Flipping the chemistry classroom series: part 1

Being a self-proclaimed handyman, and almost always willing to accept a challenge, I recently felt the need to top up the insulation in my attic — another notch in my tool belt, so to speak. Had I ever topped up attic insulation before? Of course not. So just what gave me, with zero formal training in the art of insulation, the confidence to take on such a project? Why YouTube, naturally.

Sound familiar? It should. Four billion YouTube videos viewed every day. Our students contribute to that number. We contribute to that number. Yes, most of the time our students are watching the newest Justin Bieber video or a clip of a monkey riding a Segway while playing a trumpet. But there are millions of instructional videos as well — from performing mole calculations to insulating your attic. If we are truly preparing our students to learn beyond our classroom, shouldn’t we at least consider exposing them to the possibility that they can use this powerful resource to learn?

Now to be honest, I am not a fan of technology in my classroom, which may sound odd considering this article is aimed at starting a discussion on flipped learning. But it’s true. In many ways, I feel like we are trying to cram tech into our teaching by hook or by crook, with no real evidence that it improves the success of our students. I am a firm believer that you can’t learn something unless you do it. Unfortunately, in the traditional classroom — the one in which you, I, our parents and generations before were educated — teachers have little opportunity to be present when this crucial aspect of learning takes place. We rely in many ways on the students to have enough intrinsic motivation to do the work and solve problems (primarily on their own), while we are tasked instead with presenting the content. What if we could spend more time with our students when they stumble in the application of these concepts, arguably when they would benefit most from our support?

Over the past two years, I have been part of a growing movement of educators trying to do just that, using an instructional methodology called flipped learning. The gist of the flip is this: the students watch content-related videos at home, spending class time focused on applying these concepts. The homework becomes the classwork, and vice versa. The videos allow the student to pause, rewind and rewatch as much as they need in order to best understand the concept. The student then solidifies the concept in class through discussion, practice problems, demonstrations or laboratory activities.

Setting up a flipped lesson, unit or course does require quite a bit of preparation. In my opinion, the following components are necessary:

  1. An online “classroom”. I use my own website,1 but there are numerous online resources2 that serve as online classrooms, with functionality such as quizzing, attendance and calendars to keep students on track.
  2. Source of content. I typically use a video that I have developed and published on YouTube.3 However, you could substitute textbook reading, or some other method of content delivery.
  3. Solidification of concept(s). This is what is done in class. It could take the form of a class discussion, textbook questions, worksheet, demonstration or lab activity. The idea here is for the students to see how the concept they have learned is applied, and for the teacher to evaluate how well the class is handling the content.
  4. Evaluation of understanding. Initially, I treat this as formative — typically it takes the form of a discussion, interview or informal questioning, with a summative unit test to come later.

In a series of upcoming articles, I intend to expand on each of the four necessary components of the flipped classroom; in general, and specifically for teaching high school chemistry. The process is continually evolving, but I would like to share my experiences (both good and bad) with its implementation, modifications and successes along with student, parent and teacher reactions to taking on a new approach to teaching.

Still curious? First, don’t just take my word for it. There are numerous resources online where teachers congregate to discuss best practices for effective flipped learning. Second, don’t try to flip the whole course right away! Flip a lesson or a unit first. Determine your likes and dislikes about this method of teaching, and refine it to your own tastes. Finally, build a support network. Without my colleague, David Greisman, this would have never gotten off the ground. Having someone to share failures and successes with is an invaluable part of the process.

As teachers, we need to evolve ways to develop engaged, active learners. We are preparing students for a future that will likely be very different than our present. Whatever approach to teaching we choose, the focus must be on teaching our students how to learn, not just what to learn. In my opinion, it will not be, nor can it be, technology that drives this change, but those most vested in education — the teachers and our students. Using YouTube videos have worked for me resulting in improved comprehension and performance of my students...oh, and they provide a great deal of help when insulating an attic.


  1. www.jfrchemistry.ca
  2. www.edmodo.comwww.schoology.comwww.moodle.com
  3. YouTube Channel: JFRChemistry