On Flipping the Classroom

It hasn’t been too long now since an idea made waves through education circles around flipping the classroom. It first emerged as a college methodology for courses. I first wrote about this in 2011, and I focused first on the “how-to” aspect of making your own videos. I have since learned more about this teaching methodology and have thought about it with more care. Educause does a nice summary of what the concept is and points out some watch-fors. They point out a few important things:

  1. Flipping involves watching videos.
  2. Video watching happens outside of class.
  3. Video watching replaces receiving information in a lecture format.
  4. Class time is used to apply the knowledge conveyed through video outside of class through a variety of activities, such as an interactive discussion.
  5. Not everyone means the same thing when the term “flipping” is used. In other words, there may be important differences by what is taking place when we are having conversations about flipping the classroom.

Today, the practice is so popular that social spaces have opened for K-16 teachers on flipping. One example is the Flipped Learning Network.

A balanced article (by which I mean they don’t take a pro-flipping or anti-flipping stance) by ASCD’s Educational Leadership came out in March, 2013 positing that enough research had not yet been done to “prove” that flipping the classroom was what I might call a “home run.” They do cite some resources suggesting the lecture format is a good delivery methodology with it’s own set of caveats (more on this below). Of particular interest in the article to me was this:

The lack of hard scientific evidence doesn’t mean teachers should not flip their classrooms; indeed, if we only implemented strategies supported by decades of research, we’d never try anything new. Until researchers are able to provide reliable data, perhaps the best we can do is to ask, Do the purported benefits of flipped classrooms reflect research-based principles of effective teaching and learning?

The important question, however, is how long should we try?

Despite the article linked above that appeared with a citation in Educational Leadership, I’d argue that for many K-12 students a “lecture” is not a good method for instruction given other options. I’d define a lecture for this purpose to be teacher-led instruction, where students sit passively listening or actively taking notes, while a teacher talks, draws, reads, uses slideware (such as PowerPoint), and shows video demonstrations. Presenting information is sometimes necessary and so I am not saying lectures or lecture-type presentations should be outlawed. But they cite an article that used estimation strategy on math test data for ~6,000 students across 205 schools with 639 teachers. The TIMSS test from 2003 used in the study asked teachers if they presented material by lecture or by doing practice problems in the classroom (called effective teaching). The problem for me with this example is that it was not comparing constructivist-style pedagogies such as project-based learning in the classroom. What it did do was prove with some sophisticated mathematics that students likely gained more information from a lecture than working out problems for math classes.

But does that prove that lectures are effective at deeper learning? It likely depends on how talented your lecturer is to get us (the students) to think!

Let’s Revisit the Model

Let’s keep using math as a subject to illustrate the flipping mechanism again. Let’s make some assumptions. First, this is how we might frame “traditional” instruction for math:

  1. Students are presented new material by the teacher (lecture).
  2. Students work through an example problem or problems with the teacher (guided instruction).
  3. Students work independently (or collaboratively with peers) on more problems, with the ability to ask for assistance in class (checks for understanding).
  4. Students are assigned homework to complete additional problems independently (independent practice).
  5. Students are assessed on the homework to prove acquisition of knowledge (formative assessment).

Flipping either uses the same constructs or perhaps even introduces new ones.

Here’s a basic flipped model:

  1. Students are assigned homework to watch video clips that introduce new information (lecture).
  2. Students may be assessed as part of their homework on how well they understood the information (or to prove they watched the videos) (formative assessment).
  3. Students have the opportunity to ask questions in class before activities begin (checks for understanding).
  4. Students come to class and work collaboratively or independently on problems (guided practice, independent practice).
  5. (There isn’t necessarily a step 5; more time was spent learning new material at home rather than in class.)

So, there’s also an option for having a real #5:

  • Students use class time to apply the knowledge beyond the practice of problems and have an opportunity to apply this knowledge to working towards an authentic challenge.

This new opportunity may have been classified before as a type of “project” that would be assigned for homework. Now, the project work might take place in the classroom.

On the surface, flipping may have a real advantage in that it provides in-school time for constructivist learning, it allows the teacher to step away as a lecturer during in-school time to facilitate or assist practice, and it still provides the teacher the opportunity to share knowledge through a different medium of delivery and at a different time.

For more research on flipping, check out this list of research studies and reflections from teachers.

Are we all providing that constructivist experience?

You will notice above that I slip in there this idea that teachers have time now to learn with a constructivist approach, but there’s no agreement, I have found, that all “flippers” do this. To be specific, when I say “constructivist” I mean that we provide students an opportunity to play, tinker, or discover to find solutions to a problem. Many teachers apply this approach in a social setting, meaning that students are working together in groups.

I know some teachers do not provide this opportunity for trial-and-error, because of the perception that only limited time is available for instruction, and there is too much content to cover, given the length of the day, semester, or year.

I’d wager at this point that if a new method is not introduced, such as an active classroom discussion, inquiry, or a group project, we are not really changing much with the flipped model. We are just changing the location and time of day in which new information is presented. If that is the case, we provide less help when the knowledge is presented (lecture) as a trade-off for more time for guided and independent practice. This may be preferable at times, depending on the needs of the class on a particular topic being covered.

A critical standpoint

Gary Stager, an advocate for constructivist learning, said this about flipping:

Sure, I think the flipped classroom is a preposterous unsustainable trend, masquerading as education reform, in which kids are forced to work a second unpaid shift because adults refuse to edit a morbidly obese curriculum.

