Train the Trainer: Mirror, Mirror

Several weeks ago, as I was reviewing about 5,000 end-of-the-semester course evaluations, I noticed a trend.  Oh sure, there were the usual comments about grading policies and reading assignments, but I also noticed that a large number of the surveys mentioned the instructor’s enthusiasm.  It was no big surprise that the positive evaluations mentioned the instructor’s obvious love of the subject matter and their enthusiasm in class.  This I have seen before.  However, I noticed an overwhelming amount of the less-than-perfect evaluations had statements such as “the teacher just didn’t have any passion” or “instructor showed no enthusiasm for the class or the material.” Ouch.

As educators, we are always looking for that spark that will engage our students, and we’re always told to “be enthusiastic.” I’ve told myself and my faculty that very thing a thousand times.  But reading those surveys brought out the Academic in me and I wanted to know “why”.  Why is it that gusto of the teacher has such an impact on the student in terms of both engagement and learning?  The answer, it seems, is something called “Mirror Neurons.”

Mirror Neurons are a recent discovery, having been first identified in 1980 by an Italian Neuroscientist named Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti. Dr. Rizzolatti and his team discovered that in a monkey’s brain, the exact same neuron is fired when a monkey performs a specific act, such as grasping a peanut, as when the monkey observed a human perform the same act.   It seems that “monkey see, monkey do” might be the exact same thing, at least to the neurons in the monkey’s brain! 

This initial discovery, soon termed “mirror neurons,” led to research on human mirror neurons, and some fascinating implications for education.  The two facets of mirror neurons that I find the most interesting and relevant to adult education are:  (1) Mirror neurons allow us to feel what someone else is feeling, and (2) Mirror neurons allow us to learn through observation as well as action. 

Mirroring Emotions

We’ve all experienced the effect of mirror neurons on our emotional state; in fact, we experience it everyday.  You are walking down the street and somebody barely misses getting hit by a car – woah! Your heart starts racing, you recoil in sympathy, you actually feel the fear in your gut. Or you find yourself enjoying a nice movie, having a great time, but as soon as the leading lady gets her heart broken, you can’t stop crying! For decades, such responses puzzled neuroscientists. Now we know that on a certain level, watching something happen to someone else and having it happen to us fires up a reaction in the same part of the brain – right down to a single neuron. 

The implication for education is pretty strong; if the teacher is in a good mood, that good mood will rub off on the class. If the teacher is enthusiastic about the subject, your students’ mirror neurons will fire off a corresponding enthusiasm in their brains as well.  And we all know that enthusiasm, engagement, and attention all equal enhanced knowledge retention, so anything I can do to enthuse my class is a good start. I don’t know about you, but just knowing about mirror neurons makes me feel much more responsible for my mood in class; who knew we really could affect one another’s outlooks so directly?

Of course, as teachers we have all experienced the flip side of the mirror neurons in action:  one student in a foul mood can bring the whole class down, and quickly.  Thankfully, as the person standing in front of the room, you  can reign in or remove Debbie Downer from the back row before the negative classroom phenomenon that I have always called “the feeding frenzy” gets out of control. 

Mirroring Knowledge

One of the very cool “tricks of the trade” we have as educators is to tie new information to something the student already knows. This is known as “anchoring information” and involves finding an aspect of some a topic that might be familiar to the students– such as  the “Charlemagne” of “Corton-Charlemagne” – before introducing new information -such as the geography of Aloxe-Corton.  The familiar topic, already safely present in long-term memory, provides an existing framework that  helps working memory grasp onto and make sense of new information.

This technique is so profoundly successful that I have often wondered just how we aquire that first bit of new information about a topic.  If we have no knowledge to anchor to, what lights the spark that leads to the acquiring of original knowledge? Rote repitition?  I hope not.  Relevant visuals?  They only work some of the time.  The answer could lie in mirror neurons. 

It seems that new knowledge, including that which occurs in babies learning to make sense of the world and the ease with which young children acquire new languages, is the direct  result of the action of mirror neurons.  A baby watches the people around her and soon figures out how to move, and walk, and talk.  

It sounds amazing, but it just could be true that without the direct learning of new knowledge and skills that is afforded by mirror neurons, there would be no basis on which to build (“anchor”) new learning. 

