Learning Curve

Some schools have flipped the classroom to create a better learning environment. Plus, we give you  a cheat sheet on changes to the SAT and Ohio Graduation Test.

Learning Curve

Drop into Nora Faul's Honors Algebra II class at Hudson High School on a sunny fall Friday morning and, at first glance, not much seems different than when you were in high school a decade or two ago. Gone is the dusty chalkboard, but desks are still lined in rows with the teacher at the front of the class.

As her students — many wearing Hudson Explorers spiritwear in anticipation of that evening's football game — politely raise their hands to ask questions about problems they have missed on a recent quiz, Faul scribbles on the whiteboard in black dry-erase ink and shows them how to work through it.

"I'm really confused on No. 12," says one student.

"Did you watch the video?" Faul asks.

And, right there, you know something is different. Faul uses a "flipped" classroom model on some days. Students watch and listen to her lectures at home in the evenings, then can spend classroom time problem-solving and getting questions answered.

In other words, class sessions once spent on teaching are now spent on doing. Homework that once meant only doing, practicing problem after problem, is now devoted to learning and listening outside of the classroom — with, of course, a few problems thrown in for good measure.

Educators say flipped classrooms and other such innovations are a natural evolution for teaching students who have grown up using technology, as well as a response to the new Common Core standards that will guide education in 45 states, including Ohio, this year and beyond.

While Common Core and changes in graduation testing officially go into effect during the 2014-15 school year, schools have been strongly encouraged to implement the curriculum this year by the Ohio Department of Education.

Whether it's a natural sign of the times or the legislation of new standards, educators in Northeast Ohio seem to agree that innovation in and out of the classroom aiming to develop graduates who can meet the demands of today's workforce is long overdue.

"[Since] the 1980s, we've heard from the business community that we need people who are more creative, good collaborators, people who think on a higher level than just spitting back memorized facts," says William Kist, associate professor in the school of teaching, learning and curriculum studies at Kent State University and author of The Global School: Connecting Classrooms and Students Around the World.

Creating those employees has meant overhauling longtime education models. "The main challenge that we're experiencing is trying to get teachers to realize that people are now reading and writing for more minutes a day on a screen than they are on a page," says Kist.

Among kids ages 12 to 17, almost half (47 percent) now own a smartphone and 23 percent own a tablet, according to Pew Research Center's Teens and Technology 2013 report. It also shows that teens are more likely than adults to use their cellphones as the primary source to go online, including 34 percent of girls ages 14 to 17.

Thus teachers and curious parents must understand that using technology in a classroom is not just a matter of transferring worksheets to screens. 

Instead, technology can help students learn through seeing, hearing and interacting simultaneously.

Linear teaching methods, such as reading a textbook by turning from one page to the next, are being replaced by a menu of digital, video, sound and text for students to jump back and forth in time and place, says Kist.

In fact, at Gilmour Academy, students are being encouraged to incorporate various media into their work, telling stories by combining digital images, words and sound.

"The kids are fluent in technology," says Elizabeth Edmondson, chair of the English department at Gilmour. "It's a part of the language that they speak with each other in social circles. So it's about trying to fuse what's going on outside of the classroom with what's going on inside of the classroom."

The early results seem promising as well. A Pew survey found that 78 percent of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers agreed that digital technologies encourage student creativity and personal expression, according to July's report The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools. Ninety-six percent of those teachers agreed that digital technologies allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience.

However, those same instructors were concerned about the increasingly ambiguous line between formal and informal writing, including an ability to write longer texts and think critically about topics.


Technology changes are seeping into schools from both directions.

Laurel School helped create the international Online School for Girls, which was founded four years ago. Today, there are 12 consortium member schools. Two Laurel teachers instruct online classes and 25 girls take courses online in addition to their regular schedule.

The online classes permit students to watch and learn on their own time, much like a flipped classroom, says Kathryn Purcell, Laurel School's assistant head of school and the director of admissions and financial aid.

But Purcell has also noticed a trend, especially in the classrooms of the teachers who also teach online. Some of the techniques have filtered into the regular classroom, bringing more connections through technology and creating a blended learning environment.

Teachers give students content to wrestle with on their own time and then use classroom time to do hands-on, collaborative, problem-solving and creative work. "That's the model for an innovative classroom," says Purcell.

