by Willy Wood
Every year there’s a new educational approach/trend/fad that everyone gets excited about. In recent years, “hot” topics have included multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, RTI, and Common Core State Standards, to name just a few. One of the current hot topics is the “flipped” classroom. Many people, looking for a more effective approach to teaching and learning, are taking up this approach. Magazine articles (mostly laudatory) about the approach are popping up like mushrooms after a spring shower. Sixty Minutes even did a segment on it!
What Is the Flipped Classroom, and Why Is It Attractive?
Before we get any further along, allow me to take just a moment to explain what the flipped classroom model is, for those who haven’t heard about it yet. The flipped classroom, according to an infographic on the topic created by Knewton.com, “inverts traditional teaching methods, delivering instruction online outside of class and moving ‘homework’ into the classroom.” Many people ascribe the beginnings of flip teaching to Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams from Woodland Park High School in Woodland Park, Colorado, who started using technology to record their classroom lectures and PowerPoint presentations so that students who missed class could catch up. They then began exporting more and more of the “input” part of their instruction for all of their students so they could spend more time in class on elaboration and giving students help.
In 2004, Salman Khan, a Bengali-American educator, entrepreneur, and former hedge fund analyst, began to record videos for a young cousin so that she could learn concepts she was struggling with at school by watching the video lectures multiple times. Kahn has since founded the Khan Academy, a free online education platform to produce and disseminate the videos. These videos (over 4,000 have been recorded to date) have become very popular for teachers (especially secondary math and science teachers) to use as their outside-of-class lecture material in the flipped classroom model. Kahn’s work was the subject of the Sixty Minutes video mentioned above.
Why such interest in this new model (beyond the usual “shiny new object” cachet that always attracts the first-adopters)? There are probably a couple of reasons beyond any educational value. First, one can do multiple “takes” of a video lecture, whereas one is stuck with a single take in the classroom. There are no students whispering, passing notes, or chewing gum while you talk. There are no interruptions. And, probably most importantly, it uses technology. There seem to be many people in education today who think that anything that involves technology is automatically an improvement (sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not).
Basic Components of Teaching and Learning
But all of that really pales in comparison to the central question: is this model an effective model for teaching and learning? To begin to examine whether this model is one you should be adopting, let’s look at the basic components of any teaching model.
At the most basic level, in order for someone to learn something, he or she needs to:
- input the material to be learned and go through initial sensory processing of that material (the most common input methods are still listening to/viewing a lecture or reading the new material);
- go through a period of elaboration, where he or she works with the material to process it more deeply for full understanding (this may be done individually or in group activities); and
- go through a period of practice (for skills) or application (for content knowledge) in order to cement the new learning in long-term memory.
The old, “traditional” teaching model did the inputting both in class (usually through lectures) and out (assigned reading). In addition, some class time (that not taken up by input) was spent on elaboration and practice/application. Homework was usually split between further elaboration activities, practice, and more input (out of class reading). There are many problems with this traditional model, and they have been written about extensively by me and many others for years, so I won’t go through the whole laundry list again here.
The Flipped Classroom Model vs. Traditional In-Class Lectures
The flipped classroom model acknowledges and attempts to solve some of the inherent problems with this traditional teaching model. First, it moves the input (lecture) part of the traditional model outside of the classroom using technological tools. The idea is that students who don’t understand the lecture material the first time can watch the video lectures multiple times until they get it. In addition, by moving lectures outside of class time, the model allows more time to be spent in class on elaboration (guided practice) and/or independent practice, where the teacher can be available to help students.
Are these good changes? Will they result in better learning? Well, let’s take the first big change–moving lectures from inside the classroom to outside the classroom. In order to judge the efficacy of this move, we need to think about why lectures are so ineffective in the traditional model, as research has proven for decades. The biggest problems with lectures are:
- Long stretches of lecture overload working memory capacity, so very little of the material is retained—even when students DO pay attention (see #3);
- Most teachers don’t do any pre-assessment of knowledge levels (entry points) of their students prior to the lecture. Thus, some of the material is worthless to students who already know it, and some of the material is so far above where other students are that it is not going to be understood by these students. In other words, the lectures aren’t differentiated, so only some students get maximum benefit from them; and
- Finally, let’s face it, the vast majority of lectures are just plain BORING. If students aren’t engaged, they won’t pay attention. If they don’t pay attention, they never do the initial processing that will allow them to learn the material.
