Is the flipped classroom new and noteworthy?

Flipped classrooms are often discussed in the context of blended learning. According to one source from post-secondary education, theessence of the flipped class model [is that] students learn the basics on their own, outside of class, so class time can be devoted to a deeper exploration of the content.” Knewton describes a flipped classroom as one in which students watch lectures at home at their own pace, and then “concept engagement” takes place in the classroom with the teacher. The Christensen Institute includes the flipped classroom among its blended learning models, noting that “the primary delivery of content and instruction is online, which differentiates a Flipped Classroom from students who are merely doing homework practice online at night.” But the flipped classroom concept should be used carefully relative to digital learning, because it is not new, nor does it at its core require the use of technology. History teacher Mark Williams, writing at Grant Wiggin’s blog, jokingly describes the history of teaching history:

“Sometime around the middle of the 15th century Johannes Gutenberg developed…a machine that used movable type to print on paper. It was at that moment that the death knell was struck for THE LECTURE. By 1500 some were discussing something called a “flipped classroom” where students were responsible for reading things called “books” that contained the content their teachers wanted students to learn, and classes were devoted to practicing the given discipline through discussions, experimentation, and other forms of teacher-guided student labor.”

Williams is of course being facetious—the lecture persists as a very common form of instruction in both high school and college. But from personal experience I can say that flipped classrooms were being used by at least a few good teachers when I was in high school several decades ago, and they were not uncommon in my small college (although nobody was using the term flipped classroom). The only technology being used in either case was Xerox copy machines. The concepts that define many flipped classrooms aren’t new, nor do they require new technology.

The flipped learning network recognizes these issues and provides a distinction between the flipped classroom and what it calls flipped learning, which is more transformational than the flipped classroom. According to FLN:

“Flipping a class can, but does not necessarily, lead to Flipped Learning. Many teachers may already flip their classes by having students read text outside of class, watch supplemental videos, or solve additional problems, but to engage in Flipped Learning, teachers must incorporate the following four pillars into their practice."

These key elements of flipped learning include:

  • “Educators often physically rearrange their learning spaces to accommodate a lesson or unit, to support either group work or independent study…
  • The Flipped Learning model deliberately shifts instruction to a learner-centered approach,
  • Maximize classroom time in order to adopt methods of student-centered, active learning strategies.
  • While Professional Educators take on less visibly prominent roles in a flipped classroom, they remain the essential ingredient that enables Flipped Learning to occur.”

These distinctions, between the flipped classroom and flipped learning, are important because it’s not uncommon to see flipped classrooms listed as part of a school’s strategy for digital learning. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and the flipped classrooms may well be part of a successful academic strategy for the school. But researchers, policymakers, and other observers require a deep understanding of what is occurring in a school to better inform changes in policy and practice, and flipped classrooms are often incorrectly categorized with pedagogical approaches that are quite different in their use of technology. In addition to the elements described by the FLN, another simple test exists: is the teacher using data generated by student activity out of the classroom to determine what happens during class time? The Christensen Institute’s definition of blended learning mentions the importance of data when it notes that “the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.” Applying that concept to the flipped classroom, and determining if the school or teacher is using data to create the learner-centered approach, is the critical element of flipped learning.

h/t to Stacy Hawthorne for helping to develop some of these ideas in this post.