Flipping the classroom

Oliver Knill

1/26/2014, online since 2/20/2014, last edit 3/11/2014

Flipping the classroom is not new. It has been used in labs or discussion sessions or in distance learning for decades already. Like any dogmatic fad, flipping in general is a bad idea. What can make sense is a flipped component in a classroom, similarly as a technological component or project component can be valuable in the classroom.

More recently flipping the classroom has come up more and more in higher education. Entire sessions at the Baltimore AMS meeting were dedicated to it.

What is Flipping the classroom? Flip teaching is also called peer instruction. See the Wikipedia entry. One can suspect that it is all about money: it allows schools to do with less qualified teachers: push the instruction online, then let the teachers do what course assistants used to do. The push for flipping comes from a feeling that directed instruction is not effective. The later is unsupported and actually, it appears that higher education in the US is one of the only forms of education which is relatively healthy.

Why can a flipped classroom be taught by less-able teachers? Because the explanations are done by video, and because the classroom activities which have been pre-created on the worksheet do not need to be understood deeply, especially if solutions have been provided. Everything can be delegated to discussion or projects. The teacher works with canned material and can rely on solutions. In short: the actual teaching is outsourced. Teachers become moderators trying to help digest pre-recorded material. We see that in TV a lot: a journalist covering a topic does not be an expert but is still be able to moderate a group discussion, even if the theme is complicated.

In the long term, flipping is unhealthy because a teacher does no more need to understand a topic. The culture of presentation is gone. A moderator can just bounce the question back to the audience. Some bright student might answer it. Confused concepts and moderators can even generate more discussion: bingo. And one has an interaction. Wrong or fuzzy definitions in particular can lead to a delightfully interactive class. An imprecise definition of "polygon" for or "polyhedron" for example can lead to hour-long unsubstantial discussions in which at the end nobody knows what a polygon is. The definition has become "opinion" because terminology has become debatable. One can argue that it promotes critical thinking. The contrary is true, it can promote fuzzy thinking. A discussion about why a definition is done is more difficult because it requires to see what the consequences of an alternate definition is.

What are the upsides? What are the downsides? It would be interesting to know from a global survey, how many students prefer a flipped classroom. Working under pressure in a peer group is not to everybodys taste. One can see this on every level: A personal annectote: I had extremely creative teachers. One of them, Ernst Specker once put "flipped teaching" to the extreme. He announced a talk "Wittgensteins Tractatus" which would take place at the very top of the ETH building (just below the hemisphere roof). I went because I had been an admirer of Wittgenstein and been fascinated by the attempt and failure to build a complete system. Anyway, many came to this talk because Specker was an inspiring lecturer and also an expert in logic who would know personally many of the legends in logic like Paul Bernays. But Specker did not intend to talk himself. He handpicked some of his colleagues from the audience and placed them into a circle in the middle of the room, surrounded by a delighted audience who were lucky and relieved to have escaped that cruel selection. Yes, some of the chosen professors tried to bail out, but Specker would not let them. Now, they had to discuss Wittgenstein, unprepared of course and without having been warned. It was a delight for the rest to watch the condemned gladiators fight in the arena. But of course this was a once only possibility. Nobody would come to such a talk of Specker again.

What is better? It is too early to see. All pioneers in a new methodology like inquiry based learning, technology based teaching or personal response systems or online grading systems, mastery learning or jigsaw learning and now flipped teaching are usually highly dedicated and good at what they are doing. Strangely enough, the pioneers of a method often also become missionaries who want it to be adapted by others. Single success or failure stories can never be taken as a rule. They are anecdotal evidence. An other important point is when reading comparison research outcome is whether the students were able to select the teaching method. Especially, highly motivated and smart students like the flipped classrooms, because then they can practice to become teachers on their own.

Here is a unproven claim: flipping the classroom is promoted because it saves money and can be done by less qualified teachers. It can make sense especially for folks coming from a management background because classes become more like a "meeting". With a canned worksheet or project, it is possible to pass with little understanding nor innovation. An other suspicion is that the propaganda push for the flipped classroom comes primarily from administrators or teachers who are unable to deliver content.

