Turning Teacher-Student Roles Upside Down

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Upside Down Academy

By Chris Thompson

It’s a typical school day in Oakland, Calif., and Aaliyah is about to show how to solve two-step equations. Circling the three numbers in the equation 4x + 10 = 30, she says, “So one, two, three? Is a hater. They’re like haters... We trying to get rid of those numbers, ‘cause they hate on x. And we trying to have x protected.”

If that's an unusual way to characterize isolating the variable, that's because Aaliyah is an unusual teacher. In fact, she’s not a teacher at all -- she’s a student at the Envision Academy of Arts and Technology. Her algebra lesson is being filmed and posted on the Web.

Videos like Aaliyah’s are the brainchild of Jared Cosulich, a San Francisco-based tech entrepreneur who specializes in cooking up ideas for Web-based businesses (a Yelp-like site for weddings! A way to donate your birthday to charity!), and seeing if they work. He's deeply interested in education, and he’s creating a nonprofit known as the Upside Down Academy, hoping it'll catch on.

Cosulich took Salman Khan’s now-famous approach to creating short, easily made education videos and turned it on its head. Under Cosulich’s approach, teachers or mentors don’t make these videos. Students do -- as soon as they've mastered the material themselves.

“Learning is a lot more effective when you’re not just trying to consume information, but turning around and producing it as well,” Cosulich says. “A lot of this is about motivation, what motivates us to learn. At the end of the day, a lot of education gets divorced from purpose. This kind of gives people a purpose, to help someone else out.”


Producing these videos creates distinct benefits, Cosulich says. First, students must understand a subject well enough to communicate it to other students. But there's an upside for teachers too. By watching students characterize math problems in their own vernacular, teachers might better understand how to explain the material using different approaches.

The Upside Down Academy is very much in the beta phase. In fact, it’s only been tried out once in a real classroom setting, at the Envision Academy. Just a few weeks ago, students, parents and teachers gathered at the school for what they dubbed “Exhibition Day,” when parents watched the videos, then worked on a few algebra problem. “Parents were getting quite nervous, said Kiera Chase, the blended learning coordinator for Envision, who set up the video production project. “They kept saying, ‘Oh my god, I don’t remember some of this.’”

“I could tell by the looks on the parents' faces that they couldn’t do the problem,” said Karimah Omar, an Envision student who produced one of the videos. “They were even calling over other students.”

One of the most rewarding elements of the video production for Omar was the chance to show that her neighborhood – the rough and tumble flatlands of West Oakland – is more than poverty and crime. “If I go somewhere else, and I say I’m from West Oakland, they think, 'Oh, you from the ghetto. You talk loud.' We wanted to prove that just because we’re in West Oakland, doesn’t mean we don’t have something to say.”

Omar’s fellow student, Gibran Huerta continued the thought. “Coming from Oakland, I’m using this opportunity not to just show math, but to show that we’re not just what people think we are,” Huerta said.

Envision plans to produce another round of videos, then step back and see modify what needs to be improved. As for the Upside Down Academy, it’s just getting started – and can go wherever teachers and students want to take it.