Now, let’s look to see if the flipped classroom way of delivering lectures addresses these three primary problems. Problem #1–Overloading working memory: I have seen some online lectures that are only 5-7 minutes long, focusing on a single point/issue/problem type, and I’ve seen others that are as long as an hour (pretty much a regular, traditional lecture–just recorded). When the videos are shorter, and especially if processing activities are done in between watching the short lectures, these online lectures can definitely avoid some of the problems of working memory overload.
Problem #2–No pre-assessment of student entry points/differentiation: While it would certainly be possible to address this problem in the flipped model (by pre-assessing students in class, then recording several different lectures designed for students with different entry points), I haven’t seen anyone doing this.
Problem #3–Boredom: Well, how engaging or boring a lecture is will be affected by a lot of factors, including the personality of the teacher, the teacher’s voice, visual aids, etc. More than likely, a teacher who is a boring lecturer in person will probably be a boring lecturer online, and a teacher who is a dynamic, engaging lecturer in person will probably be a dynamic, engaging lecturer online.
Bottom line? While it is possible to design lecture material for online consumption that addresses some of the problems of traditional lectures (by making them short and focused, by creating different lectures for different groups of students, etc.), more than likely, moving lectures from in class to online is not likely to solve any of the major problems that cause lectures to be poor input vehicles in the first place.
Plus, there’s another major issue that needs to be considered: clearing up confusion. When a teacher lectures in class, he or she has the opportunity to “read” the group to identify confusion and frustration with the material (not that many teachers do this, unfortunately). The lecturer can then stop, ask questions of the students or ask for the students’ questions, lead a clarifying discussion, etc. None of this can be done with online lectures. Sure, you can build in a feedback loop where students can ask their questions via e-mail, a class online forum, etc., but even if students take advantage of this (and many won’t due to lack of interest, embarrassment, etc.), the feedback is often delayed, and seeking further clarification is much more cumbersome than it would be face-to-face.
Proponents of the flipped classroom model also extol the virtue of students being able to watch the video multiple times if they don’t “get it” the first time. There’s only one problem: if a student doesn’t get it the first time, he or she is unlikely to get it the second time, or the fifth, or the fifteenth. This is because the major reason a student wouldn’t understand the video lecture the first time is that he or she doesn’t have the requisite background knowledge or vocabulary to understand the material. No amount of repeat viewing will fill in the gap to allow comprehension. This requires an actual human teacher assessing that knowledge gap and guiding the student to the necessary material to fill the gap. The only students who will
benefit from multiple viewings of an online lecture are those who already have the requisite background knowledge, but did not understand the first time because they simply weren’t paying attention. So, the multiple viewing argument in favor of the flipped model doesn’t hold up, either.
Elaboration and Practice
Now, let’s consider the other major difference between this model and the traditional model. In the flipped classroom model, the time freed up by moving lectures outside of class can be applied to the other two components of any teaching model–elaboration (individual or group processing activities) and practice/application. Is this change a positive one? It can be,
sometimes, for some students. Remember that students must comprehend the outside of class lecture material first and bring that understanding to class with them in order for them to take the next step and elaborate on or practice the material. As I’ve already pointed out, some students will have been able to do this initial processing/comprehending via the online lectures, and
others probably will not have been able to do so. So, while more time is provided for elaboration activities in class (definitely a good thing), the effectiveness of those activities will be hampered by the lack of readiness of some, perhaps many, students.
Proponents of the model also often state that time spent on “homework” in the traditional model can now be done in class, where the teacher can be a resource. All I can say to this claim is that, if the teacher must be present to help students with the material at this stage, the wrong things were being done as homework in the first place. Let me explain.
The traditional model often gets homework wrong, primarily when new reading material is assigned outside of class. Any student who lacks the necessary prior knowledge (or reading skills) to comprehend the material is going to get very little out of it–if he or she even makes the attempt. This is why so many students in traditional classrooms come to class unprepared to participate fully in elaboration activities.
