Flipping, active learning and the post-truth era

Challenging your view of chemists…

I really like doing L&T work, in part because I get to meet people I’d never otherwise would.

One of those is Simon Lancaster, a Professor of Chemical Education at UEA and a big L&T champion. We crossed paths a while back, discussing new teaching materials and his feed is great for both practical tips and more abstract reflection on what we do in classes.

Yesterday, Simon was tweeting about a conference that was coming up, when he posted this:

When I reposted this to our ALPSBlog feed, he added:

Much as I love debating on Twitter, I thought this was worth expanding on here first, especially since it touches on several debates that have graced these pages over the years.

First comment has to be that there are several things going on here and we need to separate them out.

Simon’s right to point out that flipping and active learning don’t have to go together: the former simply argues that the most valuable part of teaching time is face-to-face contact, so that should be used for unpacking queries and problems, rather than transmission of knowledge. In its most prosaic form – indeed, the form that I’ve seen it used in pretty much every case – this means lectures get circulated online before class, and then class is used to answer questions. That’s not really active learning, except in the most generous of definitions.

But that’s all different from the two other things present in the mix.

Flipping is indeed a hard sell and always has been. From the student’s perspective, it looks like the teacher is somehow taking things easy. Instead of delivering content there and then, having to deal with my question on the hoof, they get to make a little package to record, then just put their feet up (metaphorically) in class-time, because no-one has that many questions, right? Plus, it means I now have to go to class and watch a stupid video too; and that class will be just all the dumb kids asking dumb-ass questions.

The difficulty is that much of our perceived benefit in using flipping comes from experience of other models: we’ve seen that flipping is much more efficient and effective in transmitting and then checking reception and understanding of knowledge.

Students are almost by definition less experienced than we are, because they are earlier in their pedagogic journey. Indeed, partly because they haven’t seen so much, and partly because we don’t ask our students to reflect on their learning environments, students make comparisons of elements of what they do (i.e. what happens in class-time) in which the obviousness of traditional models seems strong: “you want me to know stuff, so you just tell it to me – simple”.

This invites two obvious responses. Firstly, we need to be talking to students about why we do things the way we do. Secondly, maybe we just need to stop doing things in a sub-optimal way. That might mean a wholesale adoption of flipping – something that looks a bit less daunting when you consider the lecture-capture agenda.

And this leads us into the final aspect of Simon’s post: post-truth.

Personally, I am dubious about how far this specific agenda has gone, although it is certainly the case that there have been broader shifts that question authority, fail to distinguish quality of sources and generally encourage cynicism.

However, those are all things that higher education is well-placed to deal with. Each of us, in our disciplines, has a set of basic epistemological and ontological tools that very precisely address these questions. Indeed, Simon’s background provides a handy illustration, since he works in a field with a positivist approach where things ‘are’, whether on not we like them: reactions between chemicals take place regardless of our views on them.

By contrast, politics works on a much more varied terrain. Personally, I doubt the existence of an objective ‘truth’ underpinning political actions or my ability to even witness all of what those actions might consist. However, I do hold that while multiple interpretations can be ‘correct’, they do need substantiation.

In that sense, we’ve been dealing with ‘post-truth’ since forever in politics: you’re entitled to your opinions, but we’re going to be testing them against the evidence we have.

One upshot of this is that I’m always happy to say that there is no one right pedagogic approach: different methods do different things and what works in one context might not work elsewhere. When I do talk with my students about our classes, I’m always interested to get their take on what should and shouldn’t be happening, but then I’ll discuss it with them and try to make sure that both them and I have understood the other’s ideas and logic.

Active learning continues to emerge as practice and we are going to find it hard going at times, precisely because there will not be any one path. Students need to be part of helping make this happen and the most profitable way of doing that is by making them genuine stakeholders in the process. That means bringing them in at the curriculum design stage, talking with throughout the delivery phase about running adjustments and debriefing afterwards.

If post-truth has taught us anything, then it’s that passionate commitment counts for a lot. We’re passionate about making L&T work better, so let’s use that together all the other academic values we hold, to effect change.

3 thoughts on “Flipping, active learning and the post-truth era

  1. Simon, delighted to see your blog. I think there is a critical ‘don’t’ missing from the 3rd paragraph?
    I have elaborated on the consequences of post-truth and impinging of academic reality upon our learning aspirations a couple of times https://lancaster.withknown.com/2016/what-does-brexit-and-electionday-tell-us-about-education https://lancaster.withknown.com/2016/disconnected
    I’d go along with essentially everything you say. I have two personae, the cynical Director of Learning and Teaching and the naive pedagogical evangelist and Twitter reflects their conflict.

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