Flipping the Flipped Classroom: When Three Wrongs Made a Right
There’s been so much talk about flipping the classroom (and so little real understanding of what it is), that I decided to go to the source. Here’s what I found.
There’s some uncertainty as to the origin of the flipped classroom. Some people point to Eric Mazur who came up with “peer instruction.” He had his students (he was Harvard physics professor) read and answer questions about the to-be-learnt material before the class. In class, he posed a question based on the reading, had students reflect on the question and come up with answers individually, discuss their answers and decision making process with their peers, and then present it to the class. He then reviewed the responses and then decided whether to explain further or move on to the next idea.
Others attribute the idea to Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams who, in 2004, worked in a rural U.S. school. They wanted to solve a problem, namely how to deal with sick students or students who lived so far away that they sometimes couldn’t make it to school. They came across software that allowed them to add recorded voice and prepared notes to PowerPoint® presentations that they could then easily share. Via this ‘pre-broadcasting’, students would view the presentation in advance and then discuss it, experiment with the material and receive teacher assistance in class.
My search led to a 2000 article by Maureen Lege, Glenn Platt, and Michael Treglia who came up with a technique they called ‘inverting the classroom’. The three found traditional lectures to be ineffective and ascribed this to the fact – and here comes the first piece of garbage – that there was a mismatch between an instructor’s teaching style and a student’s learning style which resulted in students learning less and being less interested in the subject matter. In their article, they “outline a strategy for teaching that appeals to a broad range of learning styles without violating the constraints typically faced by instructors at most institutions” (p. 31).
In a hodgepodge of pseudoscience, they first drew on the Grasha-Reichmann learning styles questionnaire (Reichmann & Grasha, 1974) which allegedly determines students as dependent, collaborative, or independent learners. Dependent learners need lots of teacher direction, collaborative learners work best when they learn in a team, and the independent learner learns best when learning alone without direction.
Their next application of pseudoscience was based on personality types as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI is an introspective self-report questionnaire that classifies individuals along four different personality scales, namely: how you relate to the world (Introvert or Extrovert), how you process information (Sensing or Intuitive), how you make decisions (via Thinking or Feeling), and how you evaluate your environment (Judging or Perceiving). According to the authors, these personality traits affect your learning style and preferred teaching style.
As if the cocktail wasn’t poisonous enough, they added Kolb’s (1981) learning styles to focus on how students take in and process information. According to the Kolb inventory, you are either an assimilator, a converger, a diverger, or an accommodator. If you’re an assimilator or a converger, you process information via abstract conceptualisation If you’re a diverger or an accommodator, then you process information through concrete experiences. If you’re a converger or an accommodator, you process information via active experimentation. But if you’re a diverge or an assimilator, then you process information through observation and reflection.
Based upon these three pseudoscientific premises, Lege and Platt came up with a way to teach their beginning economics students in a way that “can appeal to all types of learners” (p. 32). They gave their students a diversity of instructional materials that they could access before the class. The materials included reading selections, video recordings, PowerPoint® slides with audio recordings, and printable PowerPoint® slides. These materials could then be used to complete small assignments. Having done this prior to coming to the class, in the class they discussed the materials and their assignments in small groups, applied the principles that they learned, discussed each other’s questions, and presented to each other in mini-lectures. Lege and Platt noted that both learners and instructors found this method very motivating and more effective in achieving the course learning outcomes.
They called this approach the inverted classroom’.
“Inverting the classroom means that events that have traditionally taken place inside the classroom now take place outside the classroom and vice versa. The use of learning technologies, particularly multimedia, provide new opportunities for students to learn, opportunities that are not possible with other media… The general principle is to provide a menu of options for the students to use in learning. The instructors focus on the desired outcome (for instance, having the student prepared for discussion) and allow the student to choose the best method to reach that outcome”. (p 32).
The inverted class – a course in microeconomics – met twice weekly. Before the class. students read the necessary material and were encouraged to view videotaped lectures about the topic of the lesson or PowerPoint which they could also download and print or buy. The students were “expected to come to class prepared to discuss the relevant material” (p. 33). Each class began with the teacher asking if the students had any questions, for example about something they hadn’t understood or wanted an example of. This often led to what they called a mini-lecture (±10 minutes) based on the questions. If the students didn’t have any questions, the teachers gave no mini-lectures. After this, teachers and students together carried out economic experiments or labs giving students the “opportunity to see the economic principles in action” (p. 33).
The remainder of class was usually allocated to worksheets (made available prior to the class) and review questions (handed out in the class). The worksheets were simple assignments on the topic in question. Once in the class, students formed groups to discuss their answers and then present what they’d done to the rest of the class. “To ensure that students were coming to class prepared, these worksheets would periodically and randomly be collected and graded for completeness but not correctness” (p. 33). The review questions required students to apply the concepts being discussed. Here too, students worked in small groups and presented their results to the whole class. “Periodically, a subset of the review questions was collected and graded. The unit was completed in the same way it began, with the instructor asking if there were any final questions” (p. 34).
