Flipping Instruction in K-5 Math Classrooms

Flipped instruction is becoming more and more prevalent now that technology is no longer a limiting factor for most schools, but many still have lots of questions and concerns about the practice.

It’s a mistake to look at flipped instruction and face to face instruction as separate entities.  We should instead discuss effective mathematics instruction holistically.  Effective instruction  whether face-to-face or flipped should provide opportunities for  students to make sense of mathematics.  This includes worthwhile tasks that form connections between the world and the mathematics concepts being explored.

It is also important to view mathematics understanding as a continuum not just between concepts but the acquisition of number knowledge.  Students acquire deep understanding by experiencing new concepts through activities that offer concrete, pictoral, and abstract representations.  This website offers a good overview of the CPA teaching approach.  Students need to experience mathematics through inquiry and investigation and build conceptual understanding through manipulation of mathematical ideas. Using the CPA approach to teaching mathematics insures that all students have a deep understanding of concepts.  Employers aren’t look for employees who can follow mathematical procedures, software programs and calculators are available for that.  They need employees who can recognize and analyze patterns, brainstorm and investigate viable solutions to complex problems, think and reason critically and collaborate with others.

I recently watched the movie Hidden Figures about a group of ladies who performed mathematical computations for NASA.  Once the computer technology surpassed the need for their computational skills, the ladies needed to adapt to a new environment by learning computer coding and applied mathematics.  Procedural mathematics is not an employable skill.  Companies are looking for people who can think and reason and our math classrooms need to base our instruction on that need.

It is equally imperative that math blocks consist of opportunities for students to engage in the math practice standards and collaborate with other students on rich mathematical tasks.  Gone are the days of students working in isolation; Our world is one of collaboration and problem solving and we need to provide those experiences for students.

It is only once we understand effective teaching practices that we can begin to translate that knowledge into a virtual environment.  Too often we put technology before pedagogy and try to fit the learning into a tech-shaped box.  Instead we should start with powerful instruction and application and find virtual tools that enhance student learning.

Flipped Instruction

So what exactly is flipped instruction?  Flipped instruction started as videos being used for students to watch at home as homework so they would be able to complete exercises and tasks at school where they could receive teacher support.  Many teachers now flip their instruction within the school day by having students watch the lesson as bellwork or in a station while the teacher is meeting with small groups to open up instructional time for teachers to support students at their point of difficulty.flippedgraphic(web960px)

The topic of flipping instruction in elementary school is somewhat controversial; It’s similar to suggesting math stations in a secondary classroom.  There is a misconception that math stations are only beneficial for elementary students and the same is true for flipped instruction; Many teachers think it can only be pulled off in high school.  Although this is a common misconception, I would like to note that any quality flipped lesson (elementary or secondary) will incorporate opportunities for students to interact with mathematics either with concrete materials or with models.  This might be by having students pause the video to model a problem with base 10 blocks or a virtual manipulative or by completing a Desmos, Geogebra or Illuminations activity or simulation.

It is worthwhile to reflect on interactions elementary students choose to have with technology in their spare time.  My son and his friends spend hours researching topics and watching them on Youtube, from watching gameplay on how to use Redstone in Minecraft to tracing the lineage of the Jedi Order in Star Wars.  Why is it a stretch to think this would be effective in the classroom as well?

Why Don’t More Teachers Flip Instruction?

It can be really intimidating to record yourself on camera.   I have flipped numerous lessons at multiple grade levels, and it is definitely a different feeling to know that your instruction is being recorded and archived.  You are more aware of your every word, more intentional about your language, and more tight with instructional strategies.  In my opinion, that is a great thing!

We’ve all been there; we’ve planned the perfect lesson and decided on exactly what to say and then we start talking and nothing comes out right.  When you record a lesson for students, you have the opportunity to capture your best teaching.  It’s like the difference between live television and pre-recorded TV shows.  You have the opportunity to edit and make them more refined because you are editing for the best take.

Additional Benefits of Flipped Instruction

Many schools require all students in each grade-level to teach content areas at the same time with the same objective.  We could debate all day about this practice, but the key concept to take away is that we want to make sure we provide all students with a rigorous curriculum while still allowing for personalized instruction.

Flipped lessons are a great way to allow students to have access to the same grade-level content, but also get the interventions they need to continue to grow as a learner.  This can be done by allowing students who have mastered the concept to complete their work and move onto other concepts or to be given opportunities to apply their understanding.  Students struggling with the concept can receive additional intervention with the teacher because she has time to meet with them individually or in small groups.

A common misconception is that “struggling learner” means that a student has a low IQ or doesn’t have a particular subject ability.  An equally damaging misconception is that “gifted” students don’t need intervention and are gifted in all areas.  The truth is that all students have different strengths and experiences and a student who struggles with number sense may very likely soar through geometry.

Again, the point of flipping instruction is to open up additional instructional time for the teacher to support both struggling students and those who are ready to deepen their understanding by allowing more time for small group and individual intervention during math class.

Review and Reference

Many students who have “mastered” concepts often need review at times.  As adults, we sometimes fail to realize that things we take for granted such as looking up a conversion chart on our telephones when buying something sold in mL is a learned behavior in how to navigate mathematics.  The same goes for when we need to install a new dryer and we have to look up a youtube video on how to convert the outlet.  Students need to know how to find information when they need it and one way to do that is to provide them with past lessons to review conceptual and procedural knowledge.  I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve had to look up the procedure for the long division algorithm as an adult math teacher because I have accepted the fact that my brain doesn’t have to hold that information because I rarely use it.  I use mental strategies and tools such as the calculator on my phone in my daily life to approximate and divide, not a written algorithm.

Other Ideas

There are lots of ways that teachers use flipped instruction in their classroom besides lecture and mini-lessons including:

  • Game directions
  • Introduction to virtual Tools
  • Tutorials on how to use new software
  • Classroom expectations
  • Classroom and school tours for new students
  • Parent videos explaining a math concept

All of these have the same goal, to streamline procedural information or review so that the teacher has more time to work with students on individual skills.  Primary teachers who implement a workshop approach in their classrooms often struggle the most with interruptions to small group instruction due to the fact that many of their students cannot read tasks.  Flipping those tasks allows students to remain on task and engaged while the teacher is working with intervention groups.

Tips for flipping instruction:

  1. Revisit your flipped lessons regularly.  Don’t keep the same lesson if you have found better ways to teach it.  Refine your work and you will stay on the cutting edge of research.
  2. Use relevant and precise vocabulary
  3. Keep videos short (No longer than 7 minutes)
  4. Include an interactive component
  5. Provide multiple representations and models
  6. Provide images and graphics only when relevant to the mathematics
  7. Talk in a conversational tone
  8. Follow up with an opportunity to practice the skill learned and receive feedback
  9. Survey your students – what is working, what needs to change?

Image from: https://facultyinnovate.utexas.edu/flipped-classroom