Jess and I have been discussing the self-paced classroom in preparation for American Studies this September and we've run into some roadblocks. Not necessarily insurmountable, but they do call into question the logistics of transitioning a humanities course into a flipped classroom environment. Most of the exemplars out there tend to be science and math, so one of the reasons we started this blog is to think out loud about how we can take the principles of flipped instruction and apply them in a way that makes sense to the English or history class. One of the questions we keep coming back to is the issue of self-pacing.
Just as a little background to the class itself, we're teaching a class that is cross-disciplinary between history and English, aligned with the early United States history curriculum (which is from colonization to the Reconstruction). The class is a double-block (137 minutes) and is made up of 40 students, which rules out the more traditional approach to teaching. Having taught the course last year, it is clear that the flipped classroom is the only real viable approach to the class. We've worked out the first two units in our minds in regards to readings, themes, and learning objectives.
We've committed to doing a self-paced mastery set-up, as outlined in Jonathon Bergmann and Aaron Sams's Flipping the Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. The question we run into is how to do this in a class where they are all reading the same work. In the second unit, which under the broad umbrella of Colonial Society, we're going to be reading Arthur Miller's The Crucible while we take a look at how the values and mission statement of a society shape the various colonial regions differently. But can students be self-paced and still read and discuss a core text together?
In the past, we would have had them read a segment of the book and build a lesson about the elements and themes in that particular segment. But how to do this if a student can read the play in two days while it takes another student a week to read? Can you allow for the level of self-direction that the mastery approach offers without losing group cohesion?
The exchange of ideas between people over the same text is invaluable. Discussion, whether face-to-face or online, is really important to shaping students' understanding. But outside of asynchronous discussion boards, can a self-paced class have that sense of a shared experience?
One of the ways to maintain some kind of cohesion is to create pods, or groups, that allows them to lean on each other and sort out their own issues as a group. This could be collaborative learning that is more open-ended. One of the ways we were hoping to foster this is that is having them develop their own work schedule as a group rather than as an individual.
We would introduce the first unit in the first days of the school year, discussing the learning objectives, overall theme, and the various readings and activities they would have to do to show their mastery of the material. We then discussed giving each pod (who would sit at tables together) a blank calendar sheet with a benchmark of when Unit I material would have to be done. How students got their would be up to the group. They would take a look at the schedule and work out a schedule of due dates for each individual assignment leading up to the end date. This would be agreed upon by everyone in the group. We would hold them to their own schedule just as if we made it ourselves.
We decided to do this for a couple of reasons. The first is that by doing it we are having them get to know each other and collaborate first thing in the class. Students will negotiate with each other on something that is consequential to them, something that has a real impact on their day-to-day life. We are also hoping that compliance to a work schedule will be much higher if students designed it themselves.
This is also a nice compromise between individual differentiation and uniform due dates because students have to negotiate an arrangement that reflects their needs and strengths while also considering other people. This, in my view, is more reflective of real life than working by yourself at whatever pace you want; whether you are a contractor, a lawyer, a doctor, or a teacher our sense of how fast or slow work is always subordinated by the people you work with in some way. In life we all balance how fast we do or do not do something with the needs of others. We all to some degree do things at our own pace, but within the framework of immutable constraints. I think working with a group to come to a consensus emulates this nicely.
This also gives an opportunity to have students help each other. Part of the push in the class is to make students own their own learning (a phrase, by the way, that is fast becoming a bad cliche). To accomplish this it's important to have students work within a system where they can get help and support from each other. I see this as a cross between a work unit, book club, and a study group. This provides the cohesion that would be missing if every student was just going as slow or fast as they wanted. Students would create these pocket communities that would be help them through the unit. We decided we would change them up periodically so that students would be able to get to know as many people in the class as possible.