Flip It!: Some Thoughts on Flipped Classrooms

As an instruction librarian, and as a museum educator, I’ve never had a traditional classroom – instead I’ve had classroom visits, time carved out for after-school programs, all-day camps, outreach events, drop-in workshops, etc. Given my lack of a traditional classroom, I find things like flipped classrooms intriguing. A flipped classroom is essentially where students view/read/otherwise consume lecture content outside of class and do homework, activities, or otherwise more hands-on work in class. By partnering with a classroom teacher students could, for instance, watch a quick lecture before attending a museum field trip workshop or complete some online quizzes before attending a one-shot library workshop.

Flipped Classroom graphic from the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin.

Flipped Classroom Resources:

  • Check out this great rundown on flipped classrooms from the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • For some ideas on using flipped models in the library, check out this ACRL article by Candice Benjes-Small and Katelyn Tucker.
  • The PBS NewsHour also has a good report on how some schools are trying out flipped methods.

One place that does a really nice job of outlining the potential benefits of the flipped model is Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. Their Flipping the Classrooms guide says that a flipped model accomplishes the following:

students gain first exposure prior to class – This can really be key, especially when you are having to inform students about a lot of complex information in a very short period of time, such as during an introduction to research session at a library or an after-school robotics workshop where you have to get through a lot of complex technical material in a brief period (if the second example sounds a tad specific it’s because it’s something I’ve taught before!).

Incentive to prepare for class – I’d imagine this could be engrained in students over time, if they keep showing up unprepared; though students are notorious for not reading ahead of time so I’m not entirely sure that they would be incentivized by something like video lectures either.

Method for assessment – Pre class quizzes and worksheets certainly ensure that students watch the video lectures; I haven’t had as much experience with this element of the flip model but I’d like to try it out more in the future; though I have to balance it out with the more informal education I do, or education that’s in partnership with a classroom or faculty instructor – my ability to administer “homework” is limited

In class activities that focus on higher cognitive skills – This is something I can really get behind. I like the flip model because it actually hits a number of different learning styles. Video lectures for those inclined to watch and listen; activities for those who prefer more hand’s on learning; group work and one on one time in the classroom to provide a variety of experiences.

But as much as I’m a huge proponent, and attempted practitioner, of the flipped model, I do think that there is something to be said for a classroom lecture, or a lecture that embeds discussion elements in it, something you can lose with an outside-of-class, video lecture format. And having a class activity can mean that students can fall through the cracks. I’ve been the lead teacher in a class of 20-odd 4th and 5th graders before and it’s hard to touch base with every person when they’re all, say, building Lego robots and asking random questions every 5 seconds. The same is true for library workshops where every student working on a different project; though college kids are generally less insistent than 10-year-olds when it comes to having their questions answered at least.

One thing I’ve tried in the past with younger kids (not yet at the college level) is an “expert” model, where students volunteered to be the “expert” on a certain topic. For instance, in my robotics classes a student who had built on a light sensor before was our expert. Kids have to talk to an expert or a peer before they come ask me, which is a way for them to learn from each other and a way for me to cut down on the amount of eager questions I’m fielding from excited and often hyper 10-year-olds at any given moment during activity time.

I’ll probably be writing more about adventures in flipped teaching in the future – overall I think it’s a neat model that can be really flexible and beneficial to a lot of different learning styles and classroom situations.


The House Hunters Decision-Making Model

Ennui cat expresses ennui

Sartre famously commented on how awful free will and choice can be (“I am condemned to be free” – so melodramatic, dude).

But it’s really true – having all the options open to you can be paralyzing, just as having none can be frustrating. And this is why I think something like House Hunter’s (the HGTV show where people select a house from three options) is kind of genius, and definitely appealing.  The show is rigged. But, frankly, I think that’s part of the charm. The people on that show (which I often watch in order to mock – seriously, people, you can change paint. It’s not a deal breaker.) only have three choices. Only three! And while they do the requisite agonizing over which to pick at the end, while dramatic countdown music plays, and one member of the couple sagely notes “we, like, have to make a decision,” it’s only between three things (and not even that given that the show is rigged).

Can you imagine going through life and only having to pick among three options instead of like, the 800 cars on the Carfax website, or the 10 pairs of ambiguously named jeans at the Gap, or the innumerable life decisions that are rarely divided neatly into three distinct options?