Stager does not go into more details, I wonder if he’s looking at asking students to watch videos outside of the classroom as a method not to introduce constructivist (or any other active) learning opportunities into the the student’s day, but rather to add to in-class lecture time with canned lectures or presentations outside of class. Or, maybe he’s siding with others who question the value of homework all together!

This blog post too poses criticism, citing the question over the value of homework by thinker-writers like Alfie Kohn. Also in the fray is teacher Shelley Wright who gave up on flipping. She came to, for me, what were powerful conclusions about her experimentation (last section):

I’ve learned that inquiry & PBL learning can be incredibly powerful in the hands of students. I would never teach any other way again. When students own their learning, then deep, authentic, transformative things happen in a classroom. It has nothing to do with videos, or homework, or the latest fad in education. It has everything to do with who owns the learning.

As it turns out, constructivism as a theory and approach to mathematics instruction is not new. It is perhaps best illustrated by the emergence of the Logo programming language in schools in the 1980s alongside the purchase of computers, thanks to the ideas of Seymour Papert about providing students a space to play and interact with mathematics that he called mathland.

Is watching videos bad, then?

I’d wager that videos are not bad in light of the “a ha!” moment Ms. Wright had teaching math and science (she said so herself!). But if we can agree that the passive role (for the student) via delivery of content (by the teacher) that we call lecture is not the most ideal way to engage students with instruction, as it’s already been said, why is that okay by video instead of by a live person?

It shouldn’t be.

But as it comes up in a lot of the discussion on flipping, the Khan Academy is a website that has a lot of lecture-y videos on how to do math problems (and now other things). But I’m a fan of the site. Their practice problems and feedback for teachers can provide some nice formative assessment data on a student’s progress in math. The access to the lecture knowledge is nice for “when it’s needed” situations. That said, it may not be the best way for all students to learn. Some may do better with a different type of presentation by video, and others may learn better through reading about the information, or having a discussion with someone living and breathing. In general, however, that video library (or any library a teacher wants to create themselves) is an opportunity to painlessly and perhaps even more efficiently explain a concept with different perspectives when a student or the adaptive software thinks it is appropriate. More research is needed, of course.

Watching videos of how someone else is re-telling about their discovery of knowledge flies in the face of what Wright said that I think is so valuable, so golden. Who owns that knowledge, who will own the learning?

Let me give you another idea about how video can help us teach math. This matrix of videos are a collection of “three-act math tasks” designed from an inquiry-based, constructivist mindset about learning. These videos give context to math, challenging students through scaffolds on how to think about problems, that in least in some cases, are kind of interesting.

The problem with teaching this way is that it takes time if it’s new for the teacher. The teacher’s role changes. But looking at least a few of these examples might convince you that videos for math (or any other topic) aren’t necessarily bad at all. But these videos aren’t the ones we’d assign for homework watching, either. They provide visual and authentic evidence and get us thinking about how math can be used to provide evidence about what we’re observing, how math can help us answer somewhat interesting questions, and be applied in understanding the real world.

To start, we have to get beyond thinking about some test where problems will appear later in the year.


Flipping the classroom is a teaching paradigm that re-defines the role of homework for students. Instead of using that out-of-class time to practice tasks, a teacher designs that use of time for listening to a presentation of information. Evidence suggests that some students find these types of videos engaging, but others do not.

At its best, the re-distribution of time and sequence of learning activities might provide the opportunity for more guided and independent practice in the classroom. In addition, in lieu of this practice, flipping may provide the opportunity for more social forms of learning that include inquiry and problems that put the onus of knowledge acquisition on the student independently or within a learning group.

Critics of flipping the classroom point to lecture by video as a stale and less effective method for teaching content, including our example, math. That’s not to say that first forays into a new teaching paradigm can’t be exciting and “different” for students to attract positive outcomes. Some critics point to the ethical practice of assigning a “second duty” of work to students through homework. That debate will likely persist.

Common sense suggests that a variety of approaches can be tried by teachers to assess how these methods help or hinder students. At least in one case, a teacher who had the freedom to “flip” for her students later changed her mind and adopted a constructivist-based approach to learning mathematics instead of the flipping model. That is not to say that watching videos is bad. Changing class-time activities that eschew the lecture in favor of active participation by students seems to have been the general idea behind flipping. But everyone is not giving students a real alternative to lectures.

This October, 2013 story recounts the intricacies in trying to come to a firm conclusion on flipping. And part of that debate is centered on where it’s happening: K-12 or the college course.

For us in the public schools with younger students, I think there some things to consider if you are considering the flip:

  1. What’s your (or your school’s) philosophy on homework? With flipping, homework time becomes more critical than ever.
  2. What’s the aim for flipping? If it’s more time to interact with your students (in lieu of talking at them) or to get them talking with one another, that may be a good thing.
  3. Can providing your students with a library of videos for self-help allow for more independent and individualized learning?
  4. Can asking students to produce their own videos provide for more personalized learning?
  5. What’s your stance on deeper learning and what do you do to get there? Flipping or not, if you’re not providing students the opportunities to learn through inquiry and by making mistakes and learning from them, we might consider a fresher paradigm for instruction that forces students to think critically. I am not sure that’s bad for homework, but you’ll find that the need for lecture has gone out the window.