Tacoma chemistry teacher Ken Richardson has turned instruction on its head. He gives his lessons to students outside the classroom and brings assignments that might otherwise be done as homework into class.
The veteran Wilson High School teacher records video podcasts of lectures for students to watch on their own time. Students then spend class time doing hands-on projects that apply knowledge from the previous night’s lesson. During class, Richardson serves as a guide and answers questions.
“I’m no longer the ‘stand and deliver’ guy,” he said. “I’m the ‘walk around and help you’ guy.”
Educators call it the flipped classroom.
A Tacoma Public Schools spokesman calls Richardson a pioneer of the concept. Richardson’s students call it a great way to learn.
“I like it,” said junior Kayleena Roberts. She said it’s easier to concentrate on a lecture when she’s at home.
“I put on my headphones in my room, and I have to pay attention,” she said. “There’s not as much distraction.”
Junior Hailey Viehmann said the recorded lessons are handy for times when she misses school for a day.
“You can go to the podcast and figure out what they did,” she said. “It doesn’t take long.”
Sophomore Brittany Mahoney said she sometimes watches the podcasts on her phone.
“I can do it anytime, even when I’m not home,” she said.
Added senior Erika Smith: “I don’t even consider it real homework. I can do it on my own time.”
Richardson’s students like that they can slow or pause his lecture at any time, take notes, jot down a question or rewind the video to review something they didn’t catch the first time.
FLIPPING CATCHING ON
Flipping the classroom has gained popularity among educators in recent years, and some are taking the concept to new levels. A September conference on education technology held in Tacoma included a session on it, which attracted teachers from throughout the South Sound.
At that conference, Justin Talmadge, humanities teacher and technical coach for Snoqualmie Valley Public Schools, emphasized that flipping the classroom should be “so much more than recording yourself talking.”
“You send the lecture – the direct instruction – home,” he said. “Then the application happens in the community (or classroom).”
Tom Vander Ark, former superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools and author of “Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World,” talked at the conference about the flipped classroom and other developments in education technology.
He said technology has spurred a “cultural change” in public education.
“A lot of it is subversive, bottom-up stuff,” he said. “Teachers, parents and kids are finding stuff and bringing it to the classroom.” He said schools need to give teachers permission to move in new directions.
Some critics of the flipped classroom say it can create barriers for students whose families don’t have computers or other technology at home. Richardson said he thought about that.
While many students are able to use personal technology to view assignments, Richardson knows some families don’t own the hardware. Other students have computers but no Internet access at home. For those students, he can load lessons onto miniature thumb drives or DVDs.
Students can also use computers in his classroom before or after school, or at the public library.
While students in a traditional class lecture can always ask questions, many times they shy away, said Richardson, a veteran of 23 years in the classroom. They might be afraid they’re the only person with the question and they don’t want to be embarrassed, he said.
Richardson said students ask more questions while working in small groups.
“Once I start walking around, I may find 10 kids with the same question,” he said.
Richardson is no “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” and his podcasts lack the jazzy production values of that TV show. But they also offer more than just a talking head.
He narrates each lesson as he “draws” on screen, using it as a virtual chalk board. Important words move around the screen, while colorful highlighters emphasize points. It’s all part of the software he uses, called Camtasia.
Richardson adapted his old notes to make them more visual. And if there’s a concept students seem stuck on, he can respond with a video as well as in class.
While the videos are short – he aims for eight to 12 minutes per lesson – he expects students to spend between 30 minutes and an hour viewing, pausing and reviewing the material.
SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
Richardson learned about the flipped classroom through an online community of teachers. Two Colorado educators, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, came up with the idea, popularized it and wrote a book, “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class.”
Richardson paid his way to attend one of their workshops and decided to try flipping last school year.
“I love technology,” he said. “I love teaching. I’ve got great kids. And I’ve got a good gig.”
As a chemistry teacher, he said, “I get to play with fire and blow things up.” But he knows he still has to work hard to capture the attention of kids raised on hundreds of TV channels and an ever-expanding electronic universe.
Richardson began by making video lessons for students who were absent from class, to help them catch up. Last year, he decided to put all his lectures online.
He creates his podcasts at home, mostly during the summer. Lessons follow the approved school district curricula and textbook. But like most teachers, he finds the creativity of his craft is not so much in what he covers, but how.
He loves it when students catch him in a small mistake. He then goes back and adds the correct information to the video.
Richardson tries to ensure that students watch the nightly podcasts by giving quizzes on assignments and checking their podcast notes.
But he believes flipping the classroom puts more responsibility on students than traditional homework. He hopes it will set them on a path that will lead to success in college.
“They have to get in the habit of reviewing nightly,” he said. “You have got to be a self-starter.”
For now, the payoff for Wilson’s students comes on test day.
If they keep up with the video lessons, Richardson said, “they’re prepared. They’re not trying to cram.”
During a recent class session, Richardson took time for a brief review of his homework video on Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev, who developed the first version of the periodic table of elements.
Richardson asked students to work in small groups to compile a set of cards, each bearing the names and properties of various elements. Their task was to assemble the cards in the order found on the periodic table. A few cards listed only the element’s properties, but students had to guess both its name and position on the table.
As they worked, Richardson circulated from table to table.
“How did you decide?” he asked one group with several cards on the lab table. “Did the melting point fit a pattern? Yes, those properties make that fit. Good thinking.”
Richardson said he gets mainly positive comments on his teaching technique. One student’s parents accused him of being lazy. But Richardson noted that he creates his podcasts on his own time with some of his own money.
He said he believes the investment is paying off. While he hasn’t done a statistical analysis, anecdotally he finds students are doing better on assignments and tests.
He said flipping his classroom has made teaching more enjoyable and helped him get to know students better.
“I’m in the mix,” he said. “I’m mingling with kids.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
SEE FOR YOURSELF
You can view chemistry teacher Ken Richardson’s podcasts at