House Hunters is like a baby pool of decision-making. And I think that’s something that can actually be highly beneficial to students learning a new skill, like researching. Educators who do things like teach essay writing to younger students have figured this one out – it’s why we give the kids templates and outlines to use. We provide baby steps along the way to writing a full-fledged essay. We limit the number of decisions for students to make as they start writing. For some reason, college students are often expected to leap right in to research, from picking their own topic to finding their own sources. What I’d like to do is promote everything but the research paper assignments (see the example from the UT Libraries) or at least closed circuit activities, so to speak.

For instance, in introductory research classes, I often give students articles on a contemporary topic (I used the Keystone Pipeline debate recently) to use in an evaluation activity. The articles I select all cover distinct political views and, like the houses on House Hunters which are always neatly categorized as “fixer upper” or “great kitchen”, the articles I pre-select fit a variety of distinct needs and provide an opportunity to test out evaluation and decision-making skills without overwhelming my students with options.

As much as I like students to think and discover and experiment for themselves, I think that sometimes you need to take more of a House Hunters approach, particularly with things like early research skills, and set up scenarios for students to work within before unleashing them into the wide world of unlimited choice.

Insert GIF Here

Apparently, some researchers at MIT are trying to turn GIFs into a language.

If you’ve been on BuzzFeed, Tumblr, or, well, the Internet, you’re probably already well aware of how GIFs function as a language. This post is even using GIFs to express emotions (so meta!).

But this project from MIT uses Mechanical Turk-like human labor to help quantify and categorize GIFs.

Volunteers can head over to the GIFGIF site and select which GIF best expresses a certain emotion. It’s worth a visit just to see the array of GIFs that the denizens of the Internet have created (who knew Futurama GIFs were so prevalent?).

Aside from being a cool project, I think that thinking of GIFs as a language and as a powerful (and fun) tool for self-expression can really open up some neat possibilities in the classroom. Having students do a GIF storytelling version of a project, or a GIF version of a book or a play can teach visual literacy skills, summary skills (GIFs are inherently an economical form of expression), and creative thinking.

This project can also be a great way to spark classroom discussion on how computers work, what visual search engines are all about, and how the Internet is changing how we communicate. Plus, the time you kill on Tumblr and BuzzFeed can now be written off as “lesson planning.” Win/win!


The Problem Solving Snail

The wonder that is the problem solving snail was introduced to me as a joke a few years ago. I was working at a grant-funded museum tech outreach program and the lead teacher designed a brief survey for the students (5th grade girls) to take for assessment purposes. A lot of the questions asked the girls about STEM ideas, their attitudes towards science, etc. And one question showed the students an image of a the engineering design process, kind of like this great one (albeit sans labels) from The Works Museum:


The girls had to identify this image as an engineering design process –  something we’d discussed in class the previous week, when we’d talked about how engineers work and the steps we go through to solve problems. One of the ridiculous choices the lead teacher came up with for this survey question was the “problem solving snail” and the term stuck. The other teachers in the class and I ran with the term and it became a running joke.

But I think the problem solving snail might be more profound than we originally thought. I teach research skills now more than engineering lessons (I must say I’m sad about that on occasion!). And the research process really has a lot in common with this problem solving or design process used by engineers.

In fact, this research cycle image I made for a first-year research guide was largely inspired by problem solving and design process cycles I’d seen in my museum educator days.


Whether it’s science, engineering, inventing, humanities research, or whatever, the process of identifying and solving a problem is pretty similar. For me, there are two major lessons to take away from an engineering approach to problem solving. The first is the term problem solving itself. I really think that research, at the academic level especially but also for younger students, would do well to be explicitly cast as a way to solve problems. College students, in my experience, can often experience a disconnect between their assignments and the real world (insert academia joke of your choice here). Research, to students, can feel tedious (it often is) and difficult (yep). Casting it in terms of solving a problem can help ground the more abstract ideas of research in practicalities and “real” world concerns.

The other major takeaway I have from an engineering approach to problem solving is actually my friend, the problem solving snail. A snail is, of course, slow. It makes incremental process. You might worry it’s never going to get anywhere. And problem solving (and research) is exactly like this. Research is slow, it’s iterative, it might seem stagnant. But it can really get important things done, even though the process itself can feel cumbersome.

I think the problem solving snail might become my mascot for future lessons, whether I’m teaching younger kids about STEM or older kids about academic research. If you want to learn more about the problem solving and the design process, check out this great site from the PBS Kids Design Squad, where they walk you through each step of the design process and provide resources and activity ideas.

Visualize This

Eddie Izzard does a hilarious routine about JFK’s (in)famous Ich bin ein Berliner spiel by saying that the gaffe was actually totally fine because it’s really “70% how you look, 20% how you sound, and 10% what you say.”

