Monday, May 30, 2011

Model for Learning Improvement Using the Reverse Classroom-Part I

Although there aren't many studies, the ones that do exist indicate that classes that combine face to face with online components are the most effective. However, simply adding online activities to your classes will produce, more interesting, but mixed results. What's needed is a proven pedagogy for best practices and techniques that use the best of what is now possible for both face to face and online learning. The reverse classroom is a model with rigorous online activities that complement and improve on the face to face classroom. We can't improve education by doing random online activities that are not substantive. While the Reverse Classroom is a powerful model for education, it is still a transitional model.  Face to face education is undergoing a transition to online learning forced by economic and other social  pressures.  If an online school has developed a model for education with excellent teachers that produces better results than the local brick and mortar high school can offer with its decaying infrastructure and dwindling financial resources, the choice may not be immediately obvious, but it will become so in the near future.

If we assume that mastery of a subject requires the embodiment of skills, facts and methods that lead to the creative production of artifacts unique to a subject, then the face to face and online activities need to be structured to achieve the end desired. Moreover this model can be successfully extrapolated to higher education producing far better results than the current face to face lecture approach.  In this context, an artifact refers to a problem solution, the understanding and written explanation of complex processes in any of the sciences, the analysis of social, economic, literary or historical documents leading to the formulation of written arguments that successfully support, defend or argue against a position, about a subject,  creative writing about any topic and similar requirements for all subjects taught in schools today. I will attempt to describe, in detail, the face to face and online activities needed to accomplish these results for all the major subject areas taught in schools today.
Cognitive Theory.

Working memory is a brain system that draws from experience in the form of long term memory and the environment to understand complex concepts and situations typically presented in a classroom.  Working memory can be overloaded.  Classroom activity can involve lecture, visual presentations, group work, discussions, hands-on work and more.  While class related activities are going on, the environment brings its own stimuli in the form of distractions from other students, visual, audio and random thoughts which draw our attention away from the class specific activities.  Anyone who has sat in a class trying to understand math, science, history, English or any other subject can remember the many influences that continually compete for our attention.  Our minds wander, our attention is distracted by another student, lectures continue and we have missed an important statement that would have helped us understand the present statement, but that  link in the chain of the lecture is no longer available.  We can ask a question, but we feel that might be construed as inappropriate so we let it slide and our understanding falls behind.  When we are confronted with assignments or tests, we have gaps in our knowledge of the topic and our study session, assignment or test is correspondingly lacking in completeness and mastery.  Some students have better working memory than others.  If the teacher is skillful, she will be able to keep the students attention and establish an emotional connection with each student that makes them want to remain engaged.  We also know from learning research that successful understanding that is capable of reproducing and going beyond the topic require repetitions and continual effort on the part of the student.   From brain research we know that understanding involves the formation of complex neural networks in the brain.  Synapse connections among neurons are made and broken continually.  The more complex and abstract the topics the greater the number of connections needed for mastery and the greater chance of loss of understanding or memory due to breakage of synapse connections.  Study establishes synapse connections and repetition strengthens the connections so that they are not easily broken.  Many factors go into establishing connections that are lasting.  Some of these factors are physical and take the form of electro-chemical interactions in the brain, others are emotional or environmental and they are all interrelated.  The process of education should take into account all these factors and optimize techniques to facilitate lasting understanding.  Students learn differently.  Some respond well to classroom lectures, some do not.  Some understand math well while others do not.  The type of brain chemistry that leads to understanding in various subjects are different.  It is an incredibly complex process and it is no surprise that with the limited understanding modern cognitive science has of these processes, our educational system lacks systems that can lead to more equality of learning for all students.
The reverse classroom is a model that reduces cognitive overload by removing the presentational lecture and explanation process from the classroom and shifts it to an online video that can be played and replayed by students.  Classroom activity is reserved for homework, tutoring, peer to peer learning and activities that reinforce and complement the presentational components of the class.  However, simply transferring the lecture to an online video will not achieve the optimal results we are seeking.  Putting a 40 or 50 minute lecture online is  not what the reverse classroom is all about.

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