And now the garbage. First, an analysis ‘found’ that the two teachers (very small sample) had different MBTI personality styles and there was no attempt to determine student learning styles! Lege and Platt felt that this would pressure students “to use a particular method or feel competitive with other students based on these assessments…[and that] they could choose the method of course content delivery based upon experimentation, lifetime experience, and intuition (p. 34)”.
Second, no learning was measured at all. They measured student perceptions; the majority of the students “were favorably impressed by the course”(p. 35). The teachers’ perceptions were also positive as they noticed that students “appeared [!!] to be more motivated” (p. 36) and “enjoyed working together and seemed [our italics] to learn from having other students explain concepts in different ways” (p. 37). They then discussed the costs of the inverted class-based completely on conjecture (no numbers were presented for either the fixed or variable costs) and concluded that some costs were higher and some were lower. Though they didn’t determine learning styles, they concluded that “the inverted classroom explicitly allows for students of all learning styles to use a method or methods that are best for them” (p. 39) and then wax prosaically about potential benefits like “increased participation and motivation, improved potential job skills, and increased opportunities for critical analysis of recent data and policy perspective” (p. 39).
Old wine, new bottle?
Terms like blended learning and flipping the classroom are often fashionable names for things that good teachers have always done.
Surfing the Internet we read that blended learning is “an approach to education that combines online educational materials and opportunities for interaction online with traditional place-based classroom methods” (Wikipedia) or “a natural by-product of the digital domain creeping into physical spaces. Broadly speaking, blended learning just means a mix of learning online and face-to-face” (teachthought.com). Actually blended learning is the mixing of different teaching and learning media (e.g., lecture, books, demonstrations, synchronous and asynchronous online lessons and study activities, etc.) by a good teacher to reach an optimum recipe for learning and instruction.
As far back as I can remember – yes, this is an anecdote and not evidence – my teachers flipped the classroom, combining homework assignments and in‑class activities in different ways. Sometimes we were taught something at school and had to do homework related to it that evening at home (i.e., practice and/or apply it) which we then discussed in class the next day. At other times I had to write a report on different topics at home (in the early primary grade literally cutting images from magazines and newspapers and then pasting them on coloured construction paper and by the end actually writing something), either alone or in groups and then present it to the class where we had to answer questions posed by the teacher and our fellow students.
In other words, sexy names for what every good teacher does!
Conclusions / Implications for Teaching
This is a tough one. Back in 2000 when the article was published, we probably would have dismissed this article as a poor piece of research (no control group, no report of sample size, only two classes seemingly taught by the authors themselves…) based on three educational myths (two different indicators of learning styles and one discredited, though widely used, personality style indicator), with nothing measured except for self-reported perceptions of the teachers and students and which concluded things based on conjecture and hypothesis. Garbage in.
In spite of this, flipping the classroom (i.e., the inverted classroom) has become an incredibly widely used and praised approach which does have a certain amount of merit, if only because it has gotten teachers to think more thoroughly and deeply about the pedagogies that they use to achieve different learning goals. It has also, possibly, made the learning environment more interactive for many teachers and students. But…flipping the classroom isn’t an unqualified success.
Lege and Platt specified a very thorough and strict pedagogy / instructional strategy. They carefully chose what materials were needed for the topic, prepared powerful PowerPoint presentations augmented with audio and/or notes, carefully chose videos, gave students assignments – and checked whether they were carried out – to ensure that the necessary prerequisite work was carried out, and so on.
Many teachers who attempt to flip their classrooms use a less structured and directive approach. This is possibly due to the aura that flipping has received of being a progressive, child-centred, constructivist approach to teaching and learning. With respect to the former, they assume that teachers simply need to guide the naturally occurring discussion from the side. With respect to the latter, they assume first that learners will be very motivated by the multimedia and will, thus, watch the videos and prepare properly and second, that having done this they can and will construct their own meaning through inquiry and curiosity. This causes teachers to simply give students a video, computer simulation or some other form of multimedia material as homework and then you guide them the next day in applying it or discuss it in the class. Unfortunately, this often ends up with much, if not all, of the class-time being a traditional class as (1) students often don’t do what they’re supposed to do at home so come to the class unprepared whereby the teacher is forced to give the lesson that they weren’t supposed to give, (2) there were no checks on/coercion of the students to prepare properly, (3) the materials chosen don’t have the necessary pedagogic quality that they need to be independently learnt at home or (4) the level of the prescribed materials don’t match the level of student for proper understanding and thus, even if the students have watched the video or done the simulation, they didn’t learn or understand it and subsequently can’t effectively apply or discuss it in the class.
Kolb, D. A. (1981). Learning styles and disciplinary differences. In Chickering and Associates (Eds.), The modern American college (pp. 232-255). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lage, M. J., Platt, G. J., & Treglia, M. (2000). Inverting the classroom: A gateway to creating an inclusive learning environment. The Journal of Economic Education, 31(1), 30–43. Available at https://doi.org/10.2307/1183338
Reichmann, S., and A. F Grasha. 1974. A rational approach to developing and assessing the construct validity of a student learning scale instrument. Journal of Psychology, 87(2), 213-23. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.1974.9915693