Thoughts Before the Jump
Creative Commons License photo credit: MichaelLaMartin

I’m trying an experiment this semester in the college classes I teach. In various circles it’s called a “flipped” or an “inverted” classroom, a term I’m not completely comfortable with, but it’s a handy term at the moment.

While relatively new, it is rooted in ideas and practices that are not, and it seems to me to be good communication practice, recognizing the strengths of various forms and building on them.

The flipping background

A flipped (or inverted) class swaps out what goes on in the classroom and what goes on outside the classroom.

Traditionally, since the Middle Ages students listen to a professor lecture in class, and do application work (otherwise called “homework”) outside class. Reading could fall into either category.

Almost everyone has heard that the lecture is passé, exemplified in the now-cliché, “Be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.” I’ve taken a related approach, demonstrated in workshops I’ve done for teachers around the theme, “Stop Lecturing and Start Speaking.” When you want to master detail, you do better to work with the information in written form. When you want the big picture, “out loud” excels. That partly has to do with the way we process information, and also with the interactive nature of “out loud.”

The problem with the traditional lecture is that it’s an out loud medium that tries to replicate reading. The Wikipedia article on Lecture points to this historic truth: at a time when books were very expensive and very scarce, lecturing was the cheapest, easiest way of reproducing something that someone had written. Lecturers read manuscripts or notes out loud, and students copied onto paper what the lecturers said.

Nowadays, written words can be produced pretty much for free, thanks to the Web. Yet, our teaching methods still tend toward the lecture under the pressure of time constraints and the need to “cover the material” efficiently.

Proponents of active learning strategies point out that students retain very little from the lecture anyway, and so it’s better to cover less material while learning it more thoroughly.

Both camps have valid points and concerns It’s understandable that we teachers get caught in an “either-or” mind set on this issue, but the concept of the flipped classroom transcends it.

The term itself originated from popular reporting of an evolving approach to education. Several teachers seem to have begun experimenting with it at about the same time, only later to find common ground.

Aaron Sams, often credited along with Jonathan Bergmann as one of the originators of the approach, has written about how it started and what it means in “The Flipped Class: Shedding light on the confusion, critique, and hype.” The original article stirred enough controversy that Bergmann and Sams wrote a followup entitled “How the Flipped Classroom Is Radically Transforming Learning.” Along the way, popular writer Dan Pink has covered the concept, and Salman Khan‘s mention of it in a TED talk caused interest to explode.

I might not have noticed it all that much since they were mostly talking about high school teaching, which in many ways differs from higher education in methodology. But then I stumbled across an article on NPR that talked about using it in a college physics course, and another article about a college teacher using the approach to teach video production technology.

It’s really a natural for a college classroom, where students can be expected to take more responsibility for their own learning. It seems to me a possibly best combination of active learning and “covering the material.”

Next post, we’ll look at exactly how it works, and how I anticipate it playing out this term.

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