ask (students) to do, where they have the support of their peers and instructors," Brame said.

Pat Lusher, director of digital learning for the Pinellas County School District, agreed that the combination provides "the best of both worlds."

A key piece, though, is teacher preparation, she added. It's not good enough to simply tell teachers to do it and hope for the best.

That's why Pinellas schools are moving slowly toward the concept, which has gained traction nationally in the past decade. The district is training teachers to create lesson videos and online resources, as well as how to conduct classes without lengthy lectures.

"We are creating pockets of getting people prepared to flip a classroom," Lusher said.

Students should start seeing results next year, she said.

Sheridan said she and her team at Sand Pine Elementary originally implemented the flipped classroom so they could review materials for children who missed class or didn't understand the daily lessons. The kids could watch the videos on their own time, as many times as necessary, to reinforce the materials.

As a bonus, parents who fretted about the state's new style of math could tune in too.

Before long, though, Sheridan said she saw that the benefits could extend beyond remedial work.

Yes, making videos and other materials took time, she said. But the payoff of reaching more students individually outweighed the downside. Seeing their fourth-graders outperform other Pasco schools on the math Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test bolstered their resolve.

So this year the Sand Pine fourth grade is all in. For the kids who don't have computer access at home, the school makes its machines available before and after school.

The students' response is mixed.

Fourth-grader Ayden Jenkins said she likes the videos because she can "get a better visual" of the lesson and understand it better.

Classmate Kera Gordon, in contrast, prefers using textbooks so she can just read information, answer questions and "get it over with." She added that she would prefer to get all her learning done at school, rather than have to do some at home.

Sheridan noted that, long before flipped classrooms, she sent school home in the form of practice questions. Now, she said, the time she spends with students is more meaningful.

Sand Pine fifth-graders aren't using the flipped model this year. They held differing opinions on whether they missed it.

While Charisma Torres appreciated the chance to watch videos repeatedly to cement her knowledge, Max Walker said he never liked the videos.

"I feel better having someone talk to me directly, and I'm able to ask questions," he said.

Educators continue to work through the kinks, attempting to answer such concerns as they try to make learning interesting in a world where technology competes for children's attention. If test scores go up, principal Atkins said, all the better.

He's got his eye on flipping more grade levels, and moving beyond math into science and other subjects. Florida Virtual School, too, is looking at its new campus as a pilot that could expand if it succeeds.

"I don't think lecturing is dead," Vanderbilt's Brame said. "But lecturing has to shrink."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.