Maximizing the Mirror

There’s one more fascinating implication for education:  the effect of mirror neurons is amplified with study.  This was proven at a 2003 study at the University College of London, led by Dr. Daniel Glaser, that tested mirror neurons at a dance demonstration. The test found that people who had studied ballet showed more mirror neuron activity during a ballet demonstration than those who had not.  It’s a fascinating conclusion, but do you think my students will do their textbook reading assignments if I tell them it will amplify their mirror neuron reaction during the next class? 

Perhaps I should just keep that to myself.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas

missjane@prodigy.net

Wine Class Choreography

Wine class choreography…it has an exciting ring to it, doesn’t it?  I hope so, because I hardly expected you to click on an article titled “Instructional Design.”  However, they really mean the same thing; and it is something that is really lacking in wine education today.  

So just what is instructional design?  Think of it this way:  You have a great dancer who knows lots of steps and just can’t wait to show them off…and you have some great music.  What else do you need to do before you can put on a great dance show?  You need to plan what you are going to first, then next, how you will trasition from one style of dance to another, and how to tie it all up at the end.  You need choreography!

Planning a class is a lot like planning a show.  First, you need a concept and learning objectives, and then you fill in the content.  When this is done you have the dancer, all those steps he can’t wait to break out, and the music; but you don’t yet have a plan.  The biggest challenge is still ahead of you. 

How are you going to present the material?  How are you going to make sure that your audience can follow along with what you are saying?  How can you help them understand, remember, and remain engaged with the material?  Just exactly how are you going to do to fill those 120 minutes with 60 eyes looking straight at you?  

What you need is some wine class choreography – in other words, you need some Instructional Design.  Step by step, beat by beat, you need to decide in advance what will be done.  Instructional Design is the process of taking your bundle of eager information and transforming it into a learning experience that helps your students make sense of, remember, and engage with the new information they  will receive.

There are a lot of concepts and theories about Instructional Design, and with the advent of online education the term takes on a whole new dimension.  But, as is often true, the strongest theories stand the test of time.  One of the best expressions of instructional design is Robert Gagné’s “Nine Steps of Instruction” that has been around since 1985. 

The “Nine Steps of Instructional Design” that I present for you below are my own ideas about instructional design, but are firmly rooted in (and hopefully pay homage to) the “Nine Steps” of Gagné’s original work.

Step 1 – Focus, Foucs, Focus! In the words of Gagné, gain their attention! Present a problem or a new situation. Use an “interest device” that grabs the learner’s attention. The important point in wine education is to focus the learners. You can use such devices as storytelling, demo, present a problem to be solved, doing something the wrong way, asking a question, or taking an “audience poll.”  The point is, do something to focus the class!

Step 2 – What’s in it for me?  Tell them how they will benefit from your class.  In academic words, “inform the learner of the objective”. Keep their attention by telling them how they will benefit from what they are about to learn.  Everyone likes to know “What’s in it for me?”It also gives your students a goal on which to focus for the rest of the class.

Step 3. Where does this fit in to my life? It’s very important to put your topic in the context of your learner’s life.  Find some common ground or prior knowledge relevant to the current lesson.  This simple step provides a framwork for learning and remembering the new information about to be received. 

Step 4. Tell me what I need to know! This seemingly simple step needs to be choreographed very carefully.  It’s not just what you present but how you present it.  Be sure a organize your information to avoid cognitive overload. Blend the information to aid in information recall. This is a huge subject and one that is often ignored by trainers and teachers.

Step 5. How do I learn this? Provide guidance for learning.This is not the presentation of content, but is rather your guidance and instructions on how to learn the new material. If this step is well done, your students will enjoy your class and learn more.  Students that are guided are less likely to lose time , become frustrated or just “tune out”. 

6. Practice, Practice, Practice!  Make sure the students do something with their new skills or information. With tasting classes this is easy, but make sure you guide them to a specific goal in their tasting.  With knowledge-based classes you need to get a little more creative in your use of or class activities – just make sure you have one, otherwise all you have done is “dumped” new information in the general direction of your students.  (Oh, not good…) 

Step 7 – Am I doing it right? Do I get it?  Provide feedback. This can be casual, individual, or with the group as a whole, but everyone needs to know if they are on the right track. To be effective, feedback needs to be specific, not, “you are doing a good job” Tell them “why” they are doing a good job,

Step 8 – How did we do? Assess performance. Test to determine if the lesson has been learned. This can be a quiz, an activity, or a or class discussion.  

