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Flipped Out

  • Written by Andrew Elliott McBurney
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So “flipped classrooms” are the latest thing. Well, almost the latest. They’ve been around for a few years now, but they’re starting to pick up steam, so, “the latest” will do for advertising purposes.

I’m a bit skeptical of the idea of a flipped classroom. I say this as someone who has created a Facebook page, blog, Twitter account, online Schoology classrooms, and Remind101 account for his classes. I’ve set up accounts with Prezi, Infogram, and Vimeo, and I’ve give myself a long list of tasks to expand my existing clay tablet notes into the online realm. By clay tablet, I mean, of course, Microsoft 2010 documents, which are sooooo . . . . well, so three years ago.

If I’m skeptical, why all the digital endeavors? Simple. They offer more means for reaching students, and expanding students’ learning through various avenues. I’ll use myself as an example. I always loved my history and government classes. They are the courses I teach now. But, back when I was in school, before the common use of the Internet, if I wanted to look up, say, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation, which is an exhaustive exposition of each and every clause of the Constitution, for use in a research paper, I probably would have had to go to the main library downtown, or to a nearby college library, or order it through the mail and wait 6 to 8 weeks, if I had wanted to find a copy. Now, it’s available as a free download through the Government Printing Office’s website. Or, what if the bell cut short an interesting discussion in class? Now, the discussion may continue through Facebook, or Schoology, or Edmodo, or any number of new resources. These new resources may not reach every student, but, when used properly, they may certainly increase the chances of reaching students—and, for that matter, may increase the ways in which they might become inspired by their learning.

So why am I skeptical? I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of things promise to deliver a lot. I learned pretty quickly that what actually delivers—and that has to deliver—is the teacher. Some things that came through were mere fads, some were elixirs peddled by mountebanks, but others were definitely worthwhile. But to be worth anything, the teacher has to incorporate the “new thing” in a way that works for the teacher—he or she cannot expect it to do all the work. When implementing what he or she has learned from the new thing, the teacher must exercise judgment based on a knowledge of curriculum, content, pedagogy, and, most importantly, the students, their strengths and weaknesses (strengths to encourage, and weaknesses to challenge). No teacher should expect the new thing to do it all for them—and most don’t. The flipped classroom needs to be looked at in the same light.

Two things in particular make me skeptical of the flipped classroom. First, not every student has computer access at home, nor even easy access to a fast computer at school. Second, some of the key elements of a flipped classroom don’t actually sound all that new, namely, the idea that students will view/learn/absorb content at home, so as to be prepared to reach higher levels of Bloom’s more quickly in the classroom. How, exactly, is that different than the teacher or professor who expects students to come to class having read the assigned material so as to be prepared for higher-level discussions or activities? Is the sole difference that the content is available through a computer, and perhaps in forms different than text? Does that really make a flipped classroom new?

Education Week is hosting an Apex Learning webinar for flipped classrooms on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. I’m going to catch it if I can. Regardless of my skepticism, I’m not assuming I know all there is to know. But what my skepticism will do for me is to help me listen for answers to specific questions I have in mind.

The teaser for the webinar makes some big promises. But this teaser is not unlike a half dozen others I have seen promoting flipped classrooms. I hope the author will forgive me for singling this one out, and for breaking it into pieces to facilitate analysis:

“Implementing the flipped class using digital curriculum . . .

“provides teachers with more face-to-face time with students . . . ”

Through the use of digital lectures? Video conferences? (Would that bother students’ parents?) Or if not, is it because more time will be spent with the teacher and students directly engaged? And, for those students who are disengaged in class, how or why would we expect them to be more engaged by “face-to-face time” at home where they have family, friends, and Facebook?

“allows for true differentiation . . .”

Pardon me for being very skeptical of this one. What are the means of digital instruction? What options are there? How do they allow for differentiated instruction? Do they allow for more than watching, reading, and writing? And if we are speaking of differentiation for special education modifications, which typical mods are accommodated by the means of digital instruction at home?

“compels students to take responsibility for their own learning . . .”

“Compels.” So, does this mean “watch it at home or else”? And if so, how is that different from “read it at home or else”? Lots of administrators aren’t really enamored of the idea of some kids in class sitting around not participating because they didn’t do the homework. Even though that may be a way of “holding the student accountable” it won’t be seen as “holding the student accountable.” There is a fairly standard expectation that every student be engaged. Or, perhaps this is a wrong interpretation of the teaser. Perhaps “compels” means to so interest and encourage students that they feel a compulsion to finish their homework. (That sounds too traditional. Let’s say “compulsion to complete their differentiated instructional tasks.”) Either way, what is it about a flipped classroom that helps students take responsibility for their learning, that wasn’t already a practice utilized by teachers without flipped classrooms?

“enables students to master rigorous course concepts.”

Sure it could. So could reading beforehand and participating in Socratic dialogues. Does a flipped classroom offer something unique? Is it just the means utilized, and the reliance on them being utilized outside the classroom?

The teaser goes on to say how the presenter will demonstrate how “blended learning” can “transform today's educational climate” and “increase student learning outcomes.” There’s no real reason to address these since they are standard assurances for every “new thing” whether it is worthwhile or not, although the wording has been brought to 21st century expectations.

I believe there is value in all the new digital and online resources available for students and teachers. I know flipped classrooms can work—I’ve read testimonials from teachers who utilize it. But they use their judgment in how they implement it, and in how they manage their expectations of their students. I know that students can be encouraged and inspired through the use of online classrooms. But are we asking them to do something that is so very different (transformative!) than what our teachers asked of us? We want our students to think—to analyze, apply, synthesize, and evaluate. Does the flipped classroom promote this where other methods fail? Or is it simply a new means, or collection of means, toward that end? And here is the real question: are we sacrificing time spent figuring out how to get our students to think just so that we can spend more time learning new means to do so, even though, at the end of the day, those means may carry us no further toward our ends? Are we doing it just to do it—just because it is perceived as new?

I ask because as every teacher of some years’ experience knows, in modern education there is sometimes a difference between the appearance of learning and actual learning. Of course teachers and students will want to make use of these new resources. But, whatever else we do, we must make sure our students are actually learning—and thinking—and that we aren’t just doing things for show.