Does the Future of Teaching lie in the Flipped Classroom?

published 24 September 2012 updated 15 October 2012
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This new fast-spreading trend is illustrated clearly by the example of the Flipped Classroom, where the teacher’s role is being partially supplanted by technology. Does the Flipped Classroom really offer a win-win solution for teachers, pupils, parents, school leaders, and, especially, for school authorities? Of what should teachers and their unions take account, when they seek to balance between advocating for the increasing use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as a tool to aid teaching and learning and against ICT as a replacement for quality teaching? Picture this: 15-year old Yuko arrives home after school. She switches on her laptop and surfs to a Youtube video following a link sent by her French-language teacher Monsieur Dumont.

There he is, explaining how to conjugate verbs in the imparfait tense. After watching the twenty-minute video, Yuko still does not quite get that part about conjugating the verbs ending with -ir. She scrolls the video back where a bunch of -ir verbs are magically conjugating themselves in front of the friendly Monsieur Dumont. “Oh I get it!” squeals Yuko triumphantly.

Yuko’s learning experience is not unique. This way of following lessons at home through “vodcasting” while engaging with teachers in more interactive work at school is quietly changing the way education works in a movement called “the flipped classroom”.

Why “flip” homework and lesson around?

The most compelling reason is to make full use of precise classroom time for teacher-student interaction. Many teachers find that after giving a new lesson they have very little time left for students to ask questions, and without having fully understood the lesson, students have to do homework on the new knowledge they had not quite acquired. With new technologies, teachers are now liberated from that equation.

This fundamental principle is outlined in the Flipped Class Manifest, co-authored by Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, the two teachers who started the flipped classroom movement: “In most Flipped Classrooms, there is an active and intentional transfer of some of the information delivery to outside of the classroom with the goal of freeing up time to make better use of the face-to-face interaction in school.” ( dailyriff.com)

The small quiet movement gained momentum when the Khan Academy in California headed by Salman Khan started producing video lessons on a massive scale. Their over 2600 videos covers subjects like K-12 math, science topics and also humanities. These are shared freely and Khan receives significant financial contribution from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google.

In his March 2011 TED talk, Khan explained how the academy uses technology to the fullest by not only flipping the classroom, but also making students do their work in the classroom supervised by the teacher. On his screen, the teacher checks how each student is coping and helps out when necessary. Because everything is done on computers, every student’s learning progress AND the teacher’s reactions are logged and analyzed.

What’s in it for the union?

Some unions in the US are starting to react to how some anti-teacher groups are using this narrow view of the flipped classroom to hire and fire teachers based on their “performance” in students’ learning process, recorded in the activity log of the school’s computer servers.

The author of the article “Flipping the classroom: Hopes that the internet can improve teaching may at last be bearing fruit” in The Economist (September 2011) claims current systems of evaluation are inadequate only because of the lack of accurate information. But “technology can play a part here, because, in essence, evaluation is an information problem”, the article says. “[At the Khan Academy] you can follow the progress of each child... You can also view the progress of the entire class. And you could aggregate the information of all the classes taught by one teacher, of an entire school or even district, with data covering a whole year.”

Apart from assuming that evaluation is an information problem (Maybe it is. But it is the principle of using student performance to gauge the work and dedication of teachers that education unions oppose.), the author also quotes Kate Walsh, president of the US National Council on Teacher Quality, saying that unions will eventually “lose this fight” as it is considered “fair game to collect the data [...] and use them to get better teachers in America’s classrooms.”

Not all proponents of the flipped classroom agree with The Economist and certainly not with Miss Walsh.

The flipped classroom is a broad concept that should not be imposed on all subjects, or all lessons of a subject, or used as a tool to define teacher quality. The teachers who started this movement just wanted to experiment with a different approach of teaching. What the union can do, is to assist teachers obtain effective training in this new pedagogical method. In the long run, it is useful for the union to advocate for substantial training in vodcasting in both pre- and in-service teacher training, among other knowledge like conducting a lesson via social networks.

There is no straightforward answer to the question posed in the title. Maybe the flipped classroom is a passing fad, or it will remain feasible only in areas where both teachers and students come from similarly advantageous socio-economic backgrounds. In any case, the union should take up the issue to advice their members, but most important of all, prevent the concept from being used as a weapon to kill the teaching profession.

Apart from freeing up classroom time for more teacher-student interaction, what are the other advantages of the flipped classroom?

Watching the video lessons allows students to scroll back to the part they did not understand. The freed-up classroom time could be turned into more interactive activities that supplement the lessons. Results are encouraging: At the Clintondale High School near Detroit, 50% of their freshmen failed English, 44% failed Maths before they flipped their classroom. They also had 736 discipline cases in one semester. After the flip, the percentage of failures in English fell to 19% and that of Maths to 13%. The number of discipline cases went down to 249 cases. ( Newton.com)

Maybe the flipped classroom is the future of education. Maybe not.

Proponents of the flipped classroom often use videos of hard sciences and math to demonstrate the success of the concept. When it comes to humanities, very few are convinced video is the way to go. The division also does not cut across clearly between science and arts. The fact is that the flip does not work for every subject or for every lesson. It is up to the teacher to work out the best approach for a particular lesson.

What is worrying though is the assumption that giving a lesson is a necessarily unilateral activity. Teachers consider it is a more interactive pedagogical activity where they interact with students to gauge their understanding. Moving all of that onto a video denies teachers that opportunity.

Another criticism of the flipped classroom is directed not so much at the concept itself, but the version promoted by Khan. After flipping the classroom, school time for students means solving problems on a tablet PC where their every move is recorded. In this way, class size is increased as the teacher monitors work on a screen. In times of decreasing resources, this version of the flipped classroom is hailed as the silver bullet for all our economic and educational woes.