Flipping the Flipped Classroom

I find it puzzling how the “flipped classroom” is so often presented as a new groundbreaking and transformative idea, with the potential to unlock the power of formative assessment and personalized learning. I am not suggesting that exposing students to the material at home and then practicing what they learned in class can’t be useful in the right contexts—and the possibilities offered by digital technologies certainly allow for innovative practices and a greater variety of teaching strategies. What I am proposing is that the flipped classroom model has been around for a long time and it does not go far enough to seize opportunities to make learning relevant and meaningful for students since it usually means sticking to a prescribed curriculum, just organized differently. We need a flexible curriculum model that looks to develop skills and competencies so that students can go deeper and broader into areas that interest them.

Some articles and podcasts would make you think that flipped classrooms are breakthrough innovations. For one Edutopia article, flipped classrooms are “teacher lectures with instructional material—often a video—that students watch and interact with at home*.” Notice the term “video,” which is really implies “technology” since it involves some kind of screencast (and I assume the teacher would use a variety of materials and online resources to cover material through the use of video)**.  My question is, How is this different from a textbook that the students read and whose questions they answer at the end of the chapter? How is the use of a “HyperDoc that requires students to progress through a series of lesson components designed to encourage them to engage with and explore content, apply what they’ve learned, and extend their knowledge” any different from a workbook with suggestions for activities? From a conceptual level, this just means having more content to access from the internet, but it doesn’t guarantee deeper learning. It’s just more of the same packaged and delivered on a tech platform†.

Let’s think about a typical (English or) literature class. Students usually read passages at home and come to class ready to exchange ideas and deepen their understanding of the text. Is this not a flipped classroom? It’s also just good practice because it makes sense to use class time discussing rather than sitting reading. Moreover, I am not sure how much close reading can happen in a class full of the noises and distractions of 30 other bodies. This model works for this context and it’s been used for decades. It’s a flipped classroom as described above—just low-tech—since students prepare at home so they can “explore content, apply what they’ve learned, and extend their knowledge” in class. Sure, there is no teacher instruction at home, but is that a bad thing?

I would suggest that the main reason class time is so often used to deliver lectures and instruction is that students simply weren’t pre-reading the material at home. Delivering the content in class ensures that teachers and administrators can attest that the students were “taught” the curriculum, and we can go home feeling we did all we could. We went over the material on Wednesday, third period, check. There will be a test at the end of the term to make sure they’ve learned it. Whether they retain, much less apply, anything down the road is largely irrelevant. Luckily, since it’s the law in most countries that children under 16 have to be in school, we have a captive audience. (I don’t have any evidence for this—it’s all conjecture—but it seems plausible, albeit overly cynical to make my point.)

This idea of the flipped classroom makes sense in certain contexts, but not others (i.e. when the work can’t be done in class, when the work won’t be done at home). I still can’t help but think we are missing an opportunity to have students connect to what is meaningful to them and learn a few skills along the way, when it makes sense and at the level of challenge that is appropriate to them as individuals. What are we learning from the lockdown about how kids connect with the formal curriculum? How much are we seeing children learn because they want to, about things that matter to them, in ways that they will remember and carry on in their adult lives? How often are we seeing children put down that in which they’re engrossed (and I don’t mean video games) just to read some article online and fill out a virtual worksheet on the causes of World War I? What are we learning about the curriculum’s lack of relevance to the lives of learners?

My family and I have been on 24-hour lockdown for eight weeks. During this time, my daughter Alexia has developed a passion for cooking and baking (to the point where she won’t let me prepare dinner… the most silver of linings) and my son Nico is building an income-generating business on Minecraft (don’t ask). They do their emergency remote learning because they have to, but really, it’s a chore like doing their laundry. They would rather do almost anything else (see blog to follow). Sure, we can’t always do what we want, but there has to be a better way, a more effective way, because Nico is neither retaining nor engaged in what he is doing for school. He’s doing a great job at learning the game of school though. 

Let’s take the lessons learned from the lock down and ask If we really want to empower students to develop as learners, what if we flipped the flipped classroom?

