Sunday, October 27, 2013

Flipping Up, Over, Off, Whereever

All good 21st-century teachers are familiar with the flipped classroom, in which students go home to study the basic material via instructional internet-delivered video clips and then come to school to do the practice, discussion, and otherwise wrestling with the material. In this model, the teacher can leave behind direct instruction for a lifetime of coaching guide-on-the-side help for the practicing students.

My first reaction to flipping is no reaction at all, because I'm an English teacher, and we've been doing this for decades-- literally as long as I've been teaching. "Your assignment," I would tell my students, "is to go become familiar with this material on your own time, and then we will discuss it and do various interactive activities with it in class." Only instead of video clips delivered by the internet, we delivered the material with these devices called "books."

I have taught The Sun Also Rises what seems like a gazillion times. Not once have I done it by telling a class to follow along as I directly walk them through the book word by word. Their job is to read it and become familiar with it on their own. Then we do activities and discussion related to it in class. So I've been flipped forever! Also, uphill, both ways.

Now, based on my experience with the flipped classroom, let me tell you how it works out in a live classroom with actual human students.

A percentage of students will do exactly what you ask them to, and when they arrive already knowledgeable about the material, you'll launch joyfully into deeper and fuller learning.

A percentage of students will try to grasp the material on their own, but they will struggle, even fail, and before you can dive into the deeper learning and practice stuff, you're going to have to provide direct instruction for those who just didn't get it.

A percentage of students believe that "read the text" and "watch the video" = "no homework tonight." They will not do what you asked them to, correctly determining that you won'[t be able to move on until they get the material, so you'll be forced to go ahead and provide them with direct instruction anyway just so you can get on with class. Their assessment of the situation is that they can blow off the home part of their flipped classroom and pick up what they need by asking questions, piggybacking on those who ask questions, or just kind of picking it up as they go.

Of course, you may say that all that happens in my classroom because I'm depending on boring old-tech books, just words on a page, and of course students will not be sparked to paroxysms of educational ecstasy by dumb old print media. Just wait, you will say-- when they are watching videos of a knowledgeable presenter instructing them, they will be far more engaged and active learners.

Uh-huh. So being instructed by a knowledgeable, engaging human being is the secret to engaged and learning students? Do tell.

Look. If I stand up in front of my classroom and present exactly the same instruction to every class, refusing to read the room and respond to feedback from their voices and faces, and if I don't allow questions as I go, or if I respond to all questions by just repeating exactly what I said a minute ago, I would be correctly labeled a lousy teacher. But now, if I make a video of myself that behaves exactly that way, and I put it on the internet-- now I'm a visionary!!

As with many reform ideas, there are some aspects of the flipped classroom that are useful. And as with many useful reform ideas, we know they are useful because we have already been using them in our classrooms. But the overall model-- I call BS. (And that's before we even get to the question of how much of Khan Academy's content, for instance, turns our to be wrong).

As always with any hot new idea, take what you can use and ignore the rest. It's one of the most basic rules of responding to reform ideas that show up at your classroom door-- never welcome in a piece of garbage just because it's stuck to the shoe of something useful.

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