Step 9 – How can I use this? – The final steps in your class should be designed to enhance the retention and transfer of the new knowledge. Discuss how this new information can be used, provide opportunites for additional practice, or review the lesson.  Somehow, some way, your student’s life should be changed by their new knowledge.  Even if it just means they are going to buy a better brand of Chardonnay. 

Every class does not have to include all nine steps, but keeping these steps in mind before you begin a class will go a long way to improving your teaching. Remember that good teaching goes way, way beyond the imparting of information.  Professional Instructional Designers tend to call unfocused teaching “the information dump” .  Don’t be a dumper – use instructional design! 

What is “Sticky Teaching”?

 Just what is Sticky Teaching???

Over the years, I’ve written dozens of articles and essays on the subject of “Sticky Teaching.”  I’ve given hundreds of workshops called “Sticky Teaching.”  I have read articles on the subject written by other people, and attended their Sticky Teaching workshops as well.  One of the more memorable had the attendees (my befuddled self included) sitting in circles and reciting the ten Grand Crus of Beaujolais while slapping our legs and snapping our fingers.  Perhaps that session should have been called “Snappy Teaching.”

I was reflecting on this “sticky teaching history” earlier this morning as I sat down at my computer to design yet another handout for yet another workshop on “Sticky Teaching.”  In this light, I thought it might be a good idea to come up with a new and improved definition of just what is meant by “Sticky Teaching”.  Keep in mind that this is my personal definition, reflecting my teaching style, and by that I mean that any other educator in the world is allowed to have their own definition of “sticky teaching” and I will respect it!

Here it is, the 2012 definition of Sticky Teaching, Bubbly Professor style:  Sticky Teaching is teaching that is engaging, understood, and memorable.

It’s simple:  in order to provide teaching that sticks, first, we need to teach in a manner that not only grabs the attention of but also nurtures the engagement of the audience over the long haul – the entire course of the class and beyond. Second, we need to make sure our lesson is simplified and organized in such a way so that the main points of the lesson are easy to comprehend.  While the  A+++ students may easily grasp the whole lesson including the details, we need to ensure that every student can and will understand the “gist”. Last but not least, we need to somehow present the topic so that it breaks through the limitation of short-term memory and becomes permanently embedded in long-term memory.     

When stated this way, the goal of sticky teaching sounds like it may take a lifetime to achieve, and it probably will. Teaching is a profession that lends itself to constant improvement.  Even the best teachers I know are always looking for ways to improve their teaching. Most likely, that is why they are the best teachers I know.

Since this topic is so near and dear to my heart, I plan on committing a good deal of time to writing about my personal bag of “sticky teaching tricks” here on the Bubbly Professor.  If you are an educator on the lookout for new and improved teaching tools, stayed tuned! I’d love to include some of your ideas as well, so let me know if you have some great sticky teaching techniques you’d be willing to share.

Some of the topics I plan on covering include:

 Sticky Teaching is Engaging:

  • Use Dramatic Tension (keep them wondering “what happened next”)
  • Create a Knowledge Gap (pique curiosity by setting up a “mystery”)
  • Use concept testing (Have students make a prediction and then prove/disprove)
  • Heed the ten-minute rule (Change the locus of attention every ten minutes)
  • Challenge the audience (Make critical thinking part of every class) 
  • Make it experiential (Replace abstract theories with concrete experiences)

Sticky Teaching is Understood:

  • Identify your core message (Keep it easy to understand)
  • Use statistics in understandable form (use the human scale principle)
  • Provide Cognitive Guidance (point out what’s important to know)
  • Use the power of Schema (put things in context)

Sticky Teaching is Memorable:

  • Anchor information (tie new topics to information the student already knows)
  • Use ECS (Emotionally Competent Stimuli)
  • Use the narrative approach (Tell Stories)
  • Use the PSE (pictorial superiority effect)
  • Utilize dual coding (sync the visual and the verbal channel)

Obviously, some of these teaching techniques overlap categories. For instance, telling stories is a great way to be engaging, make your message understood and is memorable as well.  Story telling is a sticky teaching trifecta! However, in homage to what is probably the most important rule of sticky teaching – identify your core message – I did my best to create three categories and organize the topics within them (demonstrating another principle of sticky teaching, providing cognitive guidance.)

