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Flipped Teaching is a thing. There are 7,260,000 results for Flipped Lessons on Google. The related term Flipped Classroom gets 7,060,000 returns and the term Flipped Teaching brings up 6,090,000. So it’s a pretty big thing.

But is it a good thing? Well, for a relatively simple concept it seems to generate a very polarized response in the education field. Most educators seem to either love it and profess its ability to transform the classroom, or despise it and work to dismiss it as an over-embellished teaching fad.. With a little bit of examination however, it doesn’t seem to deserve amplified adoration or scorn…it’s merely a thing. And like most things, it is attempting to solve a problem.

Problem: Students are forced to practice skills and concepts at home, without the aid of their teachers or peers, due to the fact that the classroom time is largely taken up by teacher-directed lecture.

Solution: Move direct instruction (delivery of concepts/skills/topics) online for students to consume outside of class, and move the homework component (students practicing with concepts/skills/topics) into the classroom.

The question that should be asked is, “Does the above problem or scenario realistically portray most classrooms?” Well, sometimes yes, but more often no. The typical classroom exchange is not quite as simple as depicted above. According to the above description, the classroom narrative goes something like this…there is a teacher in a classroom with a group of students and they have an hour in which to engage. Now, consider this teacher’s instructional choices to simply consist of (1) Lecture (direct instruction) for a good stretch of that hour, then, given enough time, a transition to (2) something other than Lecture (group or individual work, guided practice). Given this format, you have a simple instructional model that can be flipped. It’s like an ice cream cone with two easily identified parts; scoop of ice cream on top and a cone underneath. You can easily invert it, just make sure there is a small dish readily at hand.

The folks @ Knewton Learning created a nice infographic explaining the basic tenets of the flipped classroom. And as shown, the value in this model is to help create opportunities during class in which the teacher is not spending a large amount of time delivering the basic lesson concept, but instead is having students work with the skills and providing assistance. (Warning, the infographic description works, however the history of the flipped classroom is not accurate. Go to wikipedia’s article to get better information on that.)

Here’s the issue: for many, many K-12 educators, lots of work has been done to make sure that their lessons no longer look like an ice cream cone with a scoop of “Lecture” as a dominant first part, and some “Non-Lecture” component stuck under it as a second part. For most, their lessons tend to be more like a big banana split with caramel, nuts, fudge, ice cream, whipped cream, cherries, no cone, but maybe a cookie stuck on the side, etc. Much more complicated than a simple scoop atop a cone. And it is much harder to know how to flip a banana split. The problem is with the problem that Flipped Teaching is trying to solve. It assumes that most teaching looks like that same old model depicted above. Those in education know that a given lesson as designed by a good teacher has many components that make up effective instruction; and it extends beyond the simple classification of lecture and non-lecture items. Here are just a few:

  • Anticipatory Set / Hook
  • Accessing Prior Knowledge
  • Demonstration / Modeling
  • Guided Practice
  • Independent Practice
  • Peer Review / Feedback
  • Group/Collaborative Work
  • Research / Information Gathering
  • Discussion / Questioning
  • Checking for Understanding
  • Informal / Formal Assessment
  • and yes… sometimes Lecture

Good teachers set up their lessons to use most of these elements in various ways at various times in order to keep the learning sequence vibrant, engaging, and fresh. These present diverse and different parts, with different processes, different outcomes, and unique steps required to transition from one to the other based on their order and couplings. With this variety at play, their lessons are far more akin to a banana split, or at least a sundae with butterscotch and sprinkles, but rarely as simple as an ice cream cone turned upside down. So why does the notion that classrooms predominantly operate like the problem statement suggests continue to persist? It is worth pointing out that, the idea of the “inverted classroom” as it was originally identified in the late ’90s early 2000’s, resonated from post-secondary classrooms, where instruction is predominantly delivered in the form of lecture based dissemination in class and students working on concepts out of class (Not in all post-secondary classrooms of course, but much more so than in K-12).  Because of this, there is credible push-back against the panacea-like rhetoric around the Flipped Classroom across the K-12 field. Lecture, while still used in the K-12 setting (and still valuable if structured well and applied sparingly), overall has acquired the stigma of “passive, non-engaging, antiquated” instructional methodology.

So, when the Khan Academy and other projects like it develop thousands of examples of digitizing the Lecture component for earlier, out-of-class access by students, many in the field are left asking, “So what’s transformative about that?” Many are turned off by the notion that merely video capturing a dry lecture and providing to students outside of class time, presents a critical instructional shift that can revolutionize learning. Watching the mechanics of a problem worked out on a board and being able to replay it repeatedly is helpful for some students. For many, it truly does not present better access to learning.

So where does this leave Flipped Teaching? Well, if we can all agree that reassigning a fairly limited instructional method (Lecture) to an out-of-class time slot is singularly negligible at best, but at the same time qualify the effort to maximize in-class time, then we have a good start. Let’s leave Lecture and its troublesome baggage out of the equation, and instead focus on how the flipped model allows us to examine the instructional items that can be digitally front-loaded to help prepare students in advance for a richer in-class experience. This approach provides all kinds of instructional promise and opportunities for differentiated learning. And yes, sometimes even discreet lecture elements can be moved to a digital environment by naturally engaging teachers (as shown below), but even more exciting is that teachers are finding ways to structure anticipatory sets, assess prior knowledge and advance student inquiry using these flipped strategies. And this evolution, more than anything, starts to pose some real opportunities to better prime students for the learning activities to occur during the school day. Here are some examples from some teachers:

  • Lecture: Mr. Pete Pembroke’s Ratios and Proportions presentation (6th grade teacher/ simple whiteboard exercise but great teacher voice)
  • Anticipatory Set: Mr. Mike Mederos’ Advance Review of Fire Safety  (High School shop teacher using an old clip of Jim Carrey as Fire Marshall Bill and asking students to identify the types of fire hazards presented in the video)
  • Assessing Prior Learning: Ted-Ed has done a very nice job soliciting quality presentations from teachers like this on on the Boston Tea Party by Ben Labaree (Teachers can have students refresh their memory of concepts and answer questions to assess prior knowledge)
  • Advanced Research: Gravity in Space from NASA (after studying basic principles of gravity on Earth, a 4th grade teacher asks students to review one of NASA’s eClips on Gravity in Space prior to extending the study of gravity on objects orbiting the planet)

And the list goes on and on…and despite any one group’s sprited advocacy for or against the role of flipped classroom/lesson/teaching, please consider this. The main ideas is simply to move more opportunities to learn and explore into the hands of the students and to transition the emphasis of the classroom teacher from “direct lesson deliverer” to “learning exploration guide” and that certainly can help to make learning…pretty flipping cool.