What is the best way to teach?
There is of course no right answer to this. From the Socratic Method to meditation to apprenticing in vocation guilds, different cultures and schools of thought have tried to determine what works best in transferring the knowledge that these societies deem to be important. The reason why this question is so hard to answer is because students have different learning styles that lend themselves better to particular methods and less well to others. Some students work best by watching others, other students need to take part in the activity to fully comprehend the topic being taught. There is also the issue of pacing: some students will quickly understand a topic, how it fits in with previously covered material, and how it can be applied in different situations, while others will need more time to get to this point. There can be a large range in student comprehension times within a classroom. In addition, how quickly students understand something is dependent on the subject area and even the topics within a subject. How does a teacher make sure that those who “get it” are not bored without going too fast for those who need more time?
I have been wrestling with this question in my years as a teacher and have come to the conclusion that the typical lecture style for teaching math is inherently deficient. In a lecture, teachers have to teach “to the middle,” and they have trouble differentiating enough to help those at either end of the pacing spectrum because lectures are very teacher-centered. With lectures, teachers do not have time for students to sufficiently practice a topic in class, which necessitates giving lots of problems for homework. Those students who would benefit the most from extra practice have trouble completing the problems because of the lack of supervised practice with the teacher, and those students who do not need extra practice treat the homework as a chore to be finished to get a good grade in the class. Teachers then have to spend time during the next class reviewing the homework to make sure everyone understands it, which then leads to having even less time to cover the next topic. This creates a domino effect that makes it impossible for a teacher to cover the entire course curriculum in a semester or a year – which pushes teachers to go too fast for many students – just to finish what is required.
On top of this inefficient cycle, grading all of that homework in a way that gives students useful feedback is a humungous time-sink.
There is a better way! It is called the “flipped classroom” method. For homework, students watch a video, generally 5-15 minutes long, which covers the lecture part of class. Teachers can create these videos on their own or use ones made by others. Each student can go at their own pace – stopping the video to take notes; watching it multiple times, if necessary; or just playing it through once. Students then come in to class the next day having already learned the basics for the topic. Class can be spent entirely on doing problems and activities that help students understand how the topic is applied. By “flipping” the lecture with the homework, students are able to self-differentiate and then have teachers help them with the trickier task of applying the material to problems. Homework becomes a useful activity and not a chore. Students can refer back to the videos at any point and can keep up with the class if they are absent. Classes are much more student-centered, which is more enjoyable for students and teachers. Since students are able to do more problems and ask more questions in class, teachers avoid the domino effect of material from one day bleeding into the next. This increases efficiency, which allows teachers to cover their curricula at a pace that works for many more students.
Why haven’t all math teachers, and other teachers who frequently have a lot of lecture, switched to a flipped-classroom method if it is so much better than a lecture-style class? I think that there are many reasons for this. Almost all teachers, including myself, were taught using the lecture style and it worked for us. It is what many of us are comfortable with and coming to the conclusion that it should be discarded is a difficult one. Also, most teachers do not have the time to make their own videos and might not feel comfortable using someone else’s video resources. This is exacerbated by the cellular nature of the American education system and the lack of a professional culture that readily shares best practices. I think that, over time, more and more teachers in the lecture-heavy disciplines will move towards this model of teaching. There will be many different sets of videos on the internet and teachers can pick the one or ones that work best for them and their students. This would make flipped-classroom teaching more accessible for all students and teachers.
Given how slowly education reform happens in this country, we could be waiting a long time.
*Ross Benson is a high school math teacher who has 9+ years teaching at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, MA. He has an undergraduate degree in Material Science and Engineering from MIT and a masters from Tufts University. He is originally from New York City and attended Stuyvesant High School.
NB: Ross has a math lessons video series that can be found linked on this site under “Edu-videos”, they are all available for free, to any student, additionally on his Vimeo page.