The flipped classroom: six myths

What is the flipped classroom?

According to many in the educational technology business, it’s using online video to deliver lectures to students and personalize the learning process. However, if you read the work of education researchers, the flipped class model is more about promoting active learning in class, in pursuit of higher-level, critical thinking skills. So which is it?

I’d rather not get into the business of erecting fences and proclaiming who is in and who is out. However, it is important to correct misinformation and expose marketing claims masquerading as pedagogical philosophy, so that thoughtful teachers can make wise choices as we plan for the upcoming academic year.

Following are six common misconceptions about the flipped classroom, and my attempts to correct them based on peer-reviewed research and several years’ experience flipping my own classes.

Myth #1: The flipped classroom means video lectures.

One of the common approaches to the flipped classroom involves giving students videos to watch at home so that class time can be focused on more active learning. This is certainly the model being put forward by those whose business is educational technology. However, the reason to flip a class is not the technology used to distribute content. The reason to flip is to bring the more difficult, more important elements of learning into class time: application, collaboration, critique. Video lectures that students watch at home can help free up that class time. But so can a decent textbook.

Myth #2: The flipped classroom requires internet access at home.

Most teachers who make video lectures for their students post them to a streaming video site. However, not all students have access to broadband internet at home, or to a device that can handle streaming video. When our teaching requires at-home access to expensive technology, we run the risk of further disadvantaging students of lower socio-economic status. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot harness the advantages of a flipped class model. As with Myth #1, in many cases a book or a paper handout will suffice for communicating the necessary information to students. But even where video is advantageous (I teach music, so multimedia demonstrations are essential), teachers can burn DVDs or put files on flash drives and SD cards, even iPods, for students to check out. And schools can provide resources in the library or computer lab to ensure that students have the access they need to class materials. The internet is easy, but it’s not the only channel for providing students access to quality educational materials.

Myth #3: The flipped classroom is about personalized learning.

Many educational technology companies point to personalization and “adaptive” (i.e., algorithm-driven) learning as the goal of the flipped classroom. And yes, this is possible. In what some call “Flip 101” or “The Flipped Classroom 1.0,” students have control over the pacing of videos, can pause and rewatch them as needed, and then come to class where they do traditional homework on their own while the teacher circulates throughout the room. Each student may be working on something different at a given time, and each student may receive different guidance from the teacher as they interact one-on-one. For many classes, this already is an advantage over traditional lecture-homework models, since the students are doing the hardest work when the teacher is there to help.

However, many who try “Flip 1.0” soon find themselves thinking, “We could do so much more with class time!” The initial flip, rather than being an end in itself, becomes an opening of a door towards other pedagogical strategies. These may include peer instruction, problem-based learning, constructionist learning, a focus on collaboration — all of which help develop higher-level reasoning and foster deeper, longer-lasting learning. In such a class, there can still be an element of personalization and differentiation in class activities, but the focus of many experienced “flippers” is on deep learning and application. Often collaborative and social strategies lead to deeper learning than completely “personalized” strategies.

Myth #4: The flipped class makes learning more efficient

“Personalized,” “adaptive” learning sounds like a boon for educational efficiency. When students master a concept, they move onto the next one — no waiting for others. When a student struggles with a concept, they stick with it until they get it — lest they move on before they’re ready and subsequent activities become a waste of time. Add a central source of content (Khan Academy, TED-Ed, etc.), and learning becomes a well-oiled, and well-managed, machine. But deep learning is rarely so neat — and the “real world” never is.

Teaching shouldn’t just make the unfamiliar familiar, it should make unfamiliarity familiar. School should prepare students to answer questions that haven’t been answered before, to ask questions that haven’t been asked before, to make sense of the mess of the universe. To do this, school needs to introduce them to the mess and help them learn to navigate it. The flipped classroom frees up class time from the tyranny of the lecture so that teachers and students can learn how to face the mess of the world. How does a scientist formulate a research question and hypothesis? What made Beethoven’s symphonies so striking to their first audiences? How were some of the most hated people in history able to gain so many loyal followers? Done well, the flipped classroom brings these kinds of questions front-and-center in the class. Rather than taking down information (lecture) or doing drilling practice (Flip 101) in class, students work together on these tough questions and the methods they might employ to answer them.

Myth #5: The flipped classroom is a change in technology, not a change in pedagogy.

The flipped class can be a mere change in technology — a new way to get information into students’ brains (or at least their notebooks). But, as I’ve laid out above, the flipped class can be, and should be, far more than that. Questions of technology are secondary, even ancillary, to the change in pedagogy that comes with the flipped class. Content and content delivery are no longer the focus of the class. Rather, students and their work become the focus of the class. That is the flip that matters most. And it can happen without changing any of the technology.

Myth #6: The flipped classroom is one thing.

There are many ways to flip a class. But perhaps central to the flipped class is the freedom that it brings to both teachers and students. So if you’re thinking about flipping your class, or you’re intrigued by the idea, don’t sweat the tech. Think about the goals you have for your students — and the goals your students have for themselves. Then let the textbook (or video) do its work, and devote class time to helping students work through the beautiful mess that sits between them and those goals.

If you want to learn more about flipped pedagogy, join us for a three-week, intensive, online course on the flipped classroom at Digital Pedagogy Lab, beginning July 19.