The Transformational Potential of Flipped Classrooms

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Different strokes for different folks


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SUMMER 2013 / VOL. 13, NO. 3

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.

Some in the media have suggested that the flipped-classroom approach may only work in upper-income, suburban schools. If low-income students lack access to computers at home or to reliable Internet access, flipping may be a nonstarter in some schools. If students can’t benefit from online instruction at home, then they need to receive instruction in the classroom or risk falling behind. Some fear that in relying on parents to provide technology and support, the flipped-classroom model may exacerbate existing resource inequalities. Schools can make computer labs available during afterschool hours, however, and parental assistance is less critical when watching an online video than when solving homework problems.

What is perhaps most telling is that the “no-excuses” charter schools that serve large numbers of low-income students well—KIPP, Rocketship, Alliance, and Summit among them—are not flipping their classrooms. Even as these schools adopt blended-learning models, the flipped classroom isn’t among them. The models these schools are employing give students more support as they need it and actively guide students to more ownership over their learning. These models also do not rely on students having access to high-speed Internet-connected computers at home; online learning occurs during the school day.

Even if the flipped classroom does prove of some benefit to some low-income students, this change in structure alone is unlikely to produce the vast improvement in student learning our country needs. But that doesn’t mean the innovation is insignificant. The flipped classroom might still have an important indirect impact on the American education system, as one brand of digital learning. The optimal use of digital learning will vary in different contexts and communities. Some people will attend full-time virtual schools, with even the “classroom” experience occurring online; most will attend brick-and-mortar schools that employ some version of digital learning.

Unlike school vouchers for low-income students, charter schools in disadvantaged communities, or bonus pay for teachers in inner-city schools, digital learning is not designed for just one slice of the population. It’s not a policy that parents might support in theory but, because it has no practical impact on them, won’t spend political energy promoting or defending. Rather, if it works as well as its proponents hope, digital learning will gather political support from a wide swath of the American public.

And it may well turn out that the flipped classroom is most effective in private schools or upper-income suburban schools. If that’s how those students make the best use of digital learning, that’s OK. As Khan says, “Blue jeans didn’t become cool until Hollywood started wearing them.” In the world of digital learning, the flipped classroom may just be one good brand.

Comment on this article
  • Jan Tishauser says:

    Nice story, (storytelling is important); now show me the evidence!

  • Derek says:

    Completely agree with this article. Different strokes for different folks.
    I think the flipped design is most practical in a math classroom where critical feedback is needed during the learning process. Sending HW home and assigning a grade for it the next day, then moving on really isn’t benefiting anyone.
    In addition, as Sal emphasizes in his book, the flipped design allows teachers to carve out precious time to teach a deeper, higher level of learning that most students are lacking today (CCSS emphasizes this as well). Without the increase in time that flipping provides, the pressure of meeting high stakes testing demands and normal pacing of today’s curriculum just doesn’t allow teachers any time for projects and application activities that allow students to gain a better understanding of each topic/skill.

  • drpenglish says:

    The celebratory bluster about flipped classrooms is predicated on a straw man: the true comparison should not be a “passive” train-rolling lecture in which it’s “too bad; you missed it!” We need to compare the flipped lesson (in which the content is almost universally delivered by video and multimedia) to one in which the student (hold your breath now) ACTUALLY makes sense of text, which, last time I checked, remains a fully-engaged, open architecture, student-compatible, visual and multimedia experience. What’s LOST in all the hype is that if schools throw down for flipping classes, they’re essentially abandoning any confidence that students can actually read content for themselves.
    Interestingly, as the last comment suggests, it’s math where the flipped model is most likely to appeal to students and parents as exactly the means by which students are less likely to be confused by content. Untested in all this is whether that confusion is in fact essential to the learning process: essentially flipping is a strategy ideally suited for the goal of “making homework less confusing.” Much less clear is whether it’s the right strategy for helping students master independent problem-solving.

  • Brook Brayman says:

    After flipping my class for one quarter, I realized the key implication, which is implied in this article: it’s in-class, blended learning that is key here. Flipping versus Rocketship Education style blending is an unnecessary dichotomy. Open it all up to enable students to master the material at their own pace.

  • Frank DiSalle says:

    Bring back the one room schoolhouse!

  • Kelly says:

    The fact that there is no set flipped design makes it impossible to label flipping as a positive or negative approach; many teacerss are utilizing a variety of strategies. Additionally, a method cannot stand alone- the teacher is instrumental and I do not feel that a strawman approach is realistic for any type of introductory material; therefore, I have read, and read, in hopes of learning from others who have “flipped” to discern how to move forward in my classroom. It seems that the general approach of allowing students to master content prior to pushing them forward, while encouraging personal accountability for learning through a daily formative assessment of some type seems to increase academic achievement, improve student attitude, and enhance peer collaboration- this part is essential as many children today rely on online, rather than face-to-face, communictaion. By flipping, and ensuring that homework (whether vidoes or readings) is directly related to what will be followed in class, I believe that I will be able to spend more one-on-one time with struggling students in my 35-45 student classrooms and hopefully “push” more students toward the upper level of Bloom’s.

  • Dan DeHass says:

    I have recently experimented with the flipped classroom for adult learners and found it very effective. It was also overwhelmingly appreciated because it did free up class time to interact and apply the principles to real life action.

    This is not just another fad nor is it the “golden egg” to save education. It is another good tool to be used by teachers to help students move to a higher level of learning where new information becomes useful and not just head knowledge.

    I do disagree with the statement, “This arrangement also doesn’t tackle the root causes of the lack of motivation that persists among many low-achieving students.” I believe there is a lack of motivation among low-achieving students because too often classroom instruction is never shown to be relevant. The flipped classroom can offer more opportunity for that to happen.

  • Jay says:

    Interesting article! I built a new model technical center that has 18 programs from Aerospace Engineering, Biomedical Sciences, Film Making, Welding, etc. Our teachers use flipped classroom stratgies and the practice is lecture no more than 10 minutes. We have 25% Honors and 75% CP. There are 80 SPED students and 30% percent free and reduced. Our curriculum is project based and all students complete a Capstone Project at the end of their 4 course sequence. Students are our biggest cheerleaders for the classroom. Failure is embraced that leads to one step closer to a solution. Students become responsible owners of their learning. The traditional model of teaching and assessment is moving through a period of change. Students are no longer robots.

  • Angela Briz-Garcia says:

    I agree with you that some students due the economic position of their parents cannot afford internet services or computers at home.
    I have been a teacher for 49 years and technology is not my forte, nevertheless. I am most willing to learn new ways of teaching.
    Do you know where I can get information about this flipping ideas for a second grade classroom? Meanwhile I find my way, I wish success to all the teachers that are implementing the flipping path of teaching in their classroom. Thank you very much for this excellent report.

  • Ragavi Roy says:

    Great article. This learning method is quite flexible and allows different approaches where the role of tutor is reduced and gives adequate space to students for learning.

    Ragavi Roy

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