What Are We “Flipping” in the Flipped Classroom?

by Elena Bray Speth, Biology Department

One of the newest trends in instructional design is the “flipped classroom”.  Started in K-12 as a must-do-to-be-current practice, brought to public fame by initiatives like Khan Academy, talked about in pretty much every online forum on education, the flipped classroom approach involves delivering lectures outside of class, mainly through technologies like screencasting, and using class time for collaborative problem solving and other minds-on activities.  As Debie Lohe explained in a recent televised interview (http://fox2now.com/2012/07/25/the-flipped-classroom-at-slu/), interest in this pedagogy is growing at SLU as well.

I am in the midst of piloting my first attempt at “flipping” my own (large) classroom, and of course this experience is spurring a whole lot of reflection and questions. Why am I doing this? What am I actually “flipping”? And, most importantly, does it matter to student learning?

The “why” is easy: I want to free up class time for active learning exercises, but I still want to offer students the synthesis, emphasis and content selection that distinguishes my course from the printed textbook.

“What” am I flipping? Now, that’s a harder question. Let’s say an instructor places all or most lecture materials outside of class, in the form of podcasts, screencasts, worksheets, powerpoint slides, etc. and devotes classroom time entirely to homework-like activities. Students and teacher are still doing the same things as they would in a traditional lecture-based environment, just in a different place and at a different time. A screencast is still a lecture, and an in-class clicker question is still a quiz.

Beyond switching around time and place, something deeper needs to happen in the flipped classroom that makes it a significant learning experience and that might not happen otherwise. Katie Beres’ posts on the Notebook, regarding habits of thought and practice, have given me a great perspective to consider. As I think of myself and my students – each of us bringing to the classroom our own habits of thoughts and habits of practice – I realize that no single flipping action on the instructor’s side can productively happen without a proper counter-action on the learner side. The goal of teaching is to elicit in students responses, behaviors and practices that are likely to result in learning.  And learning happens inside the class and outside, when we study alone in a quiet room and when we collaborate on a group assignment, when we listen to explanations and when we try to explain to others, when we make sense of facts, find meaning, build connections, use what we know to interpret and solve new problems.

The great opportunity within the concept of flipping the classroom is, to me, that of gaining a whole new view of time and space for instruction and learning. Technologies like Tegrity and online course management systems allow us teach, communicate, and assess learning outside of class, in that cyberspace that is such an integral part of students’ daily lives. We have the opportunity and means to select what content and activities are best placed outside of class and what should be explained, processed, applied in class. Clearly, the choice of content and activities is dependent on each discipline. However, instruction, student engagement, learning, and assessment no longer need to be confined to designated times and places. Active, engaged learning both at home and in class seems to be the promise of the “flipped” classroom.

Does it matter to student learning? That is what we need to find out.

Dr. Bray Speth is Assistant Professor of Biology at Saint Louis University. Elena has been active in the CTTL since coming to SLU in 2009. She has participated in reading and working groups related to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and, in spring 2012, received an Innovative Teaching Fellowship in the Center, which allowed her the opportunity to teach in the in the CTTL’s Learning Studio. She has been named the first-ever Mary L. Stephen Faculty Fellow for Scholarly Teaching.

One Response to “What Are We “Flipping” in the Flipped Classroom?”

  1. I think the questions here are exactly the right questions to ask — and they make me think of a piece I read recently by Shelley Wright, on why she “gave up” the flipped model. In her October 8 blog post — The Flip: End of a Love Affair (found at http://plpnetwork.com/2012/10/08/flip-love-affair/) — Wright explains that flipping became, in a sense, irrelevant, once the “flip” gave way to a truly “learner-centered” classroom. She came to feel the flip could easily become a “reversal” of the traditional teaching method, rather than a re-imagining of it. So, in addition to the “what” question you ask, Elena, I might also layer in the question: what might “flipping” lead to…..??