Los Gatos High School, located in Los Gatos, California, recently switched to block scheduling, effectively decreasing the number of school days by 15 a year. For science teacher, Steve Hammack, what began as a way to provide students with the lecture content they would necessarily need to pass his courses in the face of a decreased number of school days, has ended up as a new model for students to learn massive amounts of information for his AP Biology and Physics classes. For a technology fan who spends her days at Cisco Systems focused on educators who are using technology to improve learning outcomes, I was intrigued.
I quickly became aware of Mr. Hammack’s approach when I walked into my teenage son’s bedraggled bedroom and heard a familiar voice emanating from the direction of his PC. It sounded like someone I’d met at back-to-school night. My son, Joe, a senior at Los Gatos, was reclined in his chair, feet up on his bed, notebook on his lap, busily listening to the voice and taking copious notes. As I entered his room, Joe clicked a pause button and asked, “What’s up?” “What’s up with you? What are you doing?” He pointed to his screen and said, “Listening to my biology lecture for Mr. Hammack’s class. We do this every night, then we have a quiz or test every day when we come into class.” Interested, I said, “Tell me more. Do you like it?”
Joe said that all of Mr. Hammack’s lectures are on line, and he showed me how they’re structured. He said he likes it way better than going to class and listening to lectures, which are typically passive and boring in so many of his classes. Plus, he said, “This is actually great because if I don’t get something, I can hit the rewind button and listen to it until I do get it.” I asked what they do in class. He described class time, the fact that students can cover any of the material they might not have understood from the night before, explain different concepts to one another, carry on a dialogue, or ask the teacher to explain different ideas more fully. Then, voila, they take a quiz or a unit exam, work on labs, and they’re done.
I decided to dig a little deeper. Intrigued, I looked at Mr. Hammack’s website and found his AP exam scores. I was stunned to see that over 80% of his students have received fours or fives on a five-point scale on an extremely difficult AP Biology exam for over the last ten years. Then, I sent him an email and asked if he’d be willing to talk with me. I was sure that it was his dynamic and creative application of technology that made his test scores really shoot up. Certainly, in addition to online lectures, he has some of the most compelling visual material I’ve seen on a range of biology topics.
My theory that there was a direct correlation between his test scores and his flipped classroom model didn’t pan out, though. His scores had been high for years. And he just went to a pure flipped model this year. Mr. Hammack explained that flipping the whole class came about sort of by accident. In light of fewer class days, he started recording his lectures three or four years ago, putting the audio recordings online because he wasn’t able to cover it all in the allocated days. He started in a hybrid mode, doing some lectures in class, and having students go home to listen to the material that wasn’t covered. And they complained a bit about having to listen to lectures online, doing work at home that was traditionally expected to be covered in class.
This year, for the first time, he decided to have students listen to all lectures online, and he’s actually getting fewer complaints now than in the past. He believes this is because he set the expectation of a pure-online lecture approach at the beginning of the year, and the students understood this expectation.
I asked him what he was going to do when he wanted to add video recordings of his lectures online. I could tell he was starting to realize I was technology-biased, especially given the work that we’re doing at Cisco around Video Enabled Teaching and Learning. Very politely, he explained that using technology has to mean something. He doesn’t necessarily believe that his lectures will be more effective if they are recorded in video vs. audio. “How much better is it really going to be if they can hear me and see me?” As a lover of video and a fan of 1970s TV, I didn’t fully agree, but I do think he had a point there.
Still, wanting my theory to be correct at least in part, I asked, “Okay, so what about your test scores? What’s your secret?” He believes one of his secrets is the prolific use, in his PowerPoint lectures, of the wide variety of excellent graphical illustrations that are available today. He said that as primate, we process a massive amount of information visually. In fact, the visual cortex, responsible for processing visual images, is the largest system in the human brain.
“And then there’s something called ‘The Testing Effect,’” he continued. He discovered this a few years ago when he ran across an interesting article in the journal Science (Karpick and Roediger, 2008), and he was amazed that more teachers weren’t aware of it. He went about learning everything he could about the research, and presented at a teacher in-service day to make sure that his peers understood the phenomenon and could apply some of the principles in their own classes. Basically, The Test Effect is about information retrieval. Students who are asked to take quizzes or tests (technically called “retrieval practice”), actually retain the material better than students who just read and study it. It doesn’t even matter if you score the quizzes. It’s the fact that they retrieve the information that increases retention.
As a technocrat, I thought, “Well, there’s an opportunity for technology.” I asked, “How about clickers?” At this point in the discussion, he smiled, and he indulged me in a discussion about clicker technology and different ways to apply these in class Then, we paused, and he proudly showed me his vast array of sensors, now upgraded, that were originally developed for the Apple II computer. He was one of the early pioneers using sensor technology for data collection back in the 80s and continues to be a technology leader in his school.
Clearly, Mr. Hammack is on the bleeding edge of technology. But first and foremost, he’s an exceptional and effective educator who understands how to reasonably apply technology to help students learn. He said, “It is hard work to introduce new technology into the classroom. It is never just ‘plug and play.’ There is always a learning curve, moments of frustration, but in the end it is really satisfying, especially when you see students engaged and really learning. Technology paired with sound pedagogy can enhance what we do in the classroom, but it requires thoughtful planning and execution. “
I was pleased to see that Los Gatos, my own alma mater, continues to employ forward-thinking teachers who are open and thoughtful about how to best reach students, whether through new teaching methodologies or innovative technologies. In so doing, they are helping to prepare out students for whatever the future may hold. And, I will be coming back to him on using video in his online lectures in part two of this blog.