Q: My high school student is complaining that his teacher uses a “flipped classroom.” What is that and does it work?
The “flipped classroom” is an educational fad that, like most educational fads, seeks to overthrow years of common sense. If you’re interested, you’d better catch it quickly because it’s fading fast.
In the “old days” (i.e. up until last Wednesday), teachers taught during the day and kids practiced what they learned for homework that night. The flipped classroom “flips” that model. Students are “taught” at home, and at school they do homework-like practice. How are they taught? By watching instructional videos. Why do they do their homework in class? So the teacher can help them. Is this an effective strategy? No.
The fact is we did it the old way for a good reason: it makes sense. A teacher teaches you how to do something. You can engage and ask questions until you understand it. Now to help master the information, you practice it independently. A little more review and by test time you can show off what you’ve learned. That process is logical. It is sound. And it has stood the test of time, effectively educating generations of students who are willing to actively participate. Even the inventors of the “flipped classroom” learned from this model. So did Edison. So did Einstein. Probably so did you.
The flipped classroom fails to improve on the design in any way.
Let’s talk teaching. The most important thing about teachers is that they teach. You can see what they’re doing in class. You can read what they put on the board. You can take notes, ask questions, and offer input. But watching a video of a teacher offers none of that interaction. It is a static, stultifying activity.
The traditional teaching model is synergistic: it is a dynamic relationship between student and teacher. Watching a video is monergistic: It is a child sitting idly at a screen (which seems to be our national pastime) watching someone talk. If the child is lucky, there are graphics. But generally speaking, there is little mental exertion.
Now let’s talk practice. Traditional homework is meant to be completed independently so students can practice what they’ve learned. If they learned how to do the quadratic formula in class, it’s their opportunity to see if they can really do it. They might have to problem solve or ask questions to work through any misunderstandings, but it is generally an independent process. If you didn’t pay attention in class, chances are you’ll do poorly on the homework.
The flipped classroom turns homework into a process of dependency. Students soon figure out that they needn’t bother too carefully about learning from those videos because the teacher is going to come around and show all of them how it’s supposed to be done the next day anyway. So while the traditional model makes focusing on the lesson essential, the flipped classroom renders it almost superfluous. Over time, it will grind out lazy students who can’t do anything for themselves.
I’ve talked to students who are part of flipped classrooms. Most of them, like your child, hate it. They say they have a hard time understanding the videos. This is partially because they can’t ask questions. It’s partially because who wants to go to school for 7 hours and then come home and watch hours of instructional videos? Alone. At a screen. All night. If I wanted to turn an entire generation of students into mush-brained zombies, I couldn’t think of a better method (unless the videos were all taught by the Kardashians, of course).
Proponents of the flipped classroom deride the traditional teacher as the “Sage on Stage,” while the cool, new teacher is the “Guide on the Side.” Personally, I find the idea of a “Sage on Stage” to be rather sensible. The sage knows math or science. She wants to teach her students to understand it. Why not give her the whole stage? What else is worth looking at? Oh, right. Instructional videos. Please excuse me while I punch my own face.
Flipped classroom teachers claim that the videos can do the job just as well as they can. Perhaps. But to me this is not an argument to surrender your classroom to Youtube. It’s a wake-up call to improve your teaching.
Oh, I almost forgot: The flipped classroom doesn’t work. When researchers from California’s Harvey Mudd College studied its effectiveness, they discovered it makes no impact on student learning. I predict that over time it will actually reduce achievement.
The coup de grace for the flipped classroom is that it does nothing to address a key problem with contemporary education: the curriculum itself. Many of today’s core courses have little relationship to real-world problems and experiences. The flipped classroom is innovation going in the wrong direction. Instead of trying to find a new way to do the same old thing, we would be better served using time-tested methods to teach a vibrant new curriculum that actually meets the needs of the 21st century learner.