When we started the process to realigned our curriculum to the Common Core, we noticed that our textbook, which previously aligned to the Michigan Merit Curriculum, stood no chance against the Common Core State Standards. This forced us to make several decisions: First, were we going to replace the textbook with a new one? Second, were we going to keep the textbook and, in a sense, align the CCSS to the book?

After much discussion, we decided to do neither.

And it was the best decision we ever made.

It forced us to meet, research, collaborate, decide, create, experiment, reflect, analyze, adjust, and all sorts of other verbs that show up on the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

We are fighting through this year. We have reflected on the lesson’s we’ve learned. It hasn’t been easy. But our geometry team, which includes three teachers, has invested in a product that has resulted in some of the most intense and effective professional development that has forced us to have real conversations about student engagement, assessment, grading procedures, class structures, and all sorts of other goodies.

And none of it would have happened if we went with the textbook.

Right on the heels of a series of decent Twitter conversations I had regarding blended learning, I noticed two articles on the benefits of Flipped Class structures, oddly enough, in mainstream news outlets.

… which was printed… well… practically everywhere including USA Today, Yahoo!, and The Salon. The story, out of Santa Ana, California, was printed nationwide, from Hawaii to Maine. Here’s the Bing search results for the AP article.

Well, I know that I’ve only been in the game since 2006 when I got my first job, but I can’t say as I’ve ever seen a teaching model EXPLODE on the mainstream media quite like this.

It seems that I’m not the only one noticing the media’s infatuation with the flipped model.

So, the mainstream media is excited.

But see, according to much of the media fanfare, it was “invented” in 2007. That’s 5 years ago, folks. Elementary teachers who’ve embraced this haven’t seen their students graduate from high school yet. So, is this all fluffy frenzy?

It would appear that the internet isn’t the only support that this movement has. Mainstream print media are jumping on the bandwagon, too. It’s starting to sound like the flipped model is the magic bullet that will solve all of education’s problems.

Which, of course, isn’t true.

That isn’t to say flipped model isn’t without its virtues. It has opened up conversation about the use of class time (especially in math) which was perhaps overdue. It has certainly energized some positive media coverage about the education sector which was also overdue. And, it has allowed equally as devoted new media bloggers and podcasters who aren’t sold on the flipped model to present conflicting, non-traditional viewpoints. There are worse problems to have.

Frydenberg offers some excellent advice mentioning that for this model to be effective, the proper amount of prep time is needed, the at-home piece must be short and to the point, and the in-class piece must be focused and well-designed. Which, by the way, is the same advice for any of a dozen other models of instructional delivery.

Eventually, the frenzy will die down and we will know the truth about flipped class. Is it a hip new trend? Is it a vision of the future? Is it the answer we’ve all been waiting for? Is it a way for traditional lecture models to find a niche in the 21st century?

Forgive me, but I am going to withhold judgement at least until 2008’s flipped out first graders become college freshman.

I was struck by a comment left on a recent post of mine by a person called “Rich”:

Algebra leads to Calculus, ask any professor and Calculus is the gold standard that leads to the fun stuff with mathematics. Unfortunately, there’s no short-cut to go from arithmetic to Calculus. Many people talk about “real world” problems, but most of them are calc based or need a deeper understanding of higher mathematics. I see algebra as the foundations of calculus, kinda like what high school football is to college football, and what college football is to the NFL. (emphasis mine)

His reference to football makes for an interesting analogy. Let’s push this one. If Algebra I is high school football and calculus is the NFL, then I agree with the following points:

1. There are way more [high school football players/Algebra I] students than [NFL players/calculus students].

2. It takes more skill to successfully compete in the [NFL/calculus] than it does to compete in [high school football/Algebra I].

3. Some [high school football players/Algebra I students] will go on to the [NFL/calculus]. Many won’t.

Here are some ways that I would extend this analogy that seems to disagree with the commenter.

1. High school football exists for far more reasons than to produce NFL talent. In fact, I would go so far as to say that developing NFL talent is pretty much the last thing that most high school football coaches are considering when they coach their team.

2. High school football has players, pads, refs, marching bands, and all of the things that make it REAL football. It isn’t pretend football. It has the same rules. It is played on the same-sized field. Similarly, algebra should stand on its own as a class that contains all of the elements of an effective math class.

Here is a big question in my mind right now: Are we concerned that algebra isn’t good enough? Does a rich understanding of algebra have any meaning of its own? Armed with an airtight understanding of basic high school algebra, is a person able to be a proficient, patient solver of life’s everyday problems?

Well, it seems to me that attempting to motivate and inspire high school Algebra I and Algebra II students by treating them like minor leaguers is probably not going to work. In order to draw these students out, we have to treat them to an experience that shows them the stand-alone value that being able to reason algebraically has.

“Rich” seems to be suggesting that algebra finds its value in calculus. Perhaps in that mantra lies the key to the disengagement problem for secondary algebra students. How many classes are taught as if “the fun stuff” was all somewhere else because engaging in “the real world” requires a “deeper understanding of higher mathematics”?

I’ve been pretty forthcoming about my thoughts about the needed shake-up in the traditional look of math classes for a while now. This blended learning phenomenon is really getting the discussion going. That can be healthy. Just so we are on the same page, I’m going to steal from Mr. Percival, that blended learning is “classes taught partially online, partially in-person.”

And in the mathematics field, the discussion is never… uh… healthier(?) than when we all get to talking about Khan Academy (@KhanAcademy): The one-stop, YouTube-based, fix-it-all for struggling learners everywhere.

Now, to put it mildly, the jury is still out on whether or not Khan Academy helpful or desirable. Robert Talbert’s Report “Does Khan Academy help learners?” casts a bit of doubt, but leaves it open. Also, for a good time, check out blog posts about Khan Academy and read the comments (this post, for example).

So, what about blended learning? Well, my teaching experiences, conversations I’ve had, reading I’ve done and talks I’ve heard have utterly convinced me of one incredibly important point.

When it comes to Algebra, students struggle because they are disengaged. DIS… EN… GAGED… period. They aren’t learning because we aren’t teaching them in a way that draws them in. There it is.

If blended learning is prepared to deal with that problem, then I think we may be onto something. My contention with Khan Academy (and similar services) is that they are assuming the wrong thing. They are assuming that students are inherently self-motivated (certainly true in some cases, certainly not true in other cases) and that we are trying to teach material too fast. (The YouTube lecture lobby gets a ton of mileage out of the ability to pause a presentation and rewatch.)

As I see it, those are not the problems. The problem is with engagement. From my location in the cheap seats, the biggest bang for the professional development buck comes from developing the means to engage students into algebra learning. Draw them in. Sell it. Make it interesting. The question of Khan Academy (and similar services) isn’t whether or not its cost-effectiveness is going to muscle out traditional classrooms.

Whether or not Khan Academy (and similar services) becomes the tool that finally breaks through the wall of disengagement that the 21st century teenager has built remains to be seen. I am not convinced Khan Academy (and similar services) can do that to the typical unmotivated student, but I’ve been wrong before.

In the end, it all comes down to this: If there is to be a magic bullet that solves the problem of the struggling American algebra student, then it will be the system/program/model/philosophy that solves the problem of the disengagement of the American algebra student.