Building independent pupils with flipped learning

Kirsty Tonks

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Flipped learning isn’t a new concept. It means that students are introduced to content at home, usually online, and extend their learning on it in the classroom. But technology now allows teachers to look at the work those students are doing and assess their understanding of it before they get to class, meaning more effective differentiation within lessons. It’s assessment for learning before school even starts.

This enables teachers to move much more quickly from focusing on lower order thinking to supporting students in developing higher order thinking skills such as evaluation and analysis. It is also a perfect way of encouraging and developing ownership of learning by the students themselves.

With access at home to materials and prompts from teachers, the pupils are able to naturally extend their own learning and study with each other outside the classroom. Even in the context of our own inner-city school, a survey we conducted with families at parents’ meetings found that more than 90 per cent of the children had access to an internet-connected device at home to work on.

‘The results this year were amazing’

“It’s fantastic!” exclaims one experienced Year 6 teacher during a conversation on flipped learning at a transition meeting. “In the run-up to Sats I had all of my class creating their own revision pathways online and completing more work ready for my lessons than I had seen a class do before.

“The results this year were amazing, and not just for my more-able group. The pupils were taking a greater ownership of their learning and showed a greater motivation to learn for themselves rather than being spoon-fed revision.”

And she’s not the only teacher at this meeting to wax lyrical about flipped learning and its impact on pupils. Staff share stories about seeing learners grow in confidence; how they are able to get through more content with their classes; how flipped learning enables them to target their teaching better; and, just as importantly, how it has empowered their students to become independent learners and less “needy” in the classroom.

A Year 7 teacher says: “It’s worked wonders for me, too. I seem to be doing less whole-class talking and more specific teaching to those who need my support in lessons. Quite often they seem to be getting on really well without me. I can just offer guidance here and there as it’s needed.”

Building independence

If you, the teacher, are doing more work than your students then you haven’t got the balance right in the tasks you are setting. Gone are the days when the teacher was centre stage; learners should be the main participants and should be working flat out every lesson and in the lead-up to the lesson. They should be taking responsibility for their learning and not waiting to be spoon-fed. Flipped learning can help pupils hone these important skills.

So, what can teachers do to encourage independent learning? The term means different things to different people. In its purest sense it means “going it alone, unaided”. In the education sector we cannot truly mean that. Surely independent learning should mean that learners are “interdependent”, relating to a whole host of external influences, with teachers being the main one. The role of the teacher is still fundamental to the process; but where flipped learning is concerned it is subtler.

Flipping lessons doesn’t mean that teachers can just sit back and let their students do all the hard work. They still need to provide the materials, tools and support for learning; they just need to make sure that stage happens first. It also means that teachers must take more care when crafting tasks and learning opportunities as the work produced will be needed in class.

Screen time

Although video is not the only medium teachers can use to flip a lesson, it really does work well to promote independent learning. Having a short video that helps explain a concept, which can be watched over and over again, means that students can learn at their own pace; they can pause or fast forward or repeat. And if they still aren’t sure, they can post a question online to their teacher – far less intimidating than doing it in the lesson in front of their peers.

The videos could be teacher-curated or sourced elsewhere. Creating a bank of these clips to use over and over again can save time in the long term as well. You could differentiate from year to year by changing the task set after the video.

Discussion forums can also be a great way of evidencing incidental learning, especially when students engage with each other on them. Forums such as these spark debate and often provide a greater depth of learning than a classroom discussion, as there is more time for learners to research their answers before posting a reply.

Outstanding with Ofsted

Our principal and the head of religious education received great feedback from Ofsted on a post-16 RE lesson where, as a flipped learning task, the teacher had posted a poor exam answer and asked students to “mark” it and give feedback on a discussion thread.

The quality of the responses was phenomenal and the teacher started the lesson looking at what had been written the night before and discussing the points made. The lesson was rated “outstanding”, with the inspector wanting to know more about flipped learning.

The possibilities for promoting independent learning online before a lesson are endless. It is up to the teacher to create the right conditions for their students to take the bait and go fishing themselves.

There’s a common misconception about the increased use of technology in education, in particular flipped learning. “You don’t really need educators to do this,” people say. “Students will just be enthused to learn and will do it themselves. You can replace teachers by doing this.”

That simply isn’t true. At my school – and at the 30 primaries we have worked with on the MathsFlip project measuring the impact of flipped learning on maths progress – we have found the opposite. Although students absolutely do go the extra mile, and learners from all ability groups have a greater sense of ownership of their learning, you still need teachers to set the scene and provide pupils with the elements of knowledge they need to piece together.

Technology can never truly know the nuances of each learner, but a teacher absolutely does. At its heart, flipped learning is not about technology at all; it’s actually about assessment for learning and better understanding on a day-to-day basis what a student knows (and doesn’t). A better description would be “technology-enabled Just-in-Time Teaching”, but that really isn’t as catchy, is it?

The expertise lies in how you set tasks and then pick up on the learning that has taken place without you – building on that; plugging gaps; addressing misconceptions; extending learning.

So, yes, be prepared when flipping the classroom for more autonomous learners who are less dependent on you, but also be ready to create the right conditions for this to happen. Get this right and you will be preparing students not just with the skillset to achieve but also a skillset that prepares them for life beyond.

Kirsty Tonks is principal designate of a new High-Tech Primary Free school in the West Midlands and was assistant principal for e-learning at a Secondary school in the West Midlands

Kirsty Tonks

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