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Published November 24 2011

Math class, minus the lecture

HAWLEY, Minn. – Looking to catch Scott Mies in the middle of a good old-fashioned stand-and-deliver math lesson these days? Don’t bother stopping by his classroom – you’ll have better luck by firing up your laptop.

This year, the Hawley middle school math teacher decided to turn his methods upside down. Now, students watch him lecture in online videos at night and then work through what would be the homework problems in class the next day.

The concept – known as the flipped classroom or simply the flip – has gained traction in recent years. Mies and other believers say it helps students pay closer attention to the material and get better help when they’re struggling.

“They can rewatch the lesson, they can come to class with questions, and any questions that come up about the homework, I can answer,” he said.

Two former colleagues at a Colorado school, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, are widely credited with pioneering the idea. Bergmann said they first came up with the idea of recording in 2006 as a way to get the material to students who had to leave class early to travel for extracurricular events.

Once they recorded a few lessons, they started to wonder if they could deliver the material more effectively if they prerecorded everything. They took the leap and quickly saw the benefits: more time to spend with students, more independent learning as students unpacked lessons themselves and more collaboration as they worked through problems together.

“Class is no longer a dissemination. It’s a conversation,” said Bergmann, who is now the technology facilitator for a school district in Chicago.

There’s no hard data on how many teachers use the flip – it’s still relatively rare, and Mies may be the sole practitioner in the region – but Bergmann said it’s growing fast. An online community he and Sams run that’s dedicated to the flip has about 2,400 registered users.

Mies said he went to a flipped classroom because he thought there was a better way to engage students than lengthy lectures.

“Was everyone paying attention? Was everyone following along? How many of them was I boring?” he said. “I was probably teaching to about a third of them. Now, I can catch all those kids.”

Most of his lecture videos are about 15 minutes long. He has students take notes while they watch and said it’s not hard to figure out who isn’t watching. For students who don’t have good Internet access at home, he offers to put the lessons on DVD or portable USB drives or arranges for the students to watch during or after school.

Students can also go over the lessons again on classroom computers and iPads.

Recording and posting them has been “a huge time investment,” he said, but worth the effort.

His students agree.

“I really like it,” said seventh-grader Zach Ellingson. “You get to work on it in class and ask him questions.”

Josh Fenske, another seventh-grader, said it’s nice not to bring a big stack of work home, and he takes better notes than before.

“If you have a question, you can usually answer it by the video,” he said.

Parents are on board, too. Judy Marohl, the mother of a Hawley eighth-grader, said she thinks the flip class boosts student en­gagement in the material.

“I see it as something that’s very positive in that the students have to actively participate at home in order to understand it,” she said. “It brings in that component of, you have to sit down and do the work.”

She also said she no longer has to lean on Mies to help her daughter grasp math principles she herself hasn’t used in years.

“There were times when I’d have to call him and say, ‘I don’t understand what they’re doing here,’ ” she said. “We haven’t had to do any of that this year.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502