Chances are that you’ve seen the handiwork of Karl Fisch. Along with Scott McLeod, he created the legendary Shift Happens videos, which have now been viewed online roughly four gazillion times.

But Fisch also has a day job — at Arapahoe High School, near Denver. This year, in addition to his other duties, he’s begun teaching algebra to 9th and 10th graders. And he’s taken a novel approach: Instead of lecturing during class time and assigning problems as homework, he’s flipped the sequence. He now records lectures on video and puts them on YouTube for the students to watch at home at night. Then spends class time working on problems with students. (Note: As Fisch himself says, he didn’t invent this “inverted classroom” approach and he’s not the only teacher doing it.)

There’s a great lesson in innovation here, which is why I devoted this month’s Sunday Telegraph column to what the rest of us can learn when flip happens.

Previous Sunday Telegraph columns:
August: Is the best vacation policy no policy?
July: Can you speak human at work?
June: Is Bob the Builder the ideal leadership role model?
May: Could ending sales commissions increase sales?

20 Responses to “What a high school algebra teacher can teach us about innovation”

  1. Shirley Munk says:

    I like anything that mixes it up, gives us all a new way to see the world. But I have reservations about offering school this way to kids. So now, 14 and 15 year olds at this Denver school are doing quality work during classtime (finally) but they have to do hours of work at home at night? Imagine if all their teachers worked their classes like this. If the teachers all lecture on Youtube for an hour, that’s potentially 5 or 6 hours a night of viewing. If it’s a weekly lecture maybe an hour in length, from each teacher, I’m all for this idea…I think then you’d really see some quality work being done between 9AM and 3PM and happier kids and parents.

  2. Karl Fisch says:

    Shirley – That’s a legitimate concern. In my case, however, all the videos are less than 10 minutes (thank you YouTube limit – although now they’ve bumped it to 15), and students average one to two videos a week.

  3. Jimbo Lamb says:

    I am attempting to do the same with my Integrated Math students (class with a spiral approach with Algebra, Prob & Stats, and Geometry), and they were a bit tentative at first. They’re not used to seeing the math classroom different and have been adjusting to the flip. As we are finishing up the first Chapter, they have found that they are working less hard, are able to get more help (from myself and classmates), and finding themselves asking better questions on the content overall.

    And the worry about the long lectures is not that big. My lectures (all on iTunes) are all under 10 minutes. Students can pause, rewind to review, or skip past the parts they know to better take control of their time. So, for 2-3 online lectures a week, it’s maybe a total of 30 minutes out of class time, plus a little more if they don’t complete their practice problem set in class. But the students are more focused on completing the in-class work now, as they know they have an immediate support group.

  4. Shirley Munk says:

    My techno-ignorance is showing…I didn’t know that Youtube had 10 or 15 minute limits. I think this is a really marvellous idea then. I can see kids having a much better experience in class with this approach. I’d be really keen to know how this idea would work with things other than math…

  5. The New York Times Sunday Magazine had an interesting article this weekend on a somewhat similar strategy. Brian Licata, a math teacher in Staten Island, uses the Livescribe pen to create “pencasts” that he uploads to his website ( According to the article:

    “Sitting at home, he’ll draw out a complicated math problem while describing out loud how to solve it. Then he’ll upload the result to a class Web site. There his students will see Licata’s handwriting slowly fill the page while hearing his voice explaining what’s going on. If students have trouble remembering how to tackle that type of problem, these little videos — “pencasts” — are online 24 hours a day.”

  6. Mike Sweeney says:

    I am from burlington high. I fel that this is a smart idea what you are doing with your teachings.

  7. Last year I designed a new approach for teaching advanced web design to high school students where they experienced much of the lesson via screencasts. This allowed me to create cooperative learning groups with different focus areas and work with each small group individually. Having the students view the screencasts outside class posses some problems with regards to access to software. However, Karl’s approach renews my interest in having them view some of the bigger picture concepts I would have normally spent much of our class time discussing. This could now free me up to implement more formative assessment while they apply the skills they learn. THANKS!

  8. Durga says:

    Steps to teaching algebra in a class setting:

    1) Every class day one-problem quiz is presented, and the teacher readies those who correctly solved the problem to help those who didn’t solve on the board.

    2) Each student who didn’t solve gets help from those who solved either on quiz or board until all understand the problem.

    3) Exams are taken by one student of the teacher’s choice, and all students get the grade attained by that student.

    Learning and exam preparation become a group effort, and all win or lose together.

  9. Scott Ulberg says:

    What a fantastic use of classroom time. People now more than ever need to figure out how to improve old ideas using simple technologies.

    There has been a recent shift in how our clients use our training that is similar to Karl’s method. We provide supervisory leadership training in both online and group formats. (

    Students complete training courses online during their own time. They then meet in small groups for discussion and practice. This group time is highly leveraged for interaction and reinforcement of key skills. It decreases the time a manager is off the job by 50% and clients see faster results. (A key issue with many organizations that provide training is the time their employees are off the job.)

