The flipped classroom

Back in the mid1980s I was a trainee teacher at a high school in Rotorua. My associate teacher commented that she didn’t like to give homework much of the time as the students tended to practise things wrong, thus entrenching bad habits away from her watchful gaze. She had  a very good point! Bad habits can easily be developed when practising solving equations, trigonometry, geometry.

Recently the idea of the “flipped classroom” has gained traction, particularly enabled by near universal access to internet technology in some schools or neighbourhoods. When one “flips” the classroom, the students spend their homework time learning content – watching a video or reading notes. Then the classroom time is used for putting skills to practice, interactive activities, group work, problem-solving – all active things that are better with the teacher around. Having a teacher stand at the front of the room and lecture for a large percentage of the time is not effective teaching practice.

I ws surprised at a teaching workshop to find that many of the teachers were not even aware of the concept of “flipping”. To me this is a case for Twitter as a form of professional development. To address this gap, I am writing about the flipped classroom, especially with regard to statistics and mathematics.

There are two important aspects to flipping – what the students do when they are not in class, and what students do when they are in class.

Work away from class

In theory, classroom “flipping” has always been possible. You could set students notes to read or sections of the textbook to study. In some schools and cultures this is successful, though it does presuppose a high level of literacy. Universities expect students to read, though my experience is that they avoid it if possible – unless they are taking Law, which of course means they can’t avoid it.

Technology has changed the landscape for flipping. With ready access to the internet it is feasible for video and other work to be set remotely for students. Sometimes teachers prepare the material themselves, and sometimes they may specify a YouTube video or similar to watch. This is not as easy as it may sound. As you can see from my critique of videos about confidence intervals, there is a lot of dross from which to extract the gold. And Khan Academy is no exception.

One big advantage of video over a live lecture, even if the video is merely a talking head, is that the student can control the pace and repeat parts that aren’t clear. My experience of lecturing to classes of several hundred students was that the experience was far from personal. I would set the pace to aim at the middle, as I’m sure most do. In later years I put all my lectures into short audio files with accompanying notes. Students could control the pace and repeat parts they didn’t understand. They could stop and think for a bit and do the exercises as I suggested, sometimes using Excel in parallel. They could quickly look through the notes to see if they even needed to listen to the audio. It was much more individualised.

Another advantage was that you can remove errors, stumbles, gaps and tighten up the experience. I’ve found a fifty minute lecture can be reduced to about half the time, in terms of the recording.

Despite this much more individual approach I was still expected to give lectures (that’s what lecturers do isn’t it?) until the Christchurch earthquakes made my mode of delivery expedient and we were able to stop physical lectures. The students could view the delivery of the material without coming to the university. They could then do exercises, also set up on the LMS, with instant feedback.

Work in the classroom

People tend to focus on what happens away from the classroom, when talking about flipped classroom. It is equally important to think hard about what happens in class. Having the teacher and peers there to help when working through problems in mathematics is better than being at a dead-end at home, with no one to help.  But week after week of turning up to class, working on numbered exercises from the textbooks doesn’t sound like much fun.

Taking the content delivery out of the classroom frees up the teacher for all sorts of different activities. It can be a challenge for teachers to change how they think about how to use the time. There are opportunities for more active learning, based on the grounding done on-line. In a mathematics or statistics classroom there is room for creativity and imagination. Debates, group work, competitions, games, looking for errors, peer review and peer-grading are all possibilities. If anyone thinks there is no room for imagination in the teaching of mathematics, they should take a look at the excellent blog by Fawn Nyugen, Finding ways to Nguyen students over.  I wish she had taught my sons. Or me. (Nguyen is pronounced “Win”)

I am currently working with teachers on teaching statistical report-writing. This is something that benefits from peer review and discussion. Students can work separately to write up results, and then read each other’s work. This is done in English and Social Science classes, and language classes. There is much we can learn from teachers in other disciplines.

Potential Problems

Students can also be resistant to change, and some coaching may be needed at the start of the year.

There is a big investment by teachers if they wish to create their own materials. Finding suitable materials on line can take longer than making your own. A team approach could help here, where teachers pool their resources and provide the “at home” resources and links for each other’s classes. I would be cautious not to try to do too much at once in implementing “flipped classroom”. It would probably be wise to start with just one class at a time.

Where internet access is not universal, there needs to be adaptations. It may be that the students can use school resources out of school time. Or students could take the material home on a memory stick.

Special needs

One issue to consider is the students who have special learning needs. In one Twitter discussion it was suggested that the flipped classroom is great because the student can learn the content when they have a helper (parent!) to assist. This is an admirable theory and I might have agreed had I not been on the other side. As a mother of a son with special needs, the thought of homework was often too much for me. The daily battle of life was enough without adding further challenge. In addition my son had been full-on all day and had little capacity for homework even if I had been willing. We need to avoid assuming ideal circumstances.

Try it!

Overall though, in appropriate circumstances, the concept of flipping has a lot going for it. It is always good to try new things.

If you never have a bad lesson or a failed new idea, you aren’t being daring enough!


14 thoughts on “The flipped classroom

  1. This sounds very appealing. The problem that I can see at the university level is that students would have to *buy the textbook*. Oh well yes, the textbook could be made compulsory. Well then the students could either (a) take some other subject or (b) sign up for the class but still not buy the textbook.

      • Me neither actually. But teaching material will need to be prepared to a higher standard if it is to be used in the absence of the author. I say this not to place a road-block to flipping, but to point out that lecturer preparation time in a flipped class will need to be weighted towards the ‘away from class’ learning. My reasons for not using a textbook are similar to those of Luis.

    • I don’t have compulsory textbooks in my courses for two reasons: 1. I haven’t found one that I’m happy with and 2. I remember struggling financially as a student when didn’t have money to buy books. Lecturers can write their own notes, point students to videos, datasets, blog posts, etc.

  2. Wikipedia has sound files. To me it sound like
    [audio src="" /]
    (Which is how I pronounced a contemporary’s surname at University in the late 80’s)
    [audio src="" /]

  3. Pingback: The flipped classroom | Learn and Teach Statist...

    • Hi Jo
      Great question!
      The short answer is no. I am only explaining what it is.
      A slight form of apology follows:
      My PhD touched on the area of School Effectiveness, which made me aware of how monumentally difficult any kind of educational research is. It sounds simple, but isn’t. First you must pass the ethical hurdles – is it ok to give one set of students something, while denying others the opportunity? Then you need to have a reliable measure of “success”. There are many other variables to control for. Totally fraught! David Berliner wrote a wonderful comment entitled “Educational Research:The Hardest Science of All”.
      There may be some evidence out there, but I haven’t seen it yet.

  4. Pingback: How to design a scalable flipped classroom - Criterion Conferences

  5. Pingback: How to design a scalable flipped classroom | Criterion Conferences

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  7. Arithmetic mispronounced? I find it embarrassing to read this criticism of Khan. He’s American.
    That’s how it is said in the States.
    I applaud everyone’s attempts to make helpful videos including Dr. Nic, but I am sure if Dr. Nic’s videos were seen by anywhere near the number of people that have seen Sal Khan’s, Dr. Nic’s would get a lot of negative feedback, too.
    I found this site by trying to find good flipped stats videos. I don’t want to see Khan slagged off. I think Dr. Nic should remove that part of this post.

    • Hi
      I did look for the reference in the post, in case I was unduly harsh, but couldn’t find it. Then I had a further look and found you were referring to a post from 2012 – five years ago. I’m happy to say that Khan has corrected the pronunciation. I am pleased to see this.

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