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October 2011
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The Potential of the Flipped Classroom

October 8, 2011   

The idea of a ‘flipped” classroom has captured the attention and imagination of many across this nation.  Articles in Wired, The Economist, and USA Today are moving this grass-roots effort, pioneered by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams to the mainstream, with plenty of help from Salman Khan and his funding partner, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation.

 As Aaron posted on his blog this week, I  also have concerns about the term “flipped” being applied across such a broad spectrum of applications in our schools.  Just before reading Aaron’s post, I was pondering the idea that “inside-out” might be a better label for the practice, but even that overlooks the more important aspects that I believe should be in place for this to really have a dramatic impact on student learning.

 Without a doubt, this is one of the most revolutionary uses of technology I have seen in terms of the potential to help students learn. By creating video podcasts of direct instruction and using graphics and multimedia to help explain complex equations and processes, we are providing another means for students to grasp these ideas besides the textbook, which other than their memories from the classroom lecture, would  be all that students could use to help them during traditional homework time, unless they were fortunate enough to have a parent who could step in and help them. There is a wealth of research that proves that multimedia helps students learn.  This, coupled with the fact that students are now “working problems” during class time with peer and teacher support, are a great step forward.

 So, while this piece of what everyone now refers to as the “flipped” classroom does have potential, on its own, to help improve student learning, I think we have to go further in re-imagining what this frees up the classroom time to be used for, and evaluate all of our previous “teach to the middle – everyone on the same page at the same time” practices that the video podcasts allow us to re-think. 

 I keep thinking about what Conrad Wolfram said in his TED talk in which he makes a powerful statement about the teaching of mathematics.  In a nutshell, he says we don’t. We need to stop teaching calculation and start teaching mathematics.  He outlines 4 things that students need to learn to do. These are:


  1.  Posing the Right Questions
  2. Real world math formulation
  3. Computation
  4. Math formulation – real world verification


He asserts that at least 90% of the time students spend in a math class addresses #3 – computation.  His belief is that real transformation can take place through dramatically increased emphasis on 1, 2 & 4.   This makes me further think about learning things in isolation.  With all of this emphasis on working problems, which Wolfram also contends we should let computers do for us (as happens in the real world) students are given very little context for how this computation might be used in a real-world setting to solve real-world problems.  So why not use this new found classroom time to apply math in real world settings? 

 Mathematics is not the only area  that could benefit from opening up class time to students working to solve real-world problems.  English classes could be transformed into writer’s workshops, history classes could become game-based scenarios where students act out, debate and role play their way to understanding, and science classes, much like math classes, could involve students pursuing answers to real-world problems.  Lets give them practice in taking messy, ill-defined problems and work through the task of finding the right mathematical (or other) process to solve it. Lets start thinking outside the box about where this new ‘flipped classroom” approach can take us.