From an economical point of view, one can ask: why teach at all? All the knowledge is in books, in the library, in journals, on TV, on the web. Why not just let everybody learn things on their own? The reason is that the majority does not get very far in general. In math, where thousands of exciting books and online resources exist, it is also true that delivering canned content from a resource feels not genuine. It is nice to read randomly in an Encyclopedia, but real insight comes from great minds writing original stuff or developing and rewriting old stuff. Even a century old theory like calculus changes still at a rapid pace. The importance of the teacher might seem trivial but it is documented.

Educational dogmas never help. Teaching is individual and complicated. Lets see what works. Like in evolution, what succeeds and what not will eventually come out. What would be tragic however, if teaching methodologies are chosen just in order to save money. We know that this has happened with web-based homework for example. It is cheaper to have the machine grading the homework but it is also "deadly boring" and risky, especially if a system is in place for a while. We have installed and used webwork early on 13 years ago and seen that every upgrade (both of the server or version of the software) can break things. It needs constant attention (this is the reason that in present days many who use it use commercial systems. They outsourced part of the teaching) Clickers are a great thing too at first but they have become objects of hate more recently because they are more and more used to deliver canned content or - much worse - to monitor student presence. They have become the analogue of RFID tags used for livestock. A similar danger is powerpoint, where recycling old slides can help cure sleep disorders.
Flipping the classroom can lead to savings because it outsources the teacher to a video bot and prepares the students to be instructed without teachers or discussion and project based teaching which usually does not lead very far. It is the fast food for teaching.

Studies like the one at Harvey Mudd indicate that flipped teaching does not lead to any benefits. So far, the majority of students gets more out of direct instruction. Why? Because humans need motivation, relations with people who master the material and who are excited what they are doing. Peer pressure in the classroom and being exposed for a sufficient time, helps too. Actual classroom presence is intense but will stay in the memory longer. Unlike online, you can not fast forward or skip things so easily. This helps for building long term memory and also helps to foster creativity.

Watching somebody develop a topic links you closer to the subject than a canned video. Streamed live video is different. The authenticity is there. It is not cold coffee. From personal experience, all problem sessions in college were flipped and some of them were terrible. Why? Because it is actually a difficult skill to manage a classroom with students with a wide wide spectrum of knowledge. The best students are bored or dominate the class, the slowest ones are overwhelmed and frustrated. I have seen very few teachers who can handle this well. Actually, most can not handle it at all but think they do.

On the other hand, most of my teachers were excellent in explaining the material in a socratic manner. Flipping the classroom invites the teacher to be less prepared.

Flipped teaching is old. Some of my own teachers have already used it, especially when they were unprepared. Bring a good video, let the class watch it and then discuss the material. Some chemistry labs in high school were completely flipped. But there, the projects were essentially research tasks and were organized very well and done with expensive experiments and professional equipment. We were for example given a powder and access to the entire school lab and then asked to figure out what the powder is. We had to measure a lot of different things and run a lot of experiments in order to figure out the substance (which turned out to be Aspirin).

Any lab activity as physics labs at ETH were flipped. I learned electronics in a flipped way. I watched a video, then did things and interact with knowledgable folks like friends and neighbors when stuck.

Two personal annotations: January 30 2014: An article gives 6 tips: 1) Make activities part of the classroom culture, 2) be prepared for pushback, 3) educate parents about the goals, 4) start small, 5) collaborate with teachers outside the discipline, 6) get on twitter.
Its interesting that most of these points are about spreading the word and overcoming obstacles, rather than the flipped classroom itself. The first tip is part of the definition. One tip encourages collaboration with other fields. The rest is about how to spread the propaganda. "Starting small" for example is easier and is good advise for everything.

February 20 2014: There was a longer article on flipped classrooms on this Slate article. It is written by a humanity teacher. One quote: "Some humanities professors are also experimenting with flipped classes-but it's here that the flip threatens to flop."