Salman Khan, extracted from a video about the ...

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Recently, I viewed an On Demand movie called Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. Twice during the fairly complex plot, Cooper said something that I either didn’t catch or wanted to ponder. I rewound to hear the line again the first time, and stopped the video in the second case. Without On Demand controls, I would not have fully appreciated the film. As I thought about the benefits of On Demand movies, I also reflected on Salman Khan’s Mathematics videos. In his talks, Khan clearly says that his cousins liked the recorded version of him explaining Math better than listening to Khan live. This is a common sense scenario that we have avoided for years. When we read books, we have the luxury of rereading words and passages as many times as we wish. In the traditional classroom, however, we have one shot at capturing that key statement from the teacher. If we are shy, we are destined to find a classmate we trust to hopefully get the information. If we are bold, we risk being chastised by the teacher for not listening.

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In a world in which the teacher is the sole source of information and knowledge for the student, there is an expectation that students will be hanging on every word spoken, and to some extent, students do comply. When I approach the whiteboard with my marker, I hear the rustle of papers as students scramble to record what I am about to write. Most interesting about this scenario is the rationale for note taking. Our working memory can retain five to seven pieces of information before it overflows. In order to retain one of those pieces of information, a connection must be made by each student that causes that information to be incorporated into longer term memory. Writing what the teacher says does not make a connection. Writing something else meaningful to that student does, but how many students actually record those kinds of notes, and how many are instructed to?

One of the reasons Khan promotes his videos and the more generic idea of recording lessons and explanations is because it allows students to learn at their own pace, outside the classroom. Extending Khan’s idea to a broader learning model, one is introduced to the “flipped” classroom. In a flipped classroom, students learn material at their own pace outside of the classroom, and then come to class with the goal of increasing understanding by utilizing the skills and talents of the teacher. Those who learned more slowly outside of class are the focus of the teacher’s attention in class while those who learned more rapidly are either asked to help the others or move forward independently. Of course, there are many variations on that theme, but the general idea makes sense from a teaching and learning standpoint because it appeals to the strengths of both students and teachers.

The flipped classroom is not a radical concept. English and History classes have used the idea for years. Students read an assignment, and come to class with the goal of enhancing their understanding and analysis of the materials they have read. Where the traditional flipped classroom lost its identity was in the notion that the teacher subsequently had to reinforce understanding of the reading with a lecture or highly structured discussion driven by leading questions. What Khan and others are advocating is to shift the burden of learning from the teacher to the student both in and out of the classroom. Just as On Demand video is tailored to the needs of the movie watcher, videos of lessons and explanations allow students to absorb new material at their own pace, review lessons when studying for assessments and exams, and return to any specific detail when it disappears from one’s memory. In short, the mode of presentation is consistent with the operation of the brain and the mechanics of learning. Finally, the teacher is freed to be a teacher when students arrive in class, focusing on those areas that are most difficult for that specific group of students. Everybody wins.