Tuesday, 28 November 2017 18:56

The Transformational Potential of Flipped Classrooms

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If 2012 was the year of MOOCs (massive open online courses) in higher education, then the flipped classroom was the innovation of the year for K–12 schools (see “The Flipped Classroom,” what next, Winter 2012).

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post spilled ink over the phenomenon. Several authors resorted to old-fashioned books to discuss flipping, including the two teachers who allegedly originated the technique (see Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams). None of that tells us anything about the number of teachers who actually flipped their classrooms. No one has offered any firm measure of the practice or, more importantly, assessed its impact on student learning.

In case you missed all the hype, the flipped classroom is a form of blended learning in which students learn online at least part of the time while attending a brick-and-mortar school. Either at home or during a homework period at school, students view lessons and lectures online. Time in the classroom, previously reserved for teacher instruction, is spent on what we used to call homework, with teacher assistance as needed.

How can this improve student learning? Homework and lecture time have merely been switched. Students still learn through a lecture. And many online lectures are primitive videos.

There is some truth in this characterization, but it misses the key insight behind the flipped classroom. If some students don’t understand what is presented in a real-time classroom lecture, it’s too bad for them. The teacher must barrel on to pace the lesson for the class as a whole, which often means going too slow for some and too fast for others.

Moving the delivery of basic content instruction online gives students the opportunity to hit rewind and view again a section they don’t understand or fast-forward through material they have already mastered. Students decide what to watch and when, which, theoretically at least, gives them greater ownership over their learning.

Viewing lectures online may not seem to differ much from the traditional homework reading assignment, but there is at least one critical difference: Classroom time is no longer spent taking in raw content, a largely passive process. Instead, while at school, students do practice problems, discuss issues, or work on specific projects. The classroom becomes an interactive environment that engages students more directly in their education.

In the flipped classroom, the teacher is available to guide students as they apply what they have learned online. One of the drawbacks of traditional homework is that students don’t receive meaningful feedback on their work while they are doing it; they may have no opportunity to relearn concepts they struggled to master. With a teacher present to answer questions and watch over how students are doing, the feedback cycle has greater potential to bolster student learning.

The flipped classroom does not address all the limitations of the brick-and-mortar school. Although in the best flipped-classroom implementations, each student can move at her own pace and view lessons at home that meet her individual needs rather than those of the entire class, most flipped classrooms do not operate this way. As Salman Khan, the media’s personification of the flipped-classroom, observes in The One World Schoolhouse, “Although it makes class time more interactive and lectures more independent, the ‘flipped classroom’ still has students moving together in age-based cohorts at roughly the same pace, with snapshot exams that are used more to label students than address their weaknesses” (see “To YouTube and Beyond,” book reviews, Summer 2013).

This arrangement also doesn’t tackle the root causes of the lack of motivation that persists among many low-achieving students.

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