Are you flipping your teaching?

ImageI have been “flipping” through one of the well-known, widely published works on flipped classrooms: Flip Your Classroom, by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams. It is a pedagogy (of sorts… but possibly an ideology also) that most astute educators should by now recognize and be familiar with. The technology to do it well is simple enough. Use your MacBook and Quicktime, or get an iPad with a free app like “Show Me” and you’re set to put together cheap, high quality screen casts. Of course there’s folks like TEDed and Khan Academy who put together high quality lessons for mass audiences.

But to start off, you don’t really need to get that sophisticated. I do believe that everyone in teaching, of any grade, should at least once, put together a flipped lesson if for no other reasons but to explore other media and intentionally use modern technologies for teaching (instead of passive consumption). Personally, the faddish hype that has affixed itself to flipped teaching has never really caught on with me perhaps because I have usually taught languages, history and social studies. The face-to-face discussions, debates, case studies  and roleplaying that I use to facilitate thinking could never be effectively replicated (using todays technology) in an asynchronous online environment. Let’s never forget also, that simply delivering a passive online lesson is no better than a passive face-to-face lesson (except that you can watch it repeatedly), and that covering material is not teaching.

A lot of flipped lessons simply summarize, synthesize, organize or explain the material being covered in the curriculum – but this is precisely what students should be doing. Summarizing, synthesizing, organizing and explaining are examples of the kinds of thinking teachers should be encouraging through lesson design if they ever want students to truly understand and learn the content. Learning is a derivative, or a product of thinking… I like best Daniel Willingham’s comment that “learning is the residue of thought.” Good expert teaching fosters thinking. Learning (understanding, knowledge) doesn’t happen without thinking. (Ever wonder why those tens of hours students spent on a powerpoint presentation never resulted in much learning of content? It is probably because students spent most of the time thinking about colour schemes and slide design, and little about the actual content.) Lectures/direct instruction, online or otherwise, still have their place, but not as the main instrument of instruction. And they’re probably best used to demonstrate, introduce or inspire. Direct online instruction is also probably more effective for teaching a routine skill that can be reproduced, like calculating area or perimeter, but less effective for teaching something like analyzing the causes of a war. Used well, the best lectures challenge us to think about the content they are exploring, and they stimulate further inquiry through arousing curiosity to find out more about the content.

One reason that I never flipped a lot of my lessons in say for example, an IB History class or grade four Social Studies class, was that there are so many good video clips online that explain the concepts I would have made a screencast for. Why reinvent an online lesson explaining the reasons for European exploration of North America when the CBC has already produced a great five minute segment in Canada: A People’s History (keep in mind, you should also have students evaluate the claims in the film). The one thing that “flipping” some of my lessons did help with was to make reading assignments (which some high school kids never did) something we did more frequently during class. But this isn’t ideal either. At my best, a flipped lesson might have provided me with the time to do a really thorough document analysis activity or debate with my classes. In my French classes, it allowed some kids to watch videos on how to conjugate verbs while I simultaneously conducted dialogues with small groups of students… But to the flipped purists, this isn’t really flipping my classroom, and sounds more like just differentiating your classroom instruction.

Another reason I’ve never really got that excited about flipping my teaching is that we know that one the most powerful things teachers can provide for students in classrooms is formative feedback. John Hattie’s meta-analysis of educational research places feedback at the top of the instructional hierarchy (0.73 effect size on achievement) – of the things teachers control and can do, it is really powerful. Providing just-in-time learning and feedback to students’ thinking is hard to do when their thinking isn’t visible to you because they are not in your classroom. Of course there’s lots of creative things that “flipped teachers” can do to mitigate this, such as asking students to bring their questions to school for discussion the next class, or creating an online discussion forum. But, so much of what expert teachers do is unplanned and unscripted, such as the verbal cues and comments they make that help guide students’ reasoning or problem-solving. So, I am not denying that flipped classrooms can be powerful, especially if your main goal is improving student achievement on standardized exams, but that there are limits to what they can replace, especially in schools where there are an abundance of “expert teachers” (rather than “experienced teachers”). Is Khan Academy really the school we envision for our future?

On the “flip side” however, towards arguments in favour of flipped classrooms (or generally just increased use of online teaching tools), I am always aware of Clayton Christensen’s argument in Disrupting Class that fewer and fewer schools will be able to afford “best practices” such as the ones that I constantly strive to learn and deploy in my classrooms (as messy as it is sometimes). Therefore it follows that it is possible that in most schools and school districts, where resources are strapped, “best practices” will be replaced by practices that are “good enough” for the cost. Which is why, you may see more online content delivery and assessment in schools of the very near future. Staffing and facilities eat most school budgets, so the simple math and logic seems to dictate that the technology will allow “good enough” practices to disrupt the “best practices” in a lot of educational environments. There’s also a lot of potential for flipped classrooms to be really effective for teaching skills that require repetition and drill to master. Students can work at their own pace of learning, freeing the teacher from delivering mass lessons, holding everyone to the same pace, and instead allowing him to work with the students who are struggling. For schools that have invested significantly in bricks and mortar, there should be some discussion about whether the kinds of teaching typically being done in their classrooms could be easily replaced by hybrid or flipped models of instruction – if the answer is “yes” then there’s some work to be done to make sure that the academic experience of their school can’t be replicated in a cheaper virtual classroom.

…Back to that book I was “flipping” through. Probably the most useful advice is offered by the authors on page 21. This is probably published somewhere else on the web and I could just link to it, but I am curious what others think about it, and I changed them slightly. Here are five bad reasons for flipping your classroom:

  1. …because some cool teachers are doing it.
  2. …because you think it will make you more “21st century”
  3. …because you think it will make you cutting edge and innovative
  4. …because it will make your teaching better
  5. …because you think it will make your job easier

What do you think about flipping your instruction?

3 thoughts on “Are you flipping your teaching?

  1. Thanks Adam. Could my class be replicated in a cheaper, virtual classroom? That’s a really good question for me and my school.

  2. Interesting comments, Adam. Especially your thoughts regarding the 5 Bad Reasons for Flipping. I am going to CanFlip14 in June though so I’ll reserve my final comments until then.

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