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?

flipped classroom.
Don't look now, but classrooms everywhere are turning on their heads.

Photo-illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo/Photo by Marcin Balcerzak/iStock/Thinkstock

If you are in college, I don’t mean to alarm you—but you are probably being experimented on. Stop checking for both of your kidneys; it’s not that kind of experiment. But chances are, one or more of you courses is currently being administered upside down, or “flipped.” Everything is backward: The lecture is assigned as homework! The “homework” is completed in class! The sun revolves around the Earth, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

While there is no single model, in order to consider itself flipped, a course has to assign as homework what’s usually administered in person, often the lecture. This frees up classroom time to do what the homework would normally be—usually problem sets, now completed in teams or individually, with the instructor flitting about the flipped classroom, aiding the flummoxed with a flourish.

According to Inside Higher Ed, a recent study by the Campus Computing Project showed that more than two-thirds of U.S. colleges and universities are already, or willing to start, using lecture-capturing software to make lectures available to students at home—the gateway to a large-scale flipocracy. Proponents argue that flipping courses inspires students, gives them more control over their own learning, and frees more class time for meaningful interaction. Opponents bemoan the oversimplification of difficult course material, the technical difficulties, and the extra homework—for students, and for faculty.

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But professors are forever annoyed—often justifiably so—at the possibility of “disrupting” an instructional style that is often the result of years of trial and error. Does flipping work? And if so, what, exactly, were we doing in college for all these hundreds of years?

The idea is so intuitive as to be obvious: Why sit through a lecture in person, if it’s going to be the same for everyone? Why not, instead, view that lecture at home on your own time, and have the instructor actually help you, one-on-one, to do the work she’s assigned? In the math, science, and programming classrooms where the model is popular, as long as the technology cooperates, students seem to appreciate both the interactivity and the individual guidance.

Some humanities professors are also experimenting with flipped classes—but it’s here that the flip threatens to flop. Sure, some subjects naturally take to the flip: In the first-year German courses I have taught, for example, booting grammatical explanations out of class might keep face-to-face instruction dedicated to activities, and thus make class a lot more fun and interesting. But many of the other humanities seem, frankly, unflippable: Literature. History. Philosophy.

The New York Times’ Tina Rosenberg insists that it’s worth it to have “students set their own goals and manage their own time,” while history professor and Slate contributor Jonathan Rees outright flays the very pretense. “Dear Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad,” he tweeted (and, as you can see, it incited a minor war), “When are my students going to do their reading?” And, he continued on his blog, with two-thirds of institutions rubbing their palms together at the cost-savings of digitizing their lectures, what if we all start being forced to flip against our will? Then, “it will become increasingly difficult for those of us who currently teach the way we want to teach to continue doing so.”

Rees might be onto something—first, a recent study out of Harvey Mudd College showed that flipping had little effect on learning outcomes. And also, what about the reading? I assign a lot of it, and if I piled on a 30-minute YouTube of me yapping about the connection between childlike being and the concept of “genius” in Faust, wouldn’t that incite mutiny? And what would constitute a “problem set” about Goethe, anyway?

I decided that rather than just flinch at this fledgling fad, I’d see what all the flap was about. Last semester, a few of my classes started flaunting a little ’tude about doing their work, right during the most flaccid weeks of our 16-week semester. After a hellacious journey through the Inferno—I’d never had students drag ass through the Ninth Circle before!—I decided that for our next text, Macbeth, these kids needed a change. So instead of flunking, I flipped.

One of the objections to the backward model is that it takes oodles of extra time to put lectures online, which often necessitates multiple takes, special equipment, and the mastery of proprietary university software. It also gives a professor the unwelcome feeling she’s creating her own obsolescence via the MOOC vids she’s recording on her own time. No thanks.

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