I hope you’ll check back for my series on sticky teaching. I’d also love to hear from you and share some of your sticky ideas.  I also hope you’ll remember the core message of this post:  Sticky Teaching is teaching that is engaging, understood and memorable.

 

Train the Trainer: Critical Thinking in the Wine Classroom

One of my rallying cries in wine education and ALL education for that matter, is to teach our student skills far, far beyond the basic memorization of facts.  I’ve spoken at many a conference on this matter, and have dedicated many of my posts on this blog to the subject.  It’s all about teaching to the “higher order thinking skills” known as (I’m not making this up) “HOTS” rather than just teaching to knowledge or memorization, known as “lower order thinking skills” or “LOTS”.

One of the best ways to teach to the “HOTS” is to guide your students to use the information rather than just remember it.  For instance, in my red wine class for beginners, I hope that my students will not just memorize the names of the red wines and the vocabulary words we discussed, but be able to use the information in some meaningful way, such as:

  • Describe what tannin is, and discuss how it adds to the overall character of a wine.
  • Discuss acidity in red wines and how it compares to acidity in white wine.
  • Describe a wine’s method of production and how it lead to some certain character of the wine…

What we are doing here is teaching critical thinking skills. Critical thinking can be traced in Western thought to the Socratic method of teaching used in Ancient Greece, and in the East, to the Buddhist Kalama Sutta. It is a part of the formal education process, increasingly significant as students progress through the higher grades, and should be the main concern in college and graduate-level teaching.  Obviously, critical thinking is an important part of just about every profession. 

According to Wikipedia, “There is debate among educators about its precise meaning and scope.”  Thank you, Wiki..very well said.  Crtical thinking is indeed one of those concepts, like “Politics” or “The Economy” that everyone understands but is hard pressed to actually define.  So here goes, my contribution to the debate…my definition of critical thinking:  The process of actively using new information by application, analysis, or evaluation. I tried to keep it simple.

Here is a list of my favorite techniques for adding critical thinking to the wine classroom:

  • Compare and contrast wines (or regions, or winemakers) by style.
  • Group wines into categories and explain why and how you chose the categories.
  • List wines in order (lightest to fullest, simplest to most complex).
  • Support an opinion with evidence. For instance, this wine is complex because…
  • Discuss whether or not a certain wine appeals to you, and tell us why/why not.
  • Describe a certain aspect of a wine (tannin, alcohol, residual sugar) and discuss how it relates to the other elements of flavor.
  • Predict how a wine will interact with a certain food.

And to make it easy, you can use what I call a “Bubbly Professor Brain Crank”.  I like to call this one “The Instant Critical Thinking Tool”: 

This wine is ____________  because ______________.

I like to use this sentence for class discussions, and it has a tendency to show up on my final exams.  I love it because it appears simple and un-intimidating, and yet you must use critical thinking to answer the question.  It’s also perfect for discussion because there are an infinite number of correct answers.  Students like that feature for test questions as well.

Here’s a sample…just how would you answer this question?

This Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 is ___________ because ________________.  

Made you think!  

 

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Lessons in Teaching: Learned at TexSom

I am lucky enough to be attending the Texas Sommelier (“TexSom”) Conference this weekend at the lovely Four Seasons Resort in Las Colinas, Texas.  Being an educator and not a sommelier, I know that I attend conferences of this sort in a much different mind set than the typical attendee, but there is a plenty of valuable information and experience to be gleaned by sitting in the audience and watching someone else teach.  As a matter of fact, it’s my favorite type of vacation; all you fellow teachers out there will relate to the feeling of relief you get when someone else is on the teaching “hot seat” and you can lean back and watch.

So, it is with much gratitude for the conference leaders and presenters that I share with you a few great teaching lessons learned and reinforced by the seminars I’ve seen at TexSom this year!

Lesson in Teaching:  Tell a Story!

The Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Good wine story!

