Friday, 11 May 2012

Beyond the Flipped Lesson

The argument has been made that the flipped classroom changes the role of the teacher from “a sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side” (The Flipped Class: Myths vs. Reality) but is this really the case? I agree that the teacher’s role during class time resembles the “guide,” as the teacher doesn’t lecture and is free to address the problems of individual students.

However, it is misleading to suggest that the flipped classroom eliminates the teacher’s role as a “sage” because it doesn’t. With the flipped classroom, the role of the “sage” is simply transferred to a video.

For example, a typical video from a flipped science or math classroom often involves the presentation of a new topic followed by several sample problems. This approach is identical to what has been done for years in a traditional classroom with the teacher imparting knowledge to students. There are definite advantages to using videos and pushing lectures outside the classroom as it enables self-pacing and frees class time for additional activities.

However, this approach is not a radical shift from traditional teaching and continues to reinforce the traditional role of the student as a passive recipient of information.

A similar argument was adopted by Frank Noschese who examined the limitations of the Khan Academy and stated that progressive education is not about doing things better (i.e. the lecture) but about doing better things. Furthermore, he states that students need to be challenged to solve problems and create their own knowledge both as individuals and in groups … and this is a belief I share.

Personalized learning gives students control of their learning and requires them to be active participants in their education. Passive resources such as videos represent potential obstacles to achieving these goals.

For me, the issue isn’t the flipped classroom - as this is a technique I frequently utilize and will continue to utilize - but how to better engage our students with both our face-to-face time and our electronic resources.

One approach that supports personalized learning and improves student engagement is Problem-Based Learning (PBL), a technique developed in the late 1960s at McMaster University. With this approach, students and student groups are given a problem and required to synthesize a solution without first being given teacher resources, such as lecture notes or instructions.

Learning through this self-directed, cooperative approach is a process involving building on prior knowledge, problem solving, using critical thinking approaches and reflecting. This approach can be used to improve face-to-face activities, electronic resources and the flipped classroom.

A valid argument in favour of the video and flipped classroom is that it frees class time to engage students and promote higher order thinking. This is indeed one of the greatest strengths of the flipped classroom.

However, we need to examine the type of activities that are replacing the lecture. Speaking from my experience as a science teacher, many essential science activities could be improved by a shift in focus. For example, most labs found in textbooks are written like recipes and can be conducted with little understanding of the concepts being investigated.

Lab activities can be greatly improved if students are only given the purpose for the experiment and it is their responsibility to develop the procedure. A good approach to procedure design is to use a co-operative learning structure called a Clue Design Lab. With this structure, students are required to develop the procedure - but are allowed to request clues if they reach an impasse. With a little thought, most face-to-face activities and concepts can be presented using PBL.

Electronic resources can also adopt a PBL approach. Simulations are a great complement to a video and many simulations are freely available (as an example take a look those available from PhET). Instead of directly presenting the theory to students, simulations enable students to develop an understanding of underlying principles by solving a series of guided questions and tasks. The big difference with this approach is that the instruction starts with a problem, rather than ending with a problem.

While the flipped classroom is a technique that has improved my teaching, it does not inherently promote higher order thinking or student engagement. In order for flipped lessons to be effective, videos need to be utilized carefully. The role of the video should be similar to that of a textbook and act as a reference supporting the more important course activities that are conducted both online and in the classroom.

Kyle Acres
Science Teacher

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