Nora Faul, who has taught at Hudson High School for 16 years, decided to use technology to implement a flipped classroom after creating a video for students who missed class for a field trip.

She makes her math videos with the Educreations iPad app. Students log in to watch them, and she can see how long the student is on the site. They can also ask her questions, by leaving them in a designated space.

Faul's math lessons are a take on the internationally recognized Khan Academy videos. Salman Khan started creating videos for a young cousin and in 2006 began posting them openly online to offer a free education to anyone.

But credit for the flipped classroom concept goes to two Colorado chemistry teachers, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams. In 2007, when too many students at their rural school missed their last class of the day to allow for travel time for sports and other events, they began videotaping their lectures and noticed something unexpected. Suddenly students interacted more in class.

Improving student interaction is one reason math teacher Matt Denholm uses technological tools in his classroom at Lawrence School. Denholm has been known to whip together an Educreations video for his students at 8 p.m. when he receives an email with a question.

When he sends a video to the whole class, he often puts a secret word at the end. The students get a bonus point for writing the word on their paper, which proves they've watched the video.

Rather than flipping the classroom, Denholm calls his approach a "student guided" classroom. He tailors each video — sometimes just to answer a question from one student and emailing it to that individual. But when multiple questions come in simultaneously, he sends it out to everyone.

"I'm there to guide the students," Denholm says. "I love having an open discussion: 'How did you do that problem?' They take responsibility for the work they have to do."

Denholm also uses an older tool in his classroom, one that's too often missing from math classes: fun. To teach angles in geometry, he gets his students to dance to music embedded in a PowerPoint presentation, matching their feet to the angles on the screen. To teach plotting coordinates, he plans to hide objects on the Lawrence campus and have students find them by using GPS coordinates.

"It's a math class, but I don't want it to just be a math class," Denholm says. "I want them up and out of their seats. Anytime you've applied something that's unconventional, it helps it stick in your mind."

At Hathaway Brown School, upper school math department chair Michael Buescher says experiential learning is necessary to reach students these days.

"Mathematics hasn't changed, but the kids have changed," says Buescher. "Geometry is the same as it was 2,000 years ago, but you have kids who aren't used to reading books. They're watching more on the screen."

Math lessons need to reach beyond the classroom into real life. Gone are the days of the neatly designed three-sentence story problem. Instead students need to see how using numbers can apply to real life.

"Once they get out of our classroom, nobody's going to say, 'Here's an example, now do four more just like it,' " he says. "When they get into their jobs, they're going to have to look at something someone else did, figure out what they did, and replicate the process. That's an important skill."

To emphasize real world applications, Buescher takes students into the hallways with measuring tapes to figure out how far a car travels in the time it takes to send a text. The lesson allows students to work with real world data (sending a four-second text in a car going 25 miles per hour) to solve a problem, but also teaches a critical lesson about the dangers of texting and driving: The distance is much farther than they predict (almost 50 yards).

Integrating such applications with problem-solving is called for in the Common Core. With information at everyone's fingertips, memorization of facts is no longer as necessary, but knowing what to do with the information becomes critical.

"I think there's a huge shift away from content and toward skills, and that's a good thing," says Laurel's Purcell.

The Common Core does not alter curriculum, per se, but changes what students do with what they learn.

"It's giving them critical-thinking tasks," says Nick Beyer, dean of academics at Beaumont School. "It's more about analysis and being able to explain your analysis through writing than it is about knowing a set of facts or figures."

When Beyer began teaching government at Benedictine High School, students would read the history of the Democratic and Republican parties and regurgitate the facts.

"Now, I would give the kids the party platforms from 2012," he says. "I would have the kids tell me what the party represents, specifically citing the text about where they got that information."


Encouraging students to learn outside of the classroom also plays an important role in educational innovation.

Gilmour Academy offers several opportunities for experiential and service learning, including the Rebuilding Cleveland program. It allows students to explore the city, analyze its systemic issues and strengths, and conceptualize ways to capitalize on the city's best assets.

Similarly, Hathaway Brown's Institute for 21st Century Education consists of 10 centers — including global citizenship, leadership and well-being, and technology and innovation — that allow students to pursue their passions.

"We're living in times that call for not just a flipped classroom here or there, but a total school redesign," says Bill Christ, Hathaway Brown's head of school.