A “flipped flipped classroom” would look something like this: Children do what children do when given time to do so, that is, explore their passions and curiosities independently, with minimal adult prompting. They are encouraged to take these interests into the classroom. A parent-student-teacher group comes together periodically to identify a project based on one or more of these interests and to set goals to reach by a specific and individualized time horizon††.  This is a critical step because it is how each project gains breadth and depth and all stakeholders agree on deliverables, in effect authentic products or performances. These deliverables would have to meet certain expectations, individualized to the child’s strengths, interests and needs. What each product/performance would look like would be outlined and agreed upon by each stakeholder (with varying levels of support depending on the developmental needs of the child). 

The student would then carry on doing what she is interested in, engaging when she could, during and after school. Class time would be used to provide instruction on how to take the projects to the next level, how to provide that breadth and depth. It is at this point that the teacher can become a facilitator, so as to develop the skills necessary to elevate and sophisticate the project. Some of this would be through direct instruction, some through modeling, and some working side by side through an apprenticeship-type model. The result is a product or performance where the process to completion challenges and interests the student because she is elevating what she is passionate about and learning what she needs to at the right time and at the right level of challenge.

This model differs from (many) “genius hours” because the former accepts systematically that children engage in worthwhile activities outside the classroom, and surrenders to the idea that these activities are potentially those that provide the most opportunities for learning the hard and the transversal skills. It also stresses the importance and relevance of providing apprenticeship instruction to develop what the student is interested in. It recognizes that personal projects present an unparalleled opportunity to give students a reason to want to learn because the skills they pick up are relevant to their interests and needs. It means learning with specialists and peers, coming together in class. It is a step toward blurring the lines between school and life.

Maybe the flipped flipped classroom (that would get a better name by the time it’s implemented) only happens a couple hours a week, a couple hours a day, or one day a week. Maybe we start out slowly. Maybe we progressively become a school that operates like this in its entirety. Either way, what could this look like concretely?

Let’s take Alexia’s love for baking. Alexia, her teacher, and I would agree on a set of deliverables to achieve by the end of the semester, in this case, let’s imagine it’s her own cookbook. Alexia would continue to bake at home and use class time to develop her expository writing, master ratios and fractions, understand and apply basic chemistry, appreciate different cultures’ relationships to food, learn new vocabulary (in English and Spanish), hone her ICT skills as she puts the book together digitally, express herself artistically as she designs a cover and creates a video to music, plan a diet based on the physical needs of different segments of the population, think about her audience in terms of design of the book, its recipes and the marketability of the book itself… Her time in the classroom would be dedicated to accomplishing her personal goals through instruction and apprenticeship. She would have a reason to develop her writing and learn fractions because she needs these skills to publish her cookbook and become an expert baker. The classroom becomes the place where Alexia comes to learn what she needs to know to succeed, or rather, what she needs to know to succeed is taught in the classroom using the projects that are relevant to her and tap into what she’s into, thereby giving the her a reason to learn the skills in the curriculum. While honing skills is the way to elevate her projects to a new level, the project is the vehicle through which to learn the skills. 

Let’s take another example, a child who loves basketball. He is on the basketball team and takes this experience, this passion toward publishing a school basketball team monthly magazine for the fans within the community. He uses class time to learn about statistics, physics, nutrition, sales, marketing, presentation skills (press conferences are a big part of sports), writing articles, photography, design, angles, velocity, physical conditioning, and the list is only limited by the imagination. Then there are all the transversal skills that come into play, which I haven’t addressed those, but you can see how publishing a magazine (largely the same process that exists within the professional world) can teach about resilience, problem-solving, creativity, influence, among many other transversal and life skills. 

I can see a system where a certain number of hours are set aside each day or week to offer workshops to provide the instruction the students need at a particular time in their projects. This could require some tricky organizing, admittedly, but if schools collected enough information on students’ needs, strengths, and interests, it could might be easier than it sounds initially. Maybe there are two different workshops on statistics, depending on ability and prior knowledge. Maybe there is an expository writing workshop and a creative one going on at the same time. Maybe there is a class on geometry that teaches angles to the basketball player and to the budding architect. These workshops would not be age-related, but need-related: let’s group students based on needs and interests. This would create a culture of assessment for learning because teachers would have redoing to students’ needs rather than deliver a prescribed curriculum that is calendar-dependent not student-dependent.

