By Author(s): Kevin Milan 
Published Sunday, July 10, 2011
| From the January 2012  Issue of FireRescue 
I recently attended a course at the Ohio Fire Academy that changed my approach to training firefighters. It wasn’t the content or the prop that profoundly impacted me; it was the brain stretch. The course wasn’t even an instructional methods course—I was attending a Train the Trainer course on how to conduct NFPA-compliant live-fire trainings.
I was excited to learn that Forest Reeder, a close friend and mentor, would be teaching this two-day course. Reeder has been training firefighters for the past 15 years, and is, in my opinion, the prototype for an exceptional instructor. What I didn’t know was how the course would change my instructional approach and confirm my conviction that we must change the way we teach in emergency services.
Classroom Content Sharing?
When I received the course confirmation e-mail, I was confounded. I’ve taken courses from and with Reeder before; however, this one was different from the start. I was sent a login and began working on the Moodle site (a free online learning platform). I have experience with Moodle, Blackboard, D2L, Angel and other assorted learning platforms as an instructor and a student. This site looked similar, but instead of a brief intro page, I found volumes of content in various formats. Reeder immersed us in the process, assigning us pre-course modules and a pre-course test.
Typical online learning includes instructor posts, limited pre-course materials and embedded PowerPoints. Learning exercises allow students the opportunity to share their knowledge and/or discuss the concepts presented. So long as a student’s performance is “acceptable,” they move on to the next module, even if a critical concept is not mastered.
In Reeder’s “flipped” classroom, all the content was posted. Varied formats for the auditory, visual and kinesthetic learner were included. I was able to pick the delivery method—that is, the same content was packaged in many formats. The pre-burn briefing lesson contained diagrams and checklists for visual learners and a podcast for auditory learners. A video showing each element of the briefing contains prompts for kinesthetic learners to learn by doing. These elements give new life to static online learning. The exercises pushed me to master all the content in each module before moving on.
An Appetite for Learning
When it was time to take the online test, I was prepared and passed easily. The format kept me hungry for learning, and due to some of the more difficult test questions, I dug back into the learning modules.
With my pre-course assignment complete, I desired to learn more. Keep in mind, this experience was all before the lecturer had uttered his first words in the classroom. I began to understand how this flip may have incredible potential in emergency service training.
We have an audience that wants more than we can possibly provide in an allotted training episode. Why shouldn’t we give them enough to satiate their appetites and set aside the ego of the instructor, who traditionally is only the fountain for the information? Similarly, is it OK to pass a firefighter with an 80% if a concept in the missed 20% is one they will be asked to build upon later? A firefighter who dons an SCBA correctly 8 out of 10 times is not ready for the next lesson.
Inspired by Salman Khan
The real value of a flipped classroom became evident when I arrived at the Ohio Fire Academy. After checking into the dormitory, I found my way to the student lounge, where future classmates were introducing themselves. Talk soon transitioned from the schooling on the academy foosball table to the schooling on NFPA 1403. Real and relevant discussions on interpretations of live-fire training filled the air as we debated the science and art of this complex training. We each cited a few near-misses and talked about the future of live-fire training and certification in the fire service.
At 0800 hrs the following morning, we gathered in the classroom. Instead of viewing a darkened screen, we were tasked with developing a draft burn plan. Students explored the areas where we disagreed. The learning that occurred between students was refreshing. Reeder guided the discussion, providing just enough information to keep us on task. What we didn’t realize was that Reeder was using this, along with a review of the data collected from our pre-course experience, to plan our instruction for the next two days.
The day was filled with more hands-on activities and opportunities to showcase our knowledge while learning from our peers. There were lectures and PowerPoints; however, they appeared on cue when we—the students—were primed to receive their message.
Like most great ideas in the fire service, this one was borrowed. With full disclosure, Reeder directed us to the video on the TED website (www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html ) and explained that Salman Khan inspired his “flip” of the classroom.
We viewed the video and delved deeper into the musings of Khan. An overview of the Khan Academy website (www.khanacademy.org/  ) revealed that the site is only a sliver of what he offers as an educational resource. Short (10 minutes or less) YouTube videos provide clear, concise learning vignettes. A technical rescue specialist from our class watched videos that explored the math behind mechanical advantage rope systems during our lunch break.
We Need to Flip
I encourage you to take a look at the Kahn Academy and watch the “Flipping the Classroom” video on TED. Beyond this specific application of flipping the classroom, this experience opened my eyes to the need for a revolution in fire service training, as well as our need to look outside our industry for innovation and ways to improve training methods. The world, our learners and our profession is changing—shouldn’t we follow suit and flip fire service training?
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