The first session presented on Sunday, led by Wayne Belding and Brett Zimmerman, both Master Sommeliers, was all about Bordeaux.  The presenters led us through the story of the history of Bordeaux, all the way back to the middle ages and the marriage of Henry Plantagenet to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  This marriage made the French region of Aquitaine an English terriority, which opened the wines of the Bordeaux region to the English market and eventually to the world stage.

The name Aquitaine itself means “the place of much water” and describes not only the main rivers of the area but then-marshly lands around the Medoc. Another fasciniating part of the story of the history of Bordeaux takes place in the seventeenth century, when English demand for the wines of Bordeaux increased to the point that Dutch traders began to drain the marshlands around the  Medoc and increase the land available to vineyards. This caused the vineyard area in Bordeaux to expand so much that no one could really tell what area their wine was from, which in turned led to the first delination of the vineyards of Bordeaux.  This classification was completed in 1725, with the collection of districts being known as the Vignoble de Bordeaux.  At this time, individual bottles began to be labeled with with both the region and the specific area from which they originated.  I was fascinated to learn this ancient history of Bordeaux and happy to add some more “tales of the vine” to my arsenal of teaching tools.

Why is storytelling a good lesson in teaching?  It is a proven fact that the use of storytelling – called “the narrative approach” in teaching lingo – is one of the most effective ways to add interest and engagement to a presentation.  Storytelling works in just about any educational platform from lecture to discussion to on-line, and can help you reach your audience on both an intellectual and emotional level.  A well-placed story can make theories or abstract ideas concrete and accessible, can spark interest in new material, and can help students memorize facts.

Lesson in Teaching:  Compare and Contrast 

Oregon Pinot: Did you prefer the Hippie or the Cowboy?

The last session I was able to attend on Sunday was all about Oregon Pinot Noir.  Presented by Fred Dame and Nate Ready, both Master Sommeliers, the session was subtitled “The Cowboy and The Hippie.”  Fred and Nate both presented some fabulously delicious Pinot Noirs, which would have made the session good enough, but what made the session even more interesting was the dichotomy in the way they both chose and presented their wines.  Fred represented the “Cowboy” approach and chose wines made in a “get ‘er done” style that produced a wine that was pure Pinot Noir – juicy, fruity, in some cases jammy – and showing lots of spice and floral aromas.  Nate represented the “Hippie” approach and chose wines that were done in a more “touch-feely” (some would say organic-biodynamic-light of the moon) style with lots of earthiness and subtlety.  The wines were presented two by two – with one wine is each set representing the hippie approach and one wine representing the cowboy style.  Presenting the wines this way enabled the audience to not just taste the wines but really think about them in terms of style; which by the way is the “language” most of our customers think in. 

Interestingly enough, my favorite wine of the flight was the 2010 Penner-Ash “Dussin Vineyard” – pure Cowboy.

Why is “compare and contrast” a good lesson in teaching? One of the ultimate goals for any teacher is to guide his or her students to not just “know” (or worse yet, “memorize”) new information but to use that information in a meaningful context.  In this way we are teaching critical thinking skills and such teaching is considered a “higher level” teaching skill, as opposed to just teaching a page full of facts. One excellent technique to involve the use of critical thinking skills in a class is to have students compare and contrast items or ideas.  By ending the Oregon Pinot Noir sesion by asking the audience “which wines did you prefer, the cowboy or the hippie” the speakers were forcing us (in the nicest possible way) to use critical thinking.  

This is a quick post from the hotel lobby…stay tuned for more “Lessons in Teaching:  Learned at TexSom” in the days to come!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas.

Flip Your Meetings!

The other day I was playing around online while waiting to board a plane.  I was finger-surfing on my iPad for articles on “flipping the classroom.” There’s been a lot of buzz about flipping the classroom, including here on The Bubbly Professor and lots of other blogs. The flipped classroom is such a great concept for teaching that it’s become my newest endeavor to read everything I can on the subject.

About ten minutes into my web surfing session I read a statement that literally changed my life. How often does that happen?

The statement was part of the introduction to what appeared to be a great article on flipping the classroom.  I say “appeared to be a great article” because I never read it.  This one sentence was so powerful I turned off the iPad, pulled out one of my handy-dandy yellow pads that I do all my “real” work on, and started writing.  My work life was forever changed!

