The “flipped classroom” is enjoying a great deal of popularity recently because it shows very positive results where it has been tried:
- Social Studies teacher Sydney Elkin at Westside High School in Macon, Ga., found that after flipping her classroom, almost 75% of her students passed the state exams for her courses, compared to only 30% before the flip.
- At San Diego’s Innovation Middle School, teachers Michael Salamanca and Julie Garcia have flipped their algebra classes, and Garcia observed that her students “were really focused on what they were doing. They were copying the steps down and at times were even asking questions about why.”
- The principal of Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, Michigan reported on CNN.com that since flipping most of their classes, the ninth grade student failure rate dropped by 33%, the English failure rate dropped to 19% from a high of 52%, and math, science, and social studies scores also increased dramatically.
These stories represent only a handful of examples that show how the flipped classroom can create engaged students through more personalized education. In addition, as teacher Catlin Tucker noted in her blog,
“the beauty of the flipped classroom lies in the simple realization that instruction can take place in different mediums. We are no longer limited to a class period or a physical classroom. We have the opportunity to match the instructional activity with the environment that makes the most sense…This flexibility is why technology has the potential to be so transformative in education.”
What Exactly Is the Flipped Classroom?
There are many definitions of the flipped classroom, but the fundamentals have been spelled out by Techsmith.com, which writes that the method is:
“A reversed teaching model that delivers instruction at home through interactive, teacher-created videos and moves “homework” to the classroom. Moving lectures outside of the classroom allows teachers to spend more 1:1 time with each student. Students have the opportunity to ask questions and work through problems with the guidance of their teachers and the support of their peers – creating a collaborative learning environment.”
One of the great benefits of the flipped classroom is that it enables educators to increase crucial one-on-one time with each student, which can make all the difference in propelling more students forward in their learning. It works especially well for students who are more passive in class, because they cannot hide behind the kids who are quick to raise their hands and engage with the teacher (a phenomenon evident at every level of education, including college). In addition, Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D., noted on her User Generated Education blog that the flipped classroom employs the theories and models espoused by the great education reformer John Dewey, who revolutionized American education by combining education and experience, allowing students to learn through doing.
No one doubts the veracity and importance of the success stories, but as clearly beneficial as the flipped classroom can be, some problems and concerns have emerged now that more teachers and schools have adopted the model. The largest of these is that the flipped classroom is so heavily dependent on student access to technology that it may shut out those who are arguably in the most need of significant education reform: the poor and underprivileged students who do not have a computer at home. For example, in an article on KQED’s Mind/Shift blog, Sarah Butrymowicz pointed out that
“anecdotal evidence suggests that flipping classrooms is a more popular practice in wealthier suburban communities where nearly all students have Internet access at home and schools are more likely to have computers in classrooms. Some skeptics say flipped classrooms still rely heavily on lectures by teachers, which they argue are not as effective as hands-on learning. Still others worry that the new practice-so dependent on technology-could end up leaving low-income students behind and widening the achievement gap.”
In fact, the three stories of successful flipped classrooms I noted above all depended upon grants from school districts or private donors to provide students with computers.
Some educators burn videos of their lectures and loan them to students to watch on home DVD players, but even that creative solution brings up another problem: not all families are supportive of their students. Many families struggle with different forms of instability: for example, the most recent statistics show that 3.3 million children are affected by domestic violence every year – and that doesn’t include those families that fly under the radar and do not report such incidents. In addition, some parents rely on their older children for childcare while they work, or do not provide academically supportive home environments in which students can concentrate or use a family DVD player or computer without distraction. Similarly, providing poor students with computers does not necessarily solve the problem, as some families cannot afford Internet service. If the actual course content is partly or mostly delivered via technologies that must be accessed at home, this can be a deterrent to student success.
Pedagogical Concerns about the Model
I have noticed a pedagogical problem with the flipped classroom at the college level. Though the flipped classroom is generally associated with K-12 education, as a history professor, I have always employed aspects of the flipped classroom, first to use class time to apply lecture material and second to allow me to interact with students on a one-to-one basis (though that has proven difficult in large lecture classes of fifty or more students). These exercises are not only an effective way for students to integrate their new knowledge more fully, they give me a chance to see how students interact with the material-and I also get to snoop and see how they have taken lecture notes, if at all, and address that issue with students as needed. In general, these exercises are well-received by my students.
But the fundamental concern I have about flipped classrooms is also evident every time I try this, and it is rooted in an assumption made by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, the Colorado chemistry teachers who originated the practice of the flipped classroom. They argue that students “don’t need the teacher in the room to talk at them and give them information; they can receive that knowledge and content on their own.”
But what if they can’t? I teach History at an open enrollment college, where my courses cover thousands of years of human experience in greater depth than other levels of education. I am used to the limitations of lecture, as most college-level work relies upon independent work. But many of my students often struggle with standard assigned reading and videos, unable to process some of the more complex concepts that are part of college-level work.
There are a variety of reasons for this, including difficulty with English because it is their second language, an unsatisfactory prior education, or learning issues that have not yet been addressed. This means that I cannot always assume that my students have understood the assigned material, and it’s not fair that I make that assumption and move on. College professors have limited classroom time, and I need to use that time to make sure that students understand the information before they can use it in research papers, exams, etc.
Granted that my courses are generally much larger than K-12 classrooms, and the material is more complex, but it shows me that the flipped model may not work for all subjects at all times. Sometimes, it is necessary for the instructor to simply use class time as a time for lecture and explanation.
In addition, even Aaron Sams acknowledged that the method does not work for all students. He reports that 9 percent of his students still fail. He said, “Some students, they choose not to learn, not to participate. A lot of people ask, ‘What do you do with the unmotivated kid?’ I wish I had a good answer to that.”
These concerns simply show that it’s dangerous to think of any one method as the panacea that will cure all of our education ills, for all students. Like many other instructional models, the flipped classroom is a truly effective and revolutionary tool that helps students succeed. I use it on occasion in my college courses. But as always, trained and experienced educators must rely on their own assessments and analyses of their classroom needs to decide what methods are best for their academic subjects and students.