With these words of wisdom in mind I decided to set out to teach students how to create data visualizations so that their research can at least look snazzy.

Mean Girls – a movie about image (among other things) that has become a key visual communication tool via GIFs and remixes on the internet. So meta!

Just kidding. I do, however, teach a data visualization class and it’s a subject area that I’ve gotten increasingly interested in. I think that visuals can be a great way to hook students into experimenting with technology and new ways to communicate ideas. So, everything information literacy instruction should be.

But data visualization is more than just a hook – teaching students how to create visualizations, how to differentiate between and evaluate visualization types, and how to understand representations of data, is a really vital skill, particularly for anyone who is participating in life on the internet (so, pretty much everyone if the folks at Pew are to be believed).

I don’t expect my kids to become the next Nate Silver, but having some visual literacy can be helpful in terms of both coursework and daily life. My students (generally teens) are on sites like Instagram and Tumblr all the time – there’s an entire language of GIFs (see #whatshouldwecallme and its derivatives) that has sprung up online and entire conversations can be held with emojis.

And aside from social interactions, Infographics are completely ubiquitous (Flowing Data exists for a reason). Data visuals and infographics are the go-to form for representing ideas and data sets, just as visuals like GIFs are rapidly becoming a go-to form for expressing emotions and ideas online. We live in a society laden with images and being able to both produce and critically assess visuals is a valuable skill to have.  Plus, data visualization is just fun to do in the classroom. I just enjoy having an excuse to take a coloring/drawing break from time to time.

For more on the ins and outs of data visualizations, infographics, and how they can be powerful tools, check out this Ted Talk by David MacCandless.

Lesson ideas with Data Visualization:

  • Give students a data set (you can get free sets from a variety of places, including government websites, Google’s Public Data Provider, or Overthinking It for pop culture data sets, like their awesome Star Trek Red Alert one.) and have them design a data visualization on their own using a tool like PowerPoint or even just good old-fashioned pen and paper. Then put them in pairs or groups and have them work together to merge their ideas.
  • Show students a bad data visualization (they are plentiful online) and have them apply best practices to fix it.
  • Have students represent one data set in different ways. Check out this Lifehacker post about choosing the best way to represent your data, for inspiration.

Scratching the Surface – Storytelling with Scratch

Scratch, for those who don’t know, is a learn-to-code program designed by the folks at MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten program (which is such a fantastic spirit to embrace). Scratch features a somewhat deranged looking cat and a less-deranged array of color coded blocks that kids can put together like puzzle pieces in order to do some rudimentary coding.

The manic-looking cat from Scratch


One thing I really love about Scratch, and there are many things to love, is that it uses natural language to help kids (and adults too) learn basic coding skills. Concepts like while loops and if statements are written out and color coded so that the programmer can make connections between what’s happening in their code and what they are seeing the rather manic looking cat (seriously, he has problems) do on the screen.

I volunteer at a local museum with a teen group and was showing them Scratch the other day. One of the girls in the group rather astutely asked what this was even good for and why bother to learn to code. Better people than me have expounded upon that topic and talked about the importance of computer literacy skills (see Hour of Code and their associated explanatory video content, for starters). And I regurgitated some of that for her benefit. But I also emphasized, librarian and educator that I am, that coding can be a powerful communication tool. Coding can be a way to create, build, and share ideas and that, to me, is the truly key and empowering thing about learning to use technology, whether or not that involved coding (and that’s also why I think librarians should be at the forefront of advocating for ways to close the digital divide in this country, though more on that later). Not everyone needs to be a coding ninja, but having an understanding of how technologies we use every day work is, I feel, important (see this well-written post on learning to code from DML Central for more).

Scratch, though it may be designed for kids and feature some rather silly looking animated characters, can actually act as a great digital storytelling device for kids and teens.

It can help them explore ways to use code to tell a story and the platform itself is flexible enough to act as a fun, if somewhat kitschy looking, storytelling platform. You can import backgrounds and images to use as characters, include thought bubbles and dialogue, make things move around the screen, add music, and add other visual effects (which actually look less silly than the hats Google Hangouts is doing in beta). And the great part with Scratch is that you can put up your story and freely remix other people’s programs, which helps to teach kids about the creative process as well as more traditional STEM topics like, well, coding.

Scratch is web-based and free and could work really well in libraries, museums, and schools as a way to teach basic coding and have some fun with telling stories on a digital platform. Have you used Scratch before? Share ideas and experiences below and check out the Scratch Educator community for ideas and inspiration.