Each center has its own space and its own director, who acts as the liaison between a student's academic experience and the real world.

"What we really need in this world is people who have the creative vision to innovate. People who lead effectively, know how to work in teams, and who are adaptable because things are changing so rapidly," says Christ. "Only by really taking advantage of what experience learning can provide, can kids really understand how to grapple with the issues that face us today."

Back in Faul's Hudson classroom, her students discuss the notion of flipped classrooms.

"I love it because you can rewatch stuff, if you don't understand it in class," says Ryan Pearce.

"I learn better from listening," adds Caroline Kerka. "If I just read the lesson in the book, it's kind of hard to understand. But when I watch the video and watch Mrs. Faul do the steps, I remember it better."

But Elizabeth Breen admits that while she thinks the "videos are cool" — watching them at home can mean viewing them on the couch, which can mean she has trouble concentrating.

That's the reason Faul doesn't use the flipped model every day. She recognizes the variety of student learning styles.

Some days she teaches traditionally and on others she shows the video in class, because her students are more likely to interrupt a video for clarification than to interject during her talk.

"You can't ask [the video] a specific question if you're confused on something," says Johanna Himer. "If it's due the next day, it's not all that much of a help to you."

Himer makes another point. "As technology develops, we are starting to learn more about what we, as humans, can do with it," she says. "However, as much as it might be able to help us learn more about ourselves and this world, there's really nothing you can do to replace a good human teacher."

That comment adds up to a big smile — and an A for the day — from Faul.

Exams Get Put To The Test

In the world of student assessments, an old cliche comes to mind: What came first, the teaching or the testing?

Educators argue that the downfall of student achievement recently has been the push to "teach to the test" spurred by national initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act. That philosophy drained innovation and creativity from the classroom and from the students, they say.

Recently, there has been significant shifts in the testing landscape: The Ohio Graduation Test goes away in 2014 and the College Board, which creates and administers the SAT, announced earlier this year that it will change that test in 2014 as well.

According to The Washington Post, David Coleman, president of the College Board, sent an email stating that the test will focus on the "core set of knowledge and skills" high school students need to succeed in college.

In Ohio, the graduation test is being replaced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, as well as a series of course exams at the end of each core class.

Both the new SAT and the partnership test will be designed to assess student skills, not memorization of facts. That is all part of the new standards known as the Common Core, which Ohio, the District of Columbia and 44 other states have agreed to set as their educational requirements.

The changes in both teaching and testing are all about college and career readiness, says Nick Beyer, dean of academics at Beaumont School.

"Remedial classes are skyrocketing right now in colleges, so the state wants to make sure that when students get into college that they're able to perform college capabilities," Beyer says. "It's career readiness, too. They're finding that someone who goes into plumbing is unable to read the manual for some of the tools and equipment that they're using."

Beyer has seen sample questions from the partnership test, but not an entire test yet. "It's not about what we're teaching, but how we're teaching it," he says.

As the tests change, so will the classroom, say educators. Or, is that the other way around? Changes in the classroom curriculum have made it important to look at testing in a new way.

"The Common Core could potentially allow for a lot of curricular innovation," says David Shutkin, an associate professor of education at John Carroll University. "It could really open things up, but it's going to depend on the interaction between the Common Core and its relationship to high-stakes testing."

In doing classroom research, Shutkin has found teachers hesitant to be innovative for fear that they won't have time to teach students what they need to know for the graduation test.


Shutkin praises the SAT changes, while other educators say it's been an evolution in the works.

"It doesn't surprise me," says Kathryn Purcell, assistant head of Laurel School and its admissions and financial aid director. "Many of the [Advanced Placement] tests have changed over the course of the last few years."

She points to the AP exams in biology and chemistry, which have gone from being very content driven to very skills based, taking more of a problem-solving approach.

"They want to know what the student can do with the information — how they can analyze it," she says.

It's even less surprising that the SAT will align with the Common Core when you learn that the College Board's Coleman helped to write the Common Core standards for English before taking his current position.

It's also important for parents and educators to remember that testing, while necessary, is not the end-all-be-all in a child's life, suggests Bill Christ, head of school at Hathaway Brown School.

"The SAT is definitely going in the right direction by these restructurings that put an emphasis on critical thinking, which is such a vital capability," Christ says. "The traditional methods of grades and scores certainly have some value, but they don't really define the essence of a person. They don't capture the creativity. They don't define how you bounce back from adversity. They don't indicate whether you have the ability to inspire people."

