Learning About Learning - While Trying to Improve Teaching

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[Originally Posted Fall 2014]

Over the years that my children were making their way through elementary school, I became the go to science volunteer. Times were tough for the teachers as they were adapting to new science achievement testing. Many of my elementary school teacher friends were feeling the pain of not only having to beef up their own science content knowledge, but to also learn to teach science using active, inquiry methods. The days of opening the book and defining science vocabulary words were over!

At about the time my youngest son was attending kindergarten (2007), I began to think - “What do we do at my own institution to prepare elementary teachers to teach science?” I learned that our elementary teachers were herded through all the regular non-majors, large lecture courses and were required to take a total of 12 hours of science. They then had a “science methods” course their senior year.  Those large lecture courses were very much using the telling is teaching model – I know because I taught the non-science majors chemistry sequence for 6 years.  As conventional wisdom will attest, those who raise a concern end up being tapped to solve the problem! I ended up co-leading an interdisciplinary group of science faculty to develop a new four semester sequence of inquiry based science courses

for pre-service elementary teachers. 

I had been teaching chemistry in the lecture format for over ten years. However, the process of learning how people learn science changed my own personal teaching philosophy. Telling people what I took years to figure out was not an acceptable way to facilitate the construction of solid science principles for future teachers. By working outside my comfort level with other science faculty, I had authentic learning experiences in physics and geology using constructivist, inquiry methods. As a result of this experience - I knew I couldn’t go back to my “old” tell them and drill them style of teaching. High teaching evaluations and litany of teaching awards aside – I knew I wasn’t really advancing learning – I was just facilitating fact gathering.

What does this have to do with the flipped classroom?

Fast-forward four years – the course transformation program was launched on our campus. Chemistry was selected as a “gate keeper course to be transformed” and I was asked by our chair to help transform our large enrollment general chemistry course. The goal was to increase learning outcomes and reduce the Drop/Fail rates. I just had to share what I had learned about constructivist theory, active learning, process learning and all the other evidence based teaching practices I had picked up during my sojourn into the course development of the pre-service elementary science curriculum.  I convinced my chemistry colleagues that student centered active learning was the way to go to help uncover and disrupt misconceptions such that we could lay a solid foundation in chemical principles for all our STEM majors. The problem is that when you move to an active learning model – you have to give up some class time to let the students make mistakes and mess about with the activity to find their way to developing their own concept map. Our solution was to take some of the direct teach material and skill building training out of the face to face time of class and chunk and package it into learning modules delivered by a home grown homework service called Quest. Since we started this project, the university has changed learning management systems, and we are now delivering out outside of class content via Canvas. Hence we were able to free valuable class time for more engaging, thought provoking, guided inquiry type activities. Today I’m known on campus as the woman who flipped her class. When we started down this road, I didn’t even know what the word flipped meant! Rather, we were just trying to use widely available technology to enhance our student’s experience. I have sense learned a lot about the subtleties of the different types of technology-enhanced teaching. I would refer to our class more as a blended learning environment than a flipped class. Regardless of what you call what we do, our focus is on creating a supported student centered learning environment - both inside and outside the traditional face to face class room.

About the Author
Cynthia LaBrake is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and the mother of three boys. She enjoys team teaching large sections (350 – 500 students per semester) with her co-course developer and teaching partner David Vanden Bout and continuing to curate developed content with her other co-course developer colleague Paul McCord. She also serves as a Faculty Affiliate to the Center for Teaching and Learning sharing her experience and expertise with her faculty colleagues across the campus.