The flipped classroom is no longer breaking news for at least two reasons. First, the term itself has been popping up in the media for long enough that it’s hard to imagine any educator has managed to avoid it entirely. Here at Grand Valley we’ve been offering a workshop on the flipped classroom each semester since May of 2012, with a steady enrollment every time. More important than the fact that we’ve been talking about it for a while, though, is that the conversation has started to mature. Blog posts and “have you heard about this” news stories are giving way to books about flipped learning and academic studies that actually investigate its effectiveness.
I, for one, welcome this change. As an instructional designer, I spend a lot of time helping faculty look beyond technology to focus first and foremost on their students’ learning. The flipped classroom has generated some great discussions with faculty. I hope they’ve also gained a new set of tools for reaching their students. But so much of the early press about flipped learning focused on the role of technology that it tempts faculty to believe that they can become better teachers just by learning a new set of software skills. More often than not, faculty are told that the secret to flipped success is finding and creating videos.
Just to be clear, videos are not the secret. Neither is screencasting software. Or audience response systems (“clickers” or otherwise). In fact, there isn’t any technological tool, either individually or in combination with others, that will magically make you a better teacher or turn your students into better learners.
So if flipped learning isn’t educational magic, why has it become so popular? And beyond that, why is it worth adopting at all? Rather than offer a detailed recipe for flipped learning, I want to talk about why it’s a good idea in the first place. I believe that when it’s done right, flipped instruction gets us closer to achieving three valuable instructional goals. These goals can certainly be met with other instructional approaches. I’m convinced, though, that the flipped methodology gets us closer to achieving all three.
The first goal is meaningful engagement. In his book Teaching Naked, José Antonio Bowen wrote that “[o]ur challenge as 21st-century teachers is to leverage new content and new delivery systems into new course designs. We need to create courses that require and reward students who engage with material before and between classes.” For most students, learning is what happens inside the classroom. Once they walk out the door they’re free, their time is their own, and most try as hard as possible not to think about class unless they’re forced to “study.” Now that neuro- and cognitive science are shedding light on how learning actually happens, we know just how self-defeating this “out the door and out of mind” approach can be. Implementing flipped instruction forces students to encounter material outside of class time and it makes their contact with content in the classroom more engaging as well. Flipping makes it easier for faculty to implement active learning techniques, include structured time for reflection, encourage active interaction with the instructor and fellow learners, and move toward more authentic experiences like problem- and case-based learning. All of these make learning richer and deeper.
The second goal is agile teaching, a concept advocated by Derek Bruff. To understand this idea we should start with its opposite. Years ago someone told me that you should reconsider your teaching methods if you could walk into the classroom, discover that all your students had disappeared, and still carry on your class session in exactly the same way as if the room were full. Sadly, that’s how many classes are still conducted. The professor pre-plans the entire class period in a way that ignores the learners themselves. In such an environment, it’s hard to believe that student learning is actually the top priority. Flipped instruction encourages faculty to adapt class time to meet students’ actual needs, their struggles with the content, and to give students the chance to move closer to mastery. This requires a flexibility and “agility” in teaching. I like the picture that the term “agile teaching” brings to mind—that of a martial artist poised, balanced, and ready to respond to whatever might happen.
The third goal of the flipped classroom is the creation of self-directed learners. More than the poor writing skills that faculty perennially lament, perhaps the greatest problem for most students is that they aren’t prepared to take ownership of their own education. Students make poor use of their time, fail to keep track of important deadlines and course requirements, and expect to take a passive role in the learning process while knowledge is piped into their heads. These aren’t just bad habits—they’re signs of a problematic and ultimately self-defeating perspective on the learning process. Graduation will bring an end to the college experience but it won’t end the need to learn. One of the most important things we can do for our students is to help them understand how learning happens and to then equip them to learn effectively when they don’t have the benefit of instructors, classrooms, or grades.
Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, education faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, use the term “affordances” when talking about technology. Their point is that technology is not magic and it doesn’t automatically improve education, but there are some things that it can make much easier. I think that’s the right perspective. As I said before, all three goals can be achieved without technology. Adding flipped learning—and the right technology—to the mix, however, makes these goals a lot easier to achieve. Technology is not what makes learning happen. But it can make it a lot easier for us to design experiences for our students that lead to truly significant learning. We won’t get there, though, if we put the technology before the learning.