Some day, there might even be a way to test for those qualities, too.

Q+A Ask The Experts

Answer Key
Education experts offer insight into the changes in today's schools from early childhood to college.

Q:How does a hands-on education enhance a student's learning experience?

A: "We all learn through moving and perceiving with our senses, not just as children, but all humans," says Paula Leigh-Doyle, head of school at Hershey Montessori School. "Scientists who study the brain now confirm that we have this inner drive to explore and experience concepts and take them into our nervous system through our senses and then process them. That is how we make meaning of our world and how we make meaning of ourselves within the world. So we learn best by doing. We learn best by exploring. When we can manipulate concepts, and practice those skills for ourselves, we can take in more information, we can understand relationships between things. Hands-on activity makes learning deeper, more personal."

Q:How can students stay organized through a hectic school week?

A:"The most important thing for students is to find and utilize a system that consistently works well for them. It can be color-coding all of their classes, and then keeping everything together in those color-codes," says Jason Culp, head of the upper school at Lawrence School. "If red is history, then the folder can be red. All of those materials can easily be found so students can go back through and look at what they need. I also think it's helpful for students to utilize an assignment notebook where they can document what's going on in their classes and what they need to be completing in the evening so that parents can review that consistently together. Students will feel less anxious and less stressed out."

Q:What is the importance of an education that focuses on the whole child?

A:"Everything that impacts the child is going to impact how they learn while they're in school," says Jodi Johnston, principal at Julie Billiart School. "We always work with the occupational therapists, we work with the speech language pathologist, we work with our teachers, music therapists, art therapists, because everything that the student is going through — whether it's an emotional issue, whether it's a speech issue, whether it's a fine-motor or gross-motor issue — is going to affect how well they are able to learn in the classroom. We try to integrate it as much as possible into the classroom."

Q:How does a religious education work in conjunction with the Montessori method?

A: "In Montessori, what we try to look at is the whole development of the child, so that not only includes their social, emotional and academic development, but also their spiritual development," says Tina Schneider, director of Cleveland Montessori. "That can happen formally through the religious program, and more informally just through our Montessori education as well. So that going out into the bigger community and the world around us, there's that exposure to a variety of different people. When you have the opportunity to practice that in a smaller environment like a classroom, you'll be able to bring that with you out into the world around you."

Q:How is a child's worldview enhanced by instilling community service from a young age?

A:"Ultimately children need to have a better understanding of the world around them and a better understanding of how it is that they are going to be in a relationship with others," says Brian Horgan, director of the upper school and associate head of school at Gilmour Academy. "The more that we can expose them to opportunities where they're giving of themselves, where they are discovering that the gifts they have are meant to be shared with others, the more they're really going to grow into that role and learn that's really an elemental part of themselves. So to discover what it is others need and how they can be of service to others, they're really becoming more fully themselves and satisfying that deep yearning we all have to be a part of something bigger than ourselves."

Q:What are the benefits of a Montessori education at the high school level?

A: "Montessori in any age group is about what is the best learning environment for that particular age," says Nate McDonald, head of school at Montessori High School at University Circle. "In the high school, what we are focused on is providing an environment where students can be independent and can have the time and the ability to work on their own identity. Some of the ways we do that are by giving them opportunities to make choices about how they spend their time and put them in the driver's seat of their education. One of the things students who have graduated from our school say is they felt able to direct their own education and had the ability to drive the choices that were made about what they would study, when they would study it and how they would study it."

Q:How does an education at an all-girls preparatory school help girls take intellectual risks and build personal integrity?

A: "There are fewer social pressures and more room for girls to be themselves to take a leadership role and gain confidence," says Alicia Iarussi, director of guidance at Beaumont School. "We encourage our girls to try things they may not have tried, to pursue their passions, showcase their unique talents, so we're constantly pushing them. Being a single-sex school, it's different from a co-ed school, because you know the student council president is a girl, the valedictorian is a girl, the star athlete is a girl, the prize-winning artist is a girl, so this tells our girls that it's OK to excel in any of these areas."

Q:Can you explain 21st century learning?