Here is what I read, as close as I can remember:  “Do you leave meetings with more work to do than when the meeting began?”  Oh yes I do! Not only do I leave meetings with an elongated list of things to do, so does every poor soul who has ever attended a meeting that I was in charge of.

One simple sentence was to become my personal life-changing moment.  If you are the author of this sentence, please contact me.  I want to read the rest of your article.  I want to give you credit for this idea.  Most importantly, I want to worship at your feet for the rest of my life.

My True Story of Meeting-Flipping 

About two months ago, I had a faculty meeting.  My ten or so extremely dedicated  faculty members and I gathered around a round table and I led what I thought was a productive meeting.  The agenda had been distributed in advance, we had a lot of things to go over, and we had a lively discussion. Success (or so I thought)!

In my old (pre life-changing moment) way of leading meetings, it was a success. But in my new way of thinking….it was a waste of time!!!  Here’s why:  one of the items on my agenda was this:  Annual Faculty Development plans due by April 1!

What had actually happened during my “successful” meeting?  I distributed some information that could have been done just as easily (and much faster) via email, and everyone present left my meeting with “one more thing do.” And for the record, how many faculty development plans were turned in by April 1?  Zero!!!

The New Meeting World Order

So here’s how I led the next faculty meeting.  I sent out a meeting invitation that read as follows: “We will complete your annual faculty development plan at this meeting.  Please start thinking about what you would like to do this coming year in order to improve your teaching ability.  This can include conferences, seminars, courses you’d like to take, professional certifications you’d like to achieve or anything else you can think of.  See you next Friday!”

Faculty Development Friday

When the meeting came around, we met in the same conference room around the same table as we always had before.  But this time, when our hour was up, no one left the room groaning that they had one more thing to accomplish in an already busy schedule.  Instead,  everyone had a completed Annual Faculty Devlopment Plan.  It was fun, and it was easy. 

To start the meeting, I gave everyone a blank copy of our faculty development plan template.  I had everyone fill in their name, anniversary dates, employee Id numbers, all that stuff.  Then, we went down the list of items to fill out.

First item – Professional Certification:  “What professional certifications are you interested in pursing this year?  Who wants to work towards their CEC? Great, what are the steps.  Study, take the practice tests, take the written test, take the practical exam, complete the final application packet and mail off. If you are interested in the CEC write these steps down in section one and fill in the completion dates that will work for you.  Who would like to pursue a CSW?  Great, what are the steps?  Get a study guide, study, take the  practice tests, review with your mentor, take the written exam.  If you would like to pursue a CSW, write all that down in section one and fill in the dates that work for you.”  And so on, and so on…in about 15 minutes we had all finished section one.

Next section – Training offered Internally:  “Everyone write these down…Sticky Teaching on May 15, Brain Rules for Teachers on June 12, Bloom’s Taxonomy on July 25 (etc, etc.). These are the faculty development sessions that I will conduct in house.  You need to try to attend at least six of these and when you do, make sure to note on your faculty development form three take-aways from each session that you plan to use in your teaching in the coming year.”  Ten minutes later…section two done!

Next section – Training Obtained Externally: “Here’s a list of classes and workshops offered on-line.  Two have already been budgeted for each of you.  Pick the two that most interest you and write them on your form. If you have a conference or convention in mind that you’d like to attend, write it down and I will let you know if we can budget for it by the end of the month.” Twelve minutes later, section three done.!

Final section – Classroom Observations:  “Everyone write down the name of the class you are teaching this semester that you would like me to visit in order to conduct a classroom observation.  Same thing for next semester.  When the Fall and Winter schedule comes out, be sure and update your plan and let me know which class you’d like me to visit.”  Ten minutes later, we’re done.

One hour from start to finish and everyone has their faculty development plan done.  Everyone had the opportunity to benefit from the ideas and challenges of their colleagues.  Everyone is excited about the opportunity to improve their teaching skills. Everyone has a new professional certification goal in mind. Best of all, everyone – including me – gets to check one big giant thing off of their big giant “to do” list.

What else can I say? I’m a meeting flipper for life.  And if this was your idea….make yourself known!

Flipping the College Classroom

Flipping the College Classroom

For the past century, and probably for centuries before that, the typical classroom learning experience on just about every college campus in the world has remained the same. Oh sure, we’ve got PowerBooks and Power Point and lots of technological gizmos these days, but in most classrooms it’s the same as it ever was.  The faculty member – the Sage on the Stage – lectures while the students listen and take notes.