There are truly only two types of activities that should be assigned to students for homework in ANY teaching model: (1) having students write about (or generate and record in some other way) their own thoughts and opinions about something introduced in class (because the student already knows his or her own thoughts and opinions and thus doesn’t need the help of a teacher), or (2) doing work that he or she can practice independently (skills/activities that have already been elaborated on and learned in class). If flipped classroom teachers are having students do practice activities in class, and if the students truly need the teacher’s help during this process (they have not reached the level where they can work independently with the skill/material), they shouldn’t be practicing at all yet–they should be doing more elaboration (guided practice activities) until they reach independence. And if teachers are having students using class time for independent practice, then why is the teacher even needed?
So, what conclusions should we draw from this examination of the flipped classroom model? When comparing it to the old traditional teaching model (which seems to be what everyone wants to do), it might have a few advantages, but it certainly is no great improvement as a learning model. Basically, it simply trades out some of the major weaknesses of the traditional model (boring, non-differentiated in-class lectures that are often not retained, lack of necessary in-class elaboration time, and inappropriate assignation of new input activities for homework) for another set of major weaknesses (inappropriate assignation of new input activities for homework in the form of watching non-differentiated lectures and wasted use of class time for independent practice when this could have been done outside of class). The only true improvement of the flipped classroom model over the traditional instructional model is increased time for guided practice/elaboration activities in class.
But the biggest mistake people are making in this whole debate is doing what I have just done above–comparing the flipped classroom model to the traditional model. Decades of research and practical classroom experience has demonstrated without a doubt that the traditional model stinks, so it’s not much of a victory to claim that a different way of teaching is better than
the traditional model.
What happens, though, when we compare the flipped model to a different model–one supported by cognitive science? In this scenario, the flipped model doesn’t come off looking so good.What does cognitive science suggest would be a more effective teaching and learning model? No matter what grade level or subject matter you teach, both cognitive science and educational research support a model that does basically four things:
- Constantly pre-assess students on upcoming material to find out their background knowledge/skill level so you can differentiate instruction to match students’ entry points and needs;
- Input new content in the classroom, where you can do on-going formative assessment of students’ initial processing of the new material. Input can take many forms (lecturettes, reading, listening to an audio, watching a video, etc.), but you should strive to vary input to keep the classroom engaging, deliver new input in bite-sized chunks so that working memory is not overloaded, and deliver new content only to those who need it;
- Spend as much time as possible in the classroom on elaboration of the new material. Again, there are many ways to do this, but it is important that you use elaboration activities that have a variety of “helps” built in (teacher-student conferences, cooperative learning activities, peer teaching, group projects, etc.) so that confusion is nipped in the bud before it can turn to frustration; and
- Make sure that homework time is never used for input of new material (where lack of background knowledge and/or skills can lead to confusion) but is instead focused on either brainstorming or opinion work or given over to the repetition of already-learned material (to solidify the material in long-term memory) or practice of skills that have already reached independent level (to solidify the skills as habits).
Nothing above is earth-shaking or new. I have written about such a brain-compatible teaching model many times, as have writers like Eric Jensen, Geoffrey and Renate Caine, Rich Allen, Pat Wolfe, Robert Sylwester, and many others. But there are still many teachers who don’t practice this research-tested, classroom-proven, common sense way of teaching and instead grab for the
next shiny new teaching model that comes along. But when we compare the newest such model, the flipped classroom model, to the brain-compatible model, we can clearly see that the flipped classroom model doesn’t measure up. Yes, some of its inherent weaknesses can be tweaked by a skilled practitioner, but these tweaks will always be mere work-arounds. In the end, compared to
a more brain-compatible model, the flipped classroom is destined to be a flop.
Willy Wood serves as President of Open Mind Technologies, Inc., an educational consulting firm. In addition to doing workshops on the brain and effective teaching practices both nationally and internationally, he publishes a regular e-newsletter entitled Neuro News. If you would like to be added to Willy’s mailing list to receive Neuro News, or to contact him about his presentations, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.