What Is a “Flipped” Classroom? Is Your Kid in One Right Now?!

Getting schooled.
Feb. 19 2014 11:14 AM

The Flipped Classroom

A disruptive revolution in pedagogy, or yet another educational fad?

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However, I teach in discussion-based seminar format—so, since I don’t really lecture anyway, I didn’t bother to YouTube myself pontificating on what “make thick my blood” means. I did put this slideshow online for them, though I worried it lacked intellectual heft. If all a Shakespeare seminar required was spitting out a few biographical facts and some lore about “the Scottish play,” class would be 10 minutes long. A slideshow is but a visual aid to our actually talking—about the reading, about how it fits in with the trajectory of the semester.

But, like the mediocre gymnast I’d been in my youth, I would not be deterred from attempting a flip. After all, what good was a Macbeth discussion if they didn’t actually read carefully? So, for class, I foisted upon them this “problem set,” a worksheet of passage-analysis questions that forced them to regard some passages with depth. (Whether this meant they were rereading the passages carefully, or reading them for the first time, was up to them.) I put them as fully in charge of their own mastery as I could, giving them three formats for class between which they could flit as they saw fit: them working quietly (very boring for me), me walking around to each group and addressing them one-on-one (less boring), and us opening the discussion up to the whole class (hooray!). Everyone handed in their “in-class homework” on their way out the door, and I graded them all that night (boo!).

In my case, the flipped class worked—but not the way you think. Yes, the students did a more thorough job reading Shakespeare than they had with Dante. But we never had a chance to have the kind of discussion for which college was invented: the kind that happens when careful reading gets done at home, so there is time in class for everyone’s ideas to be challenged, everyone’s theories to be pushed and tested. Yes, they read carefully—but the reading itself took up so much of class that I felt their “end point” was still, in some ways, more cursory than a traditional class would have been.

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At the time, students seemed to enjoy the flipped class, although now I suspect this was because I was grading them. Because at the start of this semester (ours is a yearlong course), several asked timidly: “Are we going to have the flipped class again? Because … I didn’t really like it.”

“Only if everyone starts slacking off,” I smirked.

And that, my friends, is how the flipped literature class works for me. As a threat. As a punitive measure. Don’t want to read your Dostoevsky, young man? I will flip this class RIGHT around.

For me, though, the most interesting aspect of the flipped-course fad is that flipping is not that innovative at all. Just like its flashier cousin the MOOC, the flipped model prizes a method of conveying information—the lecture, huge, impersonal, and ever-prone to skipping and slacking—that many professors don’t even like. Why isn’t the solution to replace the massive lecture course with discussion-based seminars? How, instead, is the answer to record the lecture—to make it the length (and intellectual depth) of a TED talk, and even more impersonal?

Do not confuse this skepticism with a Luddite’s cry. Many “traditional” professors, myself included, love discussion boards, wikis, blogs, podcasts, and all manner of digitally assisted pedagogy. But for those of us blessed with smaller classes to begin with, where every “lecture” is different because it involves actually interacting with students, flipping can ring hollow. And indeed, perhaps it is smaller classes, rather than a flashy delivery model, that the edu-trendy should be flipping out about.

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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