I’m not a fan of the flipped classroom phenomenon. People often think this means I endorse lecture-based, didactic pedagogy, which could not be further from the truth. I see the flipped classroom as addressing a symptom of education struggle rather than a cause. Gary Stager puts it better than I ever could; to add to his words, flipping the classroom only rearranges the existing problems in higher education, believing things will work out if we feng shui the existing classroom methodology.
What is interesting about USA Today’s media foray into the flipped classroom through a recent article questioning the model’s impact is how its efforts to present “both sides” of the argument show fallacies on both sides of the model and its presentation. The article addresses preliminary flipped classroom research via Harvey Mudd College (funded in part by an NSF grant) that shows a lack of significant change in student attitudes or scores when in a flipped environment versus a traditional one. The article does not link to the research, so the only content to drive this viewpoint is through quotation. And there is a red flag quote from researcher Nancy Lape:
Professors, too, had to spend considerably more time making and editing the videos and crafting engaging, hands-on sessions for their classes, she says. Given these drawbacks, the fact that the actual learning outcomes seemed unaffected by the switch suggested that it might not be worth the hassle, Lape says. “(The professors’) lives might be easier and their students might be happier if they just do a traditional class.”
I understand that there is little time in the day for K-12 teachers to perform their academic duties, much less develop new ones and receive support to do so. There are also similar time constraints in higher education. But to present this nuanced position as a hassle where life would be easier without doing something new does not make such an argument. The argument that “data shows no improvement, keep doing the same old” will not gain favor in a political climate that demands reform and casts teachers as a prime reason for educational despair. And hassle and ease should not be an excuse for the status quo; rather, the difficulty in providing the means and ability to change an organization should be factored in.
This is not to say that assumptions are only bandied about by the critical research team. The article also quotes Andrew Miller, listed as an educational consultant with experience in flipped classrooms. Miller also makes claims on teachers and how effort plays into the flipped experience:
…the newly freed-up class time can be daunting for professors, especially those who are particularly gifted at lecturing, he says. Sometimes these professors aren’t able to come up with good hands-on activities and resort to filling the time with even more lecturing. “If you’re not a good instructor, flipping the classroom won’t really ensure better learning,” he says. “If you aren’t doing something to fill that space, it won’t do you any good.” Miller says the flipped classroom makes more sense for some studies more than others. It can be easy to come up with “real world” applications for a business class, but not necessarily something like philosophy.
To start at the bottom, subjects such as philosophy and other humanities have existed in a flipped realm for a very long time, where students are expected to have read Kant, Socrates, Heidegger and others before coming to class to discuss the work. In these spaces, discussion can help work through sticky points of theory and philosophy as well as address knowledge gaps and misconceptions. This is the extension of an academic bazaar as referenced by Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, where engaging a topic begets socratic discussion. The idea that an academic discipline that has always incorporated a flipped structure might not work well in a flipped environment is somewhat detrimental to the idea of the flipped model, the model needing to better understand its history and accounting.
There is one other assumption is on how Miller views teachers — there is a distinct divide between good and bad teachers underlying his argument. That’s a dangerous presumption even before determining the sort of instructor at the root of the issue. Are we talking K-12 or Higher Ed here? In higher education, professors are not trained in pedagogy but rather in their subject (an interesting irony, as one of the big complaints in K-12 ed is that teachers do not have enough subject-specific training), so to expect professors whose complete education experience has been grounded in lecturing to shift to hands-on activity is troubled from the start: without intervention, at best those teachers will just have students perform their rote assessment in the classroom rather than at home (another issue with calling something a flipped classroom; for the flip to truly work the in-class part must be better and more inclusive than what happened with homework, meaning it is not really a flip but an augment or supplement). In a K-12 environment, teachers must account for students who do not perform the video lecture part of the work (often the same students who do not do the assessment part at home) before engaging in activities. There are a great deal of variables at play in any of these instances, so simplification to sell a model only furthers hyperbolic rhetoric. To say that a poor instructor cannot ensure better learning just by flipping means there is an equal opposite — a good instructor is going to do fine without flipping. And that posit leads to proof of the questioned research, that flipping has no statistical benefit. I don’t think that’s what Miller and other flipped advocates believe (I follow a lot of flipped pedagogues via various research and social media) The variable is the instructor, and if a strong lecturer is going to be worse at coming up with assessment activities to do in class, supporting the lecturer in developing a new skill is more important than labeling them a poor instructor. And if we are going to “can” content and utilize instructors specifically in the activity phase, we run into the rockstar/tutor dichotomy and that’s when people begin to cry digital imperialism.
Personally, I would like to see us start our critique at a level beyond flipped classroom, and figure out what it is we expect education to serve and how we can best help students achieve that endeavor. Until we do that, our critique of learning models created to better serve existing aims of education need to be reasoned and substantiated, on both sides, rather than ratcheted up and draped in ideology.
UPDATE: Phil Hill critiques the Harvey Mudd research here; I agree with the points he brings up about the early conclusions and audacious claims of the research and Dr. Lape’s comments, and I appreciate the reasoned perspective. However, in my opinion he lets similar unsubstantiated claims by Miller off the hook.