    As students like Karl’s enter our workforce, it will be very exciting to see the innovative products, ideas, and companies they build.

  10. Don says:

    Love it! This would have worked great for me. Although I appreciate mathematics and see it’s application in everyday life, I am much more of a “history/literature” person rather than “math/science”. Consequently, I’m 35 and STILL have repeated dreams of having not completed 3 months of math homework and not being able to graduate. That never happened in real life but the choice of subject is important to note… The dream is never about any other subject other than math. So this approach might have engaged me more. On the other hand, what about those students who are already math folks to begin with? Would it be as beneficial for them? I ask because I can see serious drawbacks to this approach when applied to literature or history. In a lit class, you read literature at home (the equivalent of watching a YouTube lecture) so you are prepared for the lecture/discussion/activity during class. There is also something to be said for learning to take notes and engage or interrupt a lecture in an appropriate way when asking a question. Because you don’t have the luxury of pausing and rewinding, students are required to engage their teachers in a way that prepares them to compete in the world after school. Are any of these positive aspects getting lost for those math oriented students who are already excelling in math class?

  11. Vicki Hamdorf says:

    What a great idea! I am all about using class time as productively as possible and having the students work problems with instant feedback has always been top priority in my math classroom. Hands on activities can’t be taught at home so they need to be taught in the classroom.

  12. Myra Deister says:

    I teach math and computer science. I am always reminded by my administration that we need to make accomodations for students who do you have computers at home. I actually have one student in my comp sci class without a computer and one that has a computer but no Internet access. My curriculum is online so I print each assign for those two students. What are you doing for students in these situations?

  13. Roy Merideth says:

    Karl: I’m a junior high principal in a rural midwestern town. I love the idea and have encouraged my teachers to post their content online via our district website, YouTube and any other source. Most do not but I still encourage. However, we still have a number of students who do not have internet access at home. How do you accommodate instruction for students in this situation?

    I’m also glad to know that your “lecture” time is 10 minutes. Educational research shows that the talking head is the least effective method of teaching/learning for our students. We also know that student mastery is achieved best by repeatedly practicing the correct method, being taught by a peer and by teaching other peers. Marzano and company would be very proud of you for embracing and utilizing almost all of the research-based strategies they recommend.

    Do you use true cooperative learning structures in your classroom as well? We are implementing the formal Kagan structures in our junior high school this year and are getting very good results when done correctly. Student/concept mastery is increasing in those classes and the students are learning those very valuable skills of working together and collaborating to solve problems.

    Thank you for bringing your classes out of the Industrial Age and into the Information and Technology Age.

  14. i can’t speak english fluently, i’m indonesian. i just like this methode and i hope that indonesian’s schools can do it here… thanks!!!

  15. i can’t speak english fluently, i’m indonesian. i just like this methode and i hope that indonesian’s schools can do it here… thanks!!!

  16. zorro says:

    Its a great idea. Its something I was thinking about as I was refreshing myself in calculus at the MIT open course website.

  17. Karl Fisch says:

    Sorry, I should have checked back on the comments sooner.

    Don – I don’t think it’s a problem for more math oriented students, since we get to do more interesting math in class and have those interesting discussions you mentioned. In theory, at least.

    Myra Deister and Roy Meredith – I’m lucky enough to teach in a school where almost every student has a computer and Internet access at home, and most of them have broadband access. That said, once our scheduling for this school year was complete in early June, I called all the parents of my students to confirm that they all had broadband. If they didn’t, then we would’ve switched them into another section that wasn’t doing this. Turns out they all did.

    What other folks have done to provide access for students who don’t have Internet at home is to burn them a CD or flash drive with the videos on them (assuming they have a computer), or burn a DVD (even most families who don’t have a computer do have a DVD player and a TV). If a student doesn’t even have a DVD player/TV, then, yeah, this isn’t going to work for them. But that student probably has much greater issues that we should be working on rather than learning Algebra.

  18. Good idea..

    Unfortunately if it’s applied in a country like mine, most students will not be able to watch the videos because they don’t have internet access.

  19. Roy Merideth says:

    Karl, thanks so much for the ideas. I was in a discussion with my Math and Communication Arts department chairs and I mentioned your class to them. I’ll report your ideas back. We also came up with the idea of having students use a computer in the room to watch the video during the class and then join in the work session after completing the viewing. It would use up 10 minutes of their class time but it’s a solution.

    Thanks for getting back to me.

  20. Glenn says:

    Late to the conversation, but love this topic! I wish my kids teachers would do something similar but our schools are stuck on “status quo”.

    My question is how can this thought be applied to a learning environment that is focused on athletics, playing an actual sport? With the youth sports club I help run, I instituted a training model and rotational trainer plan that seems to have benefits but will take several more years to determine if truly beneficial. How can this topic be applied to such a hyper-competitive parental environment?