A:"It really is the attempt to link success in school to success in life, to make sure that there is not that disconnect," says Joseph A. Waler, principal at Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin School. "I would think that 21st century learning involves knowing the right content, and then having the right skill set to employ or deploy that content in a global economy. So what do you need? You need critical thinking, you need problem-solving, you need communication, you need collaboration. If we can train kids to master the content of the various subjects, but do it in a way that brings out that whole other skill set, well then we are preparing them to succeed in this world, which is way bigger than high school."

Q:How does service learning help students in and out of the classroom?

A:"It addresses more than just the intellectual component of education," says Jill Latkovich, campus minister at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School. "It is an important part of education because it provides an opportunity to develop skills that are necessary for success in the 21st century. Teamwork, collaboration, creative problem-solving and communication skills are required to affect change and experience success in our global society, and students who engage in service learning develop skills that are not necessarily a byproduct of conventional classroom learning. Students who have participated in service learning have been empowered by adults in their community and have a positive outlook and attitude toward adults. Thus, they are more apt to become engaged at a deeper level in their communities."

Q:What is the role of faith-based institutions in an increasingly secular society?

A:"The questions that we ask our students to wrestle with at St. Ed's — questions about the meaning of life, questions about what you are supposed to do with your life, what you should be spending your time doing, where your goals should come from — those questions are a part of everyday life," says Liam Haggerty, vice president of mission effectiveness at St. Edward High School. "Where the answers are coming from is changing, but I don't think the questions are. So in that way, I think there still is a really important role for faith-based institutions. There are a lot of places in Greater Cleveland where students can receive a great education, but there is that appeal of a school that is founded on a mission and is offering more than the answers to questions of mathematics and history, but also the questions of ethics and morals."

Q:How does the study of a foreign language provide students with a deeper understanding of the world?

A:"It's important so that students can understand what is going on, not only before their time, but during their time as well," says Michael T. Gavin, dean of academics and curriculum at St. Ignatius High School. "So in regards to contemporary issues that they see in news headlines, they can have a little bit more background and understanding about a culture that they're not used to. Students are used to Western cultures, so this is especially important in learning about Eastern cultures. Studying a foreign language allows a student to gain skills in basic communication in that language. Our burgeoning global studies program pushes us beyond the traditional language studies. For instance, a course in Mandarin studies not only the language, but also the culture, providing students with a greater perspective about the world at large."

Q:How can schools incorporate wellness into students' lives?

A: "It's important for not only schools to do it, but for everyone. Both for our young people and adults to really take a look at that perspective of well-being, mind, body and spirit. We all live in very fast-paced times," says Bill Christ, head of school at Hathaway Brown. "Things are coming at us from all different directions, and one of the concerns we have is asking, 'Are people really living balanced lives?' I think in a lot of cases, the answer is that they probably aren't. But they can do that if they take more of a conscious approach to the factors that help them become the strongest person they can."

Q:How does technology enable more efficient learning?

A: "Technology improves communication between teachers and students and between students and one another. It improves opportunities for collaboration," says Jeff Sutliff, principal at St. Joseph Academy. "It also assists in organization and it gives teachers a greater ability to assess student learning faster and more reliably so they can adapt instruction to best meet the needs of the students. Students aren't forced to learn something that they already know. They're given an opportunity to move at a pace that's most appropriate for them. The possibilities are really growing. Just in the last five years, there's been a revolution in terms of how many opportunities are available for students outside of what you'd expect of a traditional high school classroom."

Q:What role does the physical school environment play in education today?

A: "First of all, we know that there are individuals whose learning needs require a high-stimulus environment and some who require low stimulus," says Renata J. Rafferty, president at Magnificat High School. "The more the environment can accommodate a range of social interactions, the more comfortable the student is going to be, the more productive the student is going to be, the more confident the student is going to be. The traditional school building is not really a representation of the work and family environment, and so having an environment that more closely resembles what students are likely to find in college, or in business, or in other real-world environments, makes much more sense in getting them ready to encounter that world."

Q:How does a single-sex education benefit students?

A: "Single-sex schools can offer curricula that deliberately defy gender stereotypes imposed by popular culture. In girls' schools, girls are discouraged from thinking they are not good at science and are encouraged to exercise their strengths both to read avidly, write fluently, think critically and also to pose and solve scientific questions," says Lisa Damour, director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School. "For example, studies have found that girls are more likely to play with •boy' toys and engage with hands-on materials when

Share this story: