Videos, Khan, and the Flipped Classroom #physicsed #edtech

The past couple years have brought about a flurry of excitement, energy, drama and debate in the world of physics education, and in K-12 education in general.  A lot of great information has been shared, and a lot of misinformation has also been distributed.  As a teacher learning my way in this dynamically charged environment, I think it’s worthwhile to try and distill down some of the hotly-contested topics into what they mean for my classroom.


Let’s begin by taking a look at what is being said about some of these topics.  First, the Khan Academy has been receiving substantial notoriety as of late, largely fueled by Bill Gates’ sponsorship.  The Khan Academy began as a project by Sal Khan to create videos to assist his niece in her classes.  In and of themselves, the physics videos can be a helpful review… if you look closely, you can, of course, find a number of opportunities for improvement as well as statements that may lead to misunderstandings, but there is definitely value here when used appropriately.

Second, the “Flipped Classroom” movement has been gaining notoriety of late, even though the concept has been in practice in many classrooms for many, many years.  In its current implementation, the popularized version of the flipped classroom infers teachers creating video lectures for students to watch as their homework assignments outside of class, leaving more valuable in-class time for hands-on activities, active engagement, problem solving and practice where the teacher is available to coach and guide, etc.  This, of course, has been a standard practice in literature classes for many, many years (read the book at home, discuss in class), but the implementation version with teacher-created videos is becoming more and more popular as the technology to create and share videos becomes more accessible.  Further, the independence with which students can access differing information on their own timeline opens up further options for Mastery Learning, which can move the classroom toward an environment where students learn at their own pace.

Search the Internet and it doesn’t take long to find a wide variety of stances on these resources and how they are used.  Taken to the extreme or over-popularized by the media, the true intent of these resources can quickly become distorted.  As an example, some are calling for the use of video lectures to take the place of trained teachers in classrooms, “streamlining” education for all.  This is a dangerous path to take, particularly in the realm of science, as “teaching is really about creating experiences that allow students to construct meaning,” according to Frank Noschese in his Action-Reaction blog, and backed up by volumes of physics education research (PER).

This does not mean, however, that the videos don’t have value.  They can be a resource, a tool, to be used in conjunction with a number of other tools, methods, and strategies to optimize education for each and every student.  Do video lectures by themselves build true understanding?  Of course not!  I think it’s obvious to anyone who has worked in education that building meaningful understandings and connections isn’t facilitated by a passive observation of a lecture, whether delivered through video or in person.  However, using a short video to highlight key “take-away” concepts, reinforce basic applications, facts, formulas, and vocabulary, demonstrate problem-solving methodologies, or to provide a review or synopsis for those who need a refresher or missed a class or two can be a very effective way to individualize instruction to a student’s needs.

Three years ago I began creating videos for my Regents Physics classes, having completed a set of 80+ videos this year covering the entire Regents Physics curriculum (  My goal wasn’t to replace my classroom instruction or activities, but rather to provide another tool to help students be successful.  These videos allow students who miss classes for various reasons to come back to class with a head start on their catch-up work.  They also allow me to divert some of the less-effective (but occasionally necessary) direct instruction to “at-home” time, providing more in-class time for activities which build deeper understandings, such as our catapult projects, building of iPod speakers, and water bottle rockets, all which allow students to make connections across concepts and subjects, explore and analyze data to come to their own conclusions, and perhaps most importantly, foster confidence in independent learning.  Finally, students have fed back that these videos can be a great refresher as material gets stale, or at times provides a different look at a given subject, helping solidify areas of confusion.

Last night, for example, I was floored to receive a letter in the mail from a student I’ve never met.  In the letter, the student stated:

“Your videos helped me understand the questions we went over in class. I used your site to study for my midterm… and [now] more fully understand the topics.”

These videos, and others like them, are certainly not “the answer.”  But receiving this unsolicited letter from a student in a district I’ve never visited affirmed for me that they can be a valuable resource, and even if it’s only helping out the occasional student, isn’t that really what our jobs are about — finding a way to reach as many students as possible?

There is no magic bullet in education.  Effective instruction is a constant struggle to best meet the needs of ever-changing individual learners in a constantly changing society.  Strategies that are effective one year may not be effective next year.  Or methods that reach one student may not work for another student.  It is our challenge to try and meet the needs of as many of our students as we can on a day-by-day basis, working to help all of our students reach their potential and succeed.  Research has shown repeatedly that active learning and meaning-making provides deeper, longer-lasting understanding.  History and experience have also taught us that there is a time and place for direct instruction, though few would argue it is a but a small component of a highly effective classroom.

Videos can be used effectively to help meet these needs in different ways for different students, and are in and of themselves neither completely good nor completely evil.  Instead, they are yet another resource in a teacher’s arsenal.  Given the tremendous variety of students and challenges we face every day as educators, I want access to each and every resource I can get my hands on.

Keys to Growth: Assess, Implement, Reassess #physicsed

In a late-night tweet, physics teacher, colleague, friend and education reformer Frank Noschese questioned his exploration of the Khan Academy, in line with his recent work on the coined term “pseudoteaching,” developed jointly with John Burk.  According to Noschese and Burk:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.”

In many ways, recognizing pseudoteaching can be perceived as “trolling” or casting a negative light on the work of others, therefore such explorations must be waded into carefully and with tact in mind.  Further, as Burk is quick to point out in the pseudo-teaching FAQ,

“We think pseudoteaching is something best discovered by oneself. And there’s something about glass houses and stones.”

The key point in the definition of pseudoteaching is that the lesson results in minimal learning.  In many cases, the lesson itself may be flawed, but it’s also important to realize that the flaw may be in the lesson’s application to the specified audience, not the lesson itself.

As educators, I’m sure we all realize that entire classes, as well as individual students, have widely varying personalities.  My AP-C class loves Walter Lewin’s OCW lectures, and have reported that they learn best when given a set of resources (textbook chapters, practice problems, and references to specific Lewin lectures) and allowed to explore and work through the material at their own pace.  And their scores prove this out!  Yet, when Lewin delivered these lectures at MIT, Noschese reports in his Action-Reaction Blog that “attendance at his physics lectures fell 40% by the end of the term and an average of 10% of students failed Mechanics and 14% failed E&M.”

bobby_studying_hg_clr So why was this successful with my AP-C students?  I would surmise that after an entire year of working with the students, building independence, and teaching them how to actively teach themselves, they’re finally becoming comfortable with reading a technical textbook for understanding.  They know how to actively listen to Lewin’s lectures, and they watch the lectures as a team, pausing, working through the practice problems themselves, discussing connections to the over-arching concepts – in short, they’re turning a passive learning experience into an active learning experience that works for them.

Providing the same materials to my 9th period Regents Physics class, however, would have considerably less than stellar results.  Is the lesson itself flawed?  No, the lesson itself has its time, place, and audience.  The application of the lesson to the appropriate audience, however, is key to success.

In the same way, I believe the Khan Academy videos, flipped classroom strategies, and similar offerings all have value when used appropriately and with the right audience.  I wouldn’t begin to teach a course in physics where the entire year was spent watching videos, then expect students to have a full and complete understanding at the end of the year.  Rather, I would expect this to be a disaster.  However, using videos as a resource to introduce or reinforce concepts or applications, in conjunction with active learning methods, student inquiry and exploration activities, would likely merit much stronger consideration.

As another example, the Regents Physics review book I’m finishing up, APlusPhysics: Your Guide to Regents Physics Essentials, is designed as a guide to performing well on the standardized NY Regents Physics Exam.  It reinforces standardized physics problem solving in line with a specific test.  By itself, I would certainly NOT recommend it for use as a classroom’s primary text, much like I wouldn’t propose  an SAT review book in lieu of an entire high school student’s curriculum.  These can be valuable resources, however, when used appropriately for the appropriate audience and in conjunction with other resources.

Physics education, and indeed, a vast majority of substantive topics in our world, aren’t black and white.  What is valuable and effective in certain circumstances may be considerably less effective in others.  Pseudoteaching, therefore, may not always be indicative of a flawed lesson, but in some cases, may be indicative of delivering a strong lesson to the wrong audience in the wrong circumstances.

What makes Noschese’s work so valuable to the physics education community is his willingness to take risks and question everything, including his own work.  His late-night tweet questioning his previous comments is profound in that it highlights his ongoing self reflection.  It is this ongoing process of assessing the status quo, implementing changes based on that assessment, and then critically examining the results to repeat this loop that is the foundation of authentic growth.  Isn’t this, in effect, the basis of our scientific method?  These questions we’re discussing and debating have no simple answers, and no absolutes.  As long as we continue to question ourselves, open our minds to alternative thoughts and methods, and take appropriate risks to try new pathways, our teaching will continue to grow, evolve, and most importantly, improve.