Flipping Out

I need to explain myself. I tweeted this earlier tonight:

Sloppy use of the term "flipped class" (I'm looking at you, @) leads to rants like @'s: http://t.co/nivzZZJA
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff

This came about 24 hours after another tweet on the same theme:

@ Ah, I see. Yes, the #flipclass term is getting used in some sloppy ways, like applying it to anything where videos are involved.
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff

Here’s a quote from Steve (@timbuckteeth) Wheeler’s “rant” about the flipped classroom:

What ‘flipping the classroom’ boils down to it seems, is the creation of online content including videos that offsets the need for students to physically attend class.

That’s what I would call a “sloppy” use of the term “flipped class.” I’m not blaming Wheeler, however. (And “rant” is perhaps to harsh a term for his post.) I don’t know him, but he is often mentioned by educational technologists whom I very much respect, so I take him to be a pretty sharp guy. He’s been led astray by others who have used the term “flipped class” to describe teaching approaches that don’t involve a single bit of flipping. And when sharp guys get led astray by poor terminology use, that bothers me.

What is the flipped classroom? Check out how Stacey Roshan, a high school math teacher in Maryland, describes her teaching approach in this video interview:

In math, you usually have a classroom where students just listen to you talk the entire time and then they go home and struggle with the problem and never get to have any kind of real engaging discussion on it.  So I’ve been used Camtasia Studio to record lectures at home, and students watch those lessons for homework… Then in class we’re able to do homework problems together.  Students are engaged. They can have me walk around and help them one on one, which I never would have had time for if I had to lecture first.

And here’s a quote from an interview with Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, who sees learning physics a two-step process featuring the transfer of information followed by the assimilation of that information:

‘In the standard [science teaching] approach, the emphasis in class is on the first, and the second is left to the student on his or her own, outside of the classroom,’ he says. ‘If you think about this rationally, you have to flip that, and put the first one outside the classroom, and the second inside. So I began to ask my students to read my lecture notes before class, and then tell me what questions they have [ordinarily, using the course’s website], and when we meet, we discuss those questions.’

And here’s Maureen Lage, Glenn Pratt, and Michael Treglia writing on “inverting the classroom” in the Journal of Economic Education way back in 2000:

Inverting the classroom means that events that have traditionally taken place inside the classroom now take place outside the classroom and vice versa… For example, the use of the World Wide Web and multimedia computers (and/or VCRs) enables students to view lectures either in computer labs or at home, whereas homework assignments can be done in class, in groups.

Whether you call it the flipped classroom or just-in-time teaching (as Mazur has done in the past) or the inverted classroom, the idea is the same: What would traditionally happen during class–what Mazur calls the transfer step–is shifted to before class, freeing class time for the kind of work that students would traditionally do on their own as homework. Since, as Mazur points out, it’s that second step that’s the more challenging of the two, why not have it happen during class when students can get help from their teacher and other students? That way each student can get one-on-one help from a teacher, as Stacey Roshan points out.

It’s this reversal of the use of in-class and out-of-class time that’s at the heart of the “flipped class.” More to the point, what really makes a “flipped class” works is what happens during class–the problem solving, the discussion, the group work, the feedback from teachers and peers. That’s where the deep learning happens. What happens before class is just whatever is needed to get students ready to participate more fully in the in-class activities.

Here’s another quote from Stacey Roshan from that interview:

The way we were taught is not necessarily the way that we should teach students.  And so we need to embrace the new technology that we’re surrounded with to help enhance our lessons.

I fully agree with Stacey’s first statement, but I don’t fully agree with it when modified by her second statement. I’m all for enhancing teaching with technology (as anyone who has read a single blog post of mine can attest), but it’s not the technology that makes the flipped class work. What makes it work is the fact that it upends the “stand and deliver” lecture model of teaching.

That’s why I object to the title of the Wired Magazine piece that Steve Wheeler cites: “Flipping the Classroom Requires More Than Video.” In fact, flipping the classroom doesn’t require video at all! There are plenty of us (many inspired by Eric Mazur) who teach in the math and sciences who ask students to come to class prepared to “assimilate” by having read their textbooks. The textbook is not a new technology, but it’s one that college teachers have perhaps not embraced to the extent that they could.

(Aside: Nothing I’ve said here is likely to make much sense to those who teach in the humanities, where it’s the norm to expect students to come to class having done the reading, then spend class time discussing that reading. Where humanities faculty might find this “flipped classroom” discussion interesting is in the ways that science and math teachers have found to hold students accountable for coming to class prepared. A common lament among humanities professors is that students don’t actually do the reading…)

Don’t get me wrong: I see lots of potential in having students prepare for class by watching short videos that introduce and explain course content. And I’m glad that technology makes such videos relatively easy for instructors to create–and that we’re not using the VCRs that those economists mentioned back in 2000! I’m particularly intrigued by the potential for students to watch (and rewatch) mobile-friendly videos on their smart phones and tablets.

However, I worry that talking about the “flipped class” as something that necessarily involves videos give educators the wrong idea. I don’t want the “flipped class” to turn into a buzzword without any real meaning–assuming that hasn’t already happened–because I see real value in the idea at the core of the “flipped class.” I don’t want educators to miss that idea because of sloppy terminology use.

Image: “No More Pencils, No More Books,” by me, Flickr (CC)

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