Or maybe, more ambitiously, students need to earn credits toward content and competencies to graduate and they can dip into these when they want over the course of a term, year, or period of years (depending on what is developmentally appropriate, of course). I can see a balance between what the school should do to expose them to different ideas and important skills and concepts, while giving them the freedom also to go deeper into what really drives them. Think of taking the liberal arts college model down to high school. Why would that not be desirable and achievable? Who says we can’t or shouldn’t? In this learning context, the students focus on classes that help them complete their individual projects. Rather than delivering classes and content on “World History, 1648- present,” students could earn their Humanities credit by taking a class called “Designing Environmentally Sustainable Buildings through Minecraft” or “Creating a Fair Trade Business.” The point is that the students would take what they love doing on their own and bring it to the classroom. And the credits would be earned through mastery, not seat time.

Okay, now let’s snap out of this and face reality. This is an aspiration, this is even perhaps fantasy. There are so many structural, political, cultural, institutional, and, sadly, socio-economical obstacles in the way, not least being that children will have to unlearn to play the game of school. They will have to connect learning in school to what they do on their own time. Some students will require much more support than others, whether it be from a developmental, motivational, or ability points of view. All students will have to see school as a place where they can continue to do what they do so naturally, that is, seek to improve their skills and understanding when it makes sense to them. Yet just like there is little difference between watching a video at home and reading a textbook before class, there is little difference between using YouTube to receive direct instruction about something when you want and need to and coming to class to have a teacher-facilitator do the same to help you along your personal project (other than the 24/7 availability of YouTube, of course, but then that comes without the personal connection). Let’s flip the flipped classroom to provide these opportunities that replicate how we do things at all ages and ensure the development of lifelong learners who learn how to learn.

I am saddened by the thought that when school resumes Alexia will have so much less time for baking (will she continue without this momentum?), as she will have her time usurped by less meaningful “learning.” Something that has brought so much joy, real/actual learning, and contributed to her socio-emotional maturity will be pushed aside in favor of material that the curriculum imposes according to its own scope and sequence, because someone who doesn’t know her has decided that was what she needed to know in order to be “successful.” 

Yes, there are organizational complexities in flipping the flipped classroom, and that’s assuming that all the other parts fall into place. Maybe it has to be introduced one step at a time. Maybe it has to happen in a completely new school, a tabula rasa that brings together similarly-minded educators. Something has to give because school as it stands, concretely and conceptually, will lose its relevance if it persists on keeping an 1890’s outlook on organization and learning in hopes of meeting the needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Set curricula determined by people in offices far away are inadequate to prepare learners for a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity

So many schools have a mission statement that sets the goal of developing life-long learners. The best time to start a life’s worth of passion for and joy in learning is now. The COVID crisis has done so much to expose the flaws of a system that too often fails to engage students, is driven by compliance and extrinsic measures of learning such as test scores, and is not often interested in helping students grow their own interests. The truth is that kids learn more outside of school than they do in school, which will stick with them longer, and they learn more about how to learn while they’re at it. Let’s use class time to teach students skills to at the right time and the level of challenge toward completing authentic projects that are meaningful to them. 

* The article also incorrectly suggests that flipped classrooms and flipped learning can be used interchangeable, which it shouldn’t.

** Others understand flipped classrooms as a pedagogical approach that uses a variety of methods rather than a procedural one constructed by the availability of technology apps and tools. 

† Much like those edtech companies that promise more “personalized learning: by using AI to progress students through certain lessons based on diagnostic tests: nothing more than automated workbooks that work at a higher efficiency to deliver static but level content. This is not personalization and it’s not making the best use of AI.

†† I realize that this is a potential stumbling block if social/home conditions don’t lend themselves to these possibilities. This is an aspirational model and we have to address the socio-economic conditions that inhibit children’s potential and opportunities that make aspirations look ridiculous in the face of reality.  

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