Flipping the Classroom

We’ve written before about the inverted or flipped classroom pedagogy (for example: here, here, and here), and today there is an interesting column on the subject in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Jennifer Ebbeler, a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The column points out that the flipped classroom requires the instructor to find useful PBLactivities for students to do during the time in the classroom that would otherwise be occupied by lectures. This can be a challenge. I’ve tried the Socratic dialogue approach and competitive presentations with some success, but in a large class these methods simply doesn’t work because not all students are equally engaged. Joey in the back row with his backwards baseball cap simply tunes out. The project-based learning that I wrote about in my last post seems ideal for a flipped classroom, but I will need to find a way of preventing students from assuming that they can meet before or after class to get everything done. This means activities that promote collaboration, in other words, activities that function as:

  1. Formative assessment checkpoints — has each student or each group completed stage 1 and stage 2 before moving onto stage 3? What exactly should each stage consist of?
  2. Processes for constructive peer evaluation — is each student contributing effectively to whatever the group has to accomplish in order bring its project to completion?

Where Are The Lantern Slides?

Second post in a series about presentations . . .

I attended (ok, participated in) a conference in another discipline in which presenters traditionally read excerpts of their papers — verbatim. I find the practice odd for a few reasons. First, few people are talented enough at reading scripts to be able to hold an audience’s attention for more than 30 seconds. Second, if we are practitioners of the flipped classroom pedagogy in which students first encounter content outside of class, then reciting a text that no one has previously read doesn’t make much sense. Time and money is better spent on more complex cognitive activities.

Mark Twain's TourWhy does this conference panel format still exist? It’s likely that untenured instructors and graduate students regard these conference presentations as de facto requirements for hiring, tenure, and promotion. Disciplinary professional associations and hotel chains are only happy to encourage this belief. When panel sessions consistently attract audiences that are smaller in size than the panels themselves, it suggests that  conference attendees simply want to add more lines to their respective curriculum vitaes. And if that’s the case, there’s little incentive for them to care much about content or delivery of their presentations, as long as they get to present.

Board Shorts

This semester I’m teaching in a classroom where, as happens all to often, the wall-mounted projection screen, when pulled down, obscures most of the white board that I’m supposed to write on. I’m left with perhaps two square meters of writing space. For several weeks I was frustrated with the mis-design of the classroom — for this course I  show a lot of images and use a lot of unfamiliar terminology that I write on the board.

One day in class I realized that the lack of writing space could actually serve a useful purpose — instead of erasing the board to fill it up with more writing as I talked, I could use a it as a signal that it was time to take a break from lecturing. I began timing myself by watching the clock on the opposite wall, and sure enough, filling that space with notes took me about ten minutes, the same as the typical attention span of  undergraduates. It was my cue to interrupt the lecture by posing a question or two to the students and engaging them in a conversation.

I Got My Flippy Floppies….

Heard of the “Flipped Classroom” yet? The zany notion that students should engage the materials outside class, and then work through the concepts with one another and with the instructor during the class period?  It’s got all the educators talking in the K-12 category. In its most specific application, instructors are intended to record their best lectures for the students to view at home, and then work through their questions and answers when they arrive in the classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education did a piece on it last year. (I would link to it but you must have a subscription to view the content. Go here instead.)

The jargon is hot stuff…. the concept however….. is fuzzier than a first class Angora rabbit.



The “flipped” craze rhymes quite strongly with all those concepts espoused under the notion of active learning techniques: peer instruction, kinesthetic and highly social classrooms, active interaction instead of passive reception, problem-based learning, inverted classrooms, student-led inquiry….etc…etc…. In short, it no-more points to a specific technique than the words “active learning” and if that’s what it takes to get buy-in from instructors then have at it!

Flipping ain’t flippin’ new! It just isn’t…. BUT!!!!

It gave me an idea….
There is potential for true innovation here. Why not flip with already available sources?

Why not make use of the best of the resources offered by the MOOC Community (Massive Open Online Course) from well-established organizations like the Khan Academy and MIT’s Open Courseware system?

I know…. I know….. blasphemy….. allowing some other professor to lecture my topic for me? But consider the benefits….

First, you can flip a course without having to mess about with recording yourself (which is damned awkward anyhow). Second, you can bring all sorts of different lecturers into your course at no cost. Third, this leaves you classtime open to really push on the concepts and ideas.

I would likely eliminate a textbook in lieu of the online lecture. But I would still assign my usual scholarly article snippets with guided reading questions.

