The Flip-Flopped Classroom

13 Oct

There’s a great deal of buzz around the Flipped Classroom idea at the moment. The argument goes something like this. In an industrial age the educational model was one in which teachers mediated content for children so that it could be assimilated in preparation for a chosen career, which everyone expected would last a life-time. Knowledge was seen as the content which could be acquired and stored in the brain or in libraries. This model suited an age defined by factories and warehouses. Best practice was teaching which prepared children by giving them not only the basic knowledge they would need, but also teaching them how to access information effectively.

In an information age, however, where knowledge can be accessed from the Internet anywhere, anytime, this model is no longer sufficient. Teachers are not needed to mediate the process of transferring knowledge to students anymore, they are needed to help children learn how to access, assess and evaluate knowledge plucked from the virtual ether. Teachers should not be teaching content in quite the same way as they did before. Rather they should be focusing on teaching critical thinking skills, teaching children how to be creative and resilient: on helping children cope with the demands of the information age economy.

The Flipped Classroom advocates argue that classroom routines needs to be reversed: doing at home what used to be done in school, and at school what used to be done at home. Technology offers ways of allowing students to access the instructional content they need via vodcasts, podcasts or SCORMs, which can be done largely at home. Students can then pause, rewind or replay until they understand the content. Much better than letting the teacher do it, wasting valuable contact time in school. This frees the teacher up to help individual students through processing this instructional content, allowing for a more personalized approach, and maximizing the skills of the teacher where they are needed most.

The flipped classroom argument is also an argument for hybrid or blended learning environments since delivery of instructional content must occur in an online setting, and classroom time must of necessity occur face-to-face. The way I look at it, it is inevitable that a great deal of education in the next decade or so will move to a flipped environment, but I would want to temper that enthusiasm with a caution that the flipped classroom will not suit all children, and we need to look seriously at creating partially flipped environments rather than going the whole hog.

In my experience there is always a law of thirds which operates in the classroom. Roughly a third of students work very well in an e-learning type of environment. They cope well with accessing instructional material online, and benefit from using class time to concentrate on honing their skills. This group works well with very little teacher intervention in fact. A second third, however, appears to need face-to-face, whole-class instruction. They need to be able to ask questions, or to piggy-back off others’ questions. They benefit from having a human being explain something. A final third needs personalised interventions, perhaps because they need lacunae in their baggage filled in, or because they cannot really focus in a whole class situation.

As much as I believe that the flipped classroom represents a model much more in tune with the times, I don’t believe it adequately addresses the needs of a significant number of students, and I fear that a thoughtless implementation will merely result in more kids being left behind. I believe we need a partially flipped classroom, a flip-flopped classroom, in which many channels operate simultaneously. Students should be able to access instructional materials from home or in class, whether as their primary channel of reception or as a secondary channel for remediation or review. They also need to be able to access teacher interventions in class and from home via forums or bulletin boards. To my mind the hybrid classroom is not just about sticking a load of vodcasts up on the class Moodle and expecting students to have taken them on-board by the time of the lesson. Some of that must happen, but a great deal more needs to be going on. Teachers will need to be online after hours helping children cope with the tasks they have been set. They will need to be fairly traditional teachers much of the time in class as well, explaining and teaching as teachers have always done.

The flipped classroom idea has often been linked to the idea of a movement away from the sage-on-the-stage teaching style towards the guide-on-the-side approach. Often it has been linked to the idea of de-skilling the teaching profession, with teacher aids being able to handle the day-to-day classes, overseen by a master teacher who has designed the lesson materials and is responsible for a far larger number of students. Attractive as this idea might be for administrators operating under constraints of ever-tightening budgets, it is an idea which fundamentally misunderstands teaching. Teachers will need to be the sage some of the time, the guide some of the time. Mostly they will need to be the meddler-in-the-middle, making sure that every learning style is catered for. If anything teachers will need to be more skilled than they have ever been.


One response to “The Flip-Flopped Classroom

  1. Steve Covello

    October 13, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    I have passed this concept along to some staffers I know at Syracuse University who are researching methods for successfully promoting inclusive educational environments in K-12. Inclusive classroom situations can be fraught with difficult communication problems, and perhaps a flipped classroom ecology can alleviate the stress of instructional communication taking place in time-constrained class periods.



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