The flipped classroom has it all backwards

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

The one constant in the teaching profession is the regular introduction of new education fads. Whole language, open-area classrooms, and “new math” are a few examples from the past.

Sadly, the lack of hard evidence for these and other fads did little to prevent them from being widely adopted.

Now another education fad, flipped classrooms, is making its way into schools. In flipped classrooms, students watch instructional videos at home and complete their assignments during class time. Advocates claim students in flipped classrooms are more engaged in their learning than students in traditional classrooms. .

Carolyn Durley, a biology teacher in Kelowna, BC, recently appeared on CBC Radio to expound on the alleged benefits of flipped classrooms. Durley first heard about flipped classrooms at a professional development conference two years ago in Colorado and was so excited by this concept that she completely revamped her instructional approach. In her view, the change was beneficial for her students. 

According to Durley, students in the 21st century acquire content knowledge from a variety of sources and may not look to their teachers as experts the same way they did in the past. As a result, Durley believes class time is best used providing one-on-one tutoring to students who can then learn new content at their own pace by watching instructional videos at home. This is a way for teachers be “a guide on the side” and not “a sage on the stage.”

However, Durley’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical about this approach. First, flipped classroom advocates place too little emphasis on the subject matter expertise of teachers. While students can use their computers and smartphones to access content, this does not take away from the ongoing importance of teacher directed instruction during class time. No amount of online reading or video watching can match the effectiveness of a history or science teacher who knows her subject well and can communicate it clearly to students.

Second, flipped classrooms become impractical when used with multiple subjects. A high school student with several teachers using the flipped classroom approach could find himself spending several hours in the evenings watching a variety of instructional videos. This excessive use of screen time becomes even more problematic with young students.

Aside from the testimonials provided by advocates, there is no evidence this approach is any more effective than other instructional methodologies. While there is a great deal of evidence for the effectiveness of direct instruction, a decidedly traditional approach, the same cannot be said for many innovations such as flipped classrooms. Thus, the wholesale adoption of this approach is premature, to say the least.

That being said, there are times when it may make sense to flip the classroom, especially if the videos provide better instruction than the textbooks or teachers. For example, a pilot project in Nova Scotia is currently providing free tablets to approximately 300 grade 7 students. One of the purposes behind these tablets is to enable students to access math videos from the Khan Academy’s website.

These videos will almost certainly have a positive impact on the math skills of these students. Unlike the fuzzy math found in most textbooks and curriculum guides, the Khan Academy videos actually show students the simplest and most efficient way to solve math problems. In fact, all of the standard mathematical algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division feature prominently in these videos. Ironically, Nova Scotia students with the newest technology will learn math the old-fashioned way—and will benefit from the experience.

Of course, all of this could be done without bringing a single tablet into a classroom. Teachers could teach the standard algorithms using textbooks that actually contain proper step-by-step directions. While watching a solid instructional video about a math technique is good, getting the same lesson from a teacher in the classroom who can answer questions at the time she is teaching the subject is even better.

For a small number of teachers, the flipped classroom has a certain amount of appeal. However, it is premature to push for the wholesale adoption of this approach. Better to stick with proven methodologies than chase after the latest fad solely on the basis of a few enthusiastic testimonials.