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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Flipped Classrooms - Old or New?
There has been a lot of buzz in higher education lately about the flipped classroom model for teaching and learning. I am a strong believer in the underlying theories that support the structure as a good one for learning. I thought a little rumination on the process might help before instructors adopt it completely. It's not as easy as it appears, and it's not as new as others would have us believe.
Perhaps the most important assumption of the flipped classroom (or really any of the many new instructional models being used today) is the idea that learning is strongest when the learner is actively involved in the creation of understanding and the application of understanding to real problems. There is really no argument about this tenet - Active learning is best. The adoption of this philosophy of education can be seen in the increase in the use of group work, clickers during class time, and technology to both present information and allow practice using it. Technology has been very influential in allowing us to provide and actually monitor these opportunities for all students. So the fact that the flipped classroom depends on active student learning before class using things like class management software and simulation technology AND in class using things like clickers is definitely a plus in the flipped classroom column.
Is it a new technique? Not really. Instructors have been assigning readings and asking questions in class for a long time. But the quality of work students can do and the ability to monitor the students' actual outside of class learning has been greatly enhanced through technology, making the flipped classroom much more feasible.
Which leads us to the second idea of the flipped classroom - coming to the learning with a prepared mind. This idea derives from the principle of learning that having a preview of what is to be learned before attempting to use it makes for a much deeper level of organization in which to insert (or attempt to insert) new ideas and concepts. In the jargon, this is the idea of having an "advance organizer," which is in essence creating a prepared mind. When you know what's coming, you'll get a lot more out of the experience than when you experience it for the first time. This is another very well accepted, research based finding about learning. This is also a key idea in the flipped classroom. Rather than spending class time giving out new information, the students prepare their minds for the applications before class.
Is this a new technique? Again, not really. Instructors provide readings that present new information and are intended to prepare students for class. The problem is getting students to use those readings to prepare. Several problems here. First, students usually are currently not inclined to read in preparation for class, some because they don't know what that involves and others because they feel they learn better using the instructor's lecture as the advance organizer for the reading which is done later. I've discussed the first of these two problems in a previous column ("The Scouts' motto: be prepared"), but I haven't discussed the instructor's typical response to the second, which is to give a "pop quiz" to get students to prepare. I have two objections here. Why make it a surprise? Why not just have an understanding check whenever there's a reading. This is one principle behind team-based learning: read to be prepared to take the quiz. It works, but I have found that doing well on the quizzes rather than seeing what you don't understand now becomes the focus of the class period. Granted that is one of the ways to handle this prior knowledge requirement, but I've found that my insistence on being prepared for the work in class gets overshadowed by the students' desire to be "right" on the quiz. I don't think we've solved this problem yet.
One last benefit of the flipped class design is that instructor expertise is used in ways that are most valuable. Rather than giving a lecture, which would probably be more effective if you just created a video or self-study computer lesson, the instructor's expertise is used in class because it is capable of adapting to student misunderstandings or misconceptions and creating spontaneous examples that help illuminate a concept. The instructor's depth of knowledge also helps identify common problems in understanding, which can be addressed in activities and questions during class.
Is this new? Not really. It has always been the case that instructors' expertise was capable of tailoring instruction to student needs, but the flipped classroom allows that expertise to be used more effectively by engaging common problems during class. This is great for students, but hard on the instructor because one must be prepared to follow any path the class may take if only to lead them back to the best path for understanding. So is flipping the classroom a new or old teaching strategy? The principles are old and valuable, but they haven't been usable because of constraints of time and effort on the parts of both students and teacher. It is the possibility of implementing these key principles that is new, and often enabled by technology's ability to capture their essence. Now we have to reframe the mindsets of both instructor and student about the role of face-to-face class time. Is it a time to receive information or to use it? I vote for the latter. That would be the new part.
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