But oh how things have changed.  When I first started teaching my biggest problem was keeping an eye on students who were passing notes back and forth.  Now, it’s “Teacher vs. Twitter” as I am competing with Facebook, Google+, iPhones, iPads, Angry Birds and more.  The distraction factor is not even the worst part; it’s a true fact that just about everything I have to say in a three-hour lecture can be found via a three-second search on every student’s personal favorite electronic gizmo, sitting right there in their hand.   

Perhaps it is time for the classroom to change.

Lesson Plans in the Lurch.

To explain how the classroom can change, we first need to understand the learning process. To put it quite simply, there are two parts to the learning process:  transmission and assimilation. In a typical college classroom, transmission takes place as a professor lectures and students take notes.  Transmission also occurs during reading, although getting the students to actually read the textbook  is a challenge unto itself, and one that perhaps I should address at another time.

The second part of learning, assimilation, generally occurs outside a typical classroom as the student does homework, lab work, studies his notes, or takes part in a cooperative learning project.

Back to Bloom

If we refer back to the Learning Taxonomy of Benjamin Bloom, we can see that “transmission” involves the lower order level thinking skills of knowledge and understanding, while “assimilation” involves the higher order thinking skills of application, analysis, creation (synthesis) and evaluation.  In layman’s terms, “real” learning occurs outside the traditional classroom.

The big issue with this traditional model is that as the student’s cognitive load increases, the availability of help, in the form of the professor, decreases.  This model is reversed in a flipped classroom, where (to put it very, very simply) transmission occurs before class, and assimilation takes place during class, with the aid and help of the instructor.

Transmission…Before Class

The very technology that is causing widespread student distraction during class in the first place can be put to use in asking students to view a video of a lecture before class. Students can be assigned lectures to view via Youtube, iTunes or other media, and may be required to be involved in online chats or forum discussions. At its most basic, transmission before class can take the form of a good, old-fashioned text book reading assignment. 

Obviously, an excellent text book, a series of recorded lectures, and a reliable delivery system are pre-requisites for flipping the classroom. In addition, guided practice for basic knowledge and skills such as take-home or online quizzes or other types of homework should also be included and required as a “ticket for entry” into class.  Flipping a classroom just doesn’t work if the students don’t read, view, or do their assignments before class.

Assimilation…During Class

Instead of a lecture, the flipped classroom is used to reinforce, practice, and analyze the subject matter at hand through the use of a bank of interesting, challenging in-class assignments intended to assist in the assimilation phase of learning. In other words, you do your homework in class, where the teacher can watch over and guide you. Class time can also be used for debate, demonstration, discussion, and review of specific concepts.

Any instructor who has ever overseen a learning lab or a group project knows that directing activity in a classroom can be far more demanding than lecturing. Careful management and acute attention is demanded on a minute-by-minute basis in a flipped classroom, lest your well thought-out learning session turn into a group nap, a gossip session, or a brawl. (You professors know exactly what I mean.)

The Challenge for Educators

No one is saying that this type of teaching is easy. You are very likely to encounter student resistance, at least at first.  As a matter of fact, you should count on the fact that classes taught in this manner will be fraught with skeptical students for the first few weeks. Even students that say they play on Facebook all throughout class because the professor is boring are still likely to resist this alternative format as they are used to a class that requires very little in terms of effort, participation, and engagement.  Unfortunately, the ubiquitousness of the lecture format of teaching has bred a generation of students that are content to “zone out” for a few hours a day during class.

Student accountability is another issue. I’ve been in plenty of classrooms where it’s obvious the students didn’t do any of the assigned readings. I even had one student explain that he didn’t bother opening the book because “I did such a good job of teaching it.” (What do you say to that?) Accountability, such as readiness assessments done individually or in teams should be woven into the curriculum. However, the overriding hope for this method is that students will actually be better prepared for class because the materials are more engaging and they know that the class will be structured around the information assigned in advance.

Finally, this idea is not ideal for all disciplines, all subject matters, or even all the days in one particular course. I’ve found it works very well on about half of the days of my classes, and students need to know exactly what days to expect a flipped class.

What do you think…can you flip your college classroom?

 

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas