Stillwater tests 'flipping' homework and lectures

Stillwater Area Schools is testing the idea of flipping the traditional way of teaching math to fifth-graders by having students listen to lectures at home and solve math problems during class.

"With the careful use of pause and the rewind button, students can revisit concepts, ideas and skills that they didn't get. And if they do get it, they can move on," said Mike Dronen, the district's technology coordinator. "For education, time has always been the enemy."

It's a technique that's growing more popular. Earlier this week, Byron Senior High School in southeastern Minnesota was named one of the nation's top high schools by the Intel Schools of Distinction program for what the school calls "reverse classrooms" in its math department.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports the Stillwater schools are testing the "flipped" concept in six fifth-grade math classrooms over the next five months to see if it improves student achievement.

Stillwater modeled the flipped classrooms after Khan Academy, a free website that offers more than 2,400 mini-lectures on topics ranging from arithmetic to physics.

Teachers said they had some concerns when district officials approached them with the idea. What if students didn't have Internet access, they wondered, or didn't watch the videos.

Those fears were quickly dispelled, said Denise Cote, one of the teachers in the program. The lessons are on DVDs for students who need them, and DVD players can be checked out from the school.

Six teachers divided up the lessons, each recording about 11 over the summer to get them through the first half of the year. It was a little unsettling at first, Cote said, but she was over it after the first few videos.

"I get so wrapped up in what I'm doing, I forget I'm being recorded," she said.

Stillwater's flipped courses aren't just online learning. Students still have the same amount of time with the teacher in the classroom. The teacher is just in a new role, slowing down the pace for a student who needs more time and picking it up for the student who needs a fresh challenge.

So far, it's been a hit with parents.

"The whole concept makes sense," said Kim Corbett, whose son Will is in Cote's math class. "It gets harder and harder for parents to help with their math as they get older. This allows us to learn along with them at home."

Kristina Hansen popped out of her seat one day last week to ask Cote to guide her through a problem. Cote found Kristina wasn't the only one struggling, so she sat down with a small group to walk them through the work.

The problem: A pizza restaurant offers nine kinds of toppings and two kinds of crust. A small cafe offers one-third as many types of pizza. How many fewer types of pizza does the cafe offer?

First, they needed to figure out which place has more offerings, Cote explained. It's the pizza restaurant, but they had to multiply nine times two to get that number - 18, a result that assumes only one topping per pizza. Now they can figure out how many offerings the cafe has by dividing 18 by three.

They weren't done yet. They needed to subtract six from 18 to get the answer.

"This is kind of a multi-step problem," Cote told the group as they tackled the problem together.

"I like it a lot better," Kristina said of her flipped math classes. "I get a lot more help in school."

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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