My hope is that in roughly the same period of time of preparation my students will have prepared themselves more effectively.

This also allows me to eliminate the lecture portion of my day. (And yes, I still lecture… for about 20 minutes in a 1 hour and 15 minute class)

Stay tuned… I’ll try it out next week and see how it goes.


Is It Better To Fly Blind Or Naked?

This semester I’m teaching a course on globalization; it’s the first time such a course has been offered at my university. I wasn’t too keen on trying to come up with a semester’s worth of lecture notes on the course’s topic over my winter break. So I decided simply not to lecture. No lecture, no lecture prep.

I had heard of the “teach naked” phenomenon whereby instructors avoid use of modern technology in the classroom, but I had never experienced going into a semester completely blind to what might be said in class on any given day. So far it’s been enlightening, scary, and fun, all at the same time.

My initial worry was “how am I going to fill up 75 minutes of class without any formal presentation of previously-organized information?” My basic pedagogical philosophy is read-read-read, write-write-write, so I knew — as I do in all my other courses — that some class time could be occupied with discussion of the reading. But it took quite a leap of faith to stand back and actually explore ideas that come from the readings as part of an extended conversation. I’m noticing that by not lecturing I more frequently get to point out broader implications of what students are saying, and, so far at least, the students are attentive and engaged.

Co-constructing Learning

After last week’s adventure to the West Balkans, I’m back in the UK, finalising my prep (and my paper) for APSA TLC in Long Beach and generally wading through piles of work. But before I leave on another trip, I want to reflect on some of the key lessons that my Balkan trip provided.

The most obvious one at the time was that time management is very difficult, especially when using active learning techniques: the desire for people to explore ‘just one more aspect’ or to ask ‘just one more question’ coupled with the impression that there was a lot of time available (4 days in total) to result in drift.  Fortunately, I had anticipated there might be an issue with material, given my limited knowledge of the group, so I was able to use the flexibility I had built in and still hit my learning objectives, albeit in a rather different way from the one I had initially foreseen.

A second key lesson related to language. The group shared a common mother tongue with the other trainer, and they were learning so that they can use their knowledge to train others in that language, so it made sense that some of the sessions and discussions were in that language (which I do not speak at all: my big breakthrough was that ‘laptop’ is the same in both tongues!), especially as it also sped things up. But a consequence was that it became much harder for me to join up fully my elements with the other trainer and to pick up on things said at a later stage. Even if my non-verbal skills came to the fore and I could guess roughly what was happening, the experience did underline the role that language plays in the classroom. Flipped around, we might well reflect on how non-native speaker students can struggle in comprehension and discussion and the limits that places on learning.

But the main thought that came back again and again was the notion of co-construction. The participants in the training were not specialist trainers and had limited experience; as such, they reminded me of new lecturers.  Their model of training was a hierarchical one, where they transmitted knowledge to others and where they were in complete control of the learning environment.  Thus their questions often related to how to cope when they didn’t know something, or if people didn’t talk (not at all a problem with this group, incidentally), or how precisely they should run a session.

What both trainers tried to communicate was that this was not the only way to approach the matter. Instead, we underlined that learning can also be collaborative, with the trainer/lecturer working with students to build knowledge and understanding together. When someone doesn’t know something, then use that as a spur to see if the group can find solutions together: create learning activities that start from the student, not the lecturer, as a way of privileging and encouraging student voices.  Seen in this way, learning builds on students’ individual experiences and understandings and opens up new avenues of comprehension, rather than trying to close them down. In short, the lecturer/trainer is supporting student learning, rather than teaching students.

The real difficulty is one of control. Co-constructing requires that one accepts that is not in complete control, as it is the students that lead and throw up ideas and frameworks of understanding. It also requires acceptance that there is likely to be more than one way of approaching a subject.

To take an example, I asked this group to split into small groups and design a diagram to help explain to others how the competences of the EU might be understood. I’ve done this several times with students and so I had a pretty good idea of what might happen.  Instead, two of the three groups produced models and approaches completely unlike anything I had seen before, organised on completely legitimate premises, which gave me a real insight into their preoccupations, interests and worldviews.

It’s true to say that I learnt a lot during last week and that is how it should be. If we are to help students become self-aware, self-critical and self-reliant individuals, then we need to accept the legitimacy of their views, even if we can question their evidence base or forms of expression. We should not be trying to produce replicas of ourselves, but allow students to find their own way. Working with them seems to be the best way to do that.