Flipping classrooms – silly name for a good idea?

Traditional training is based on the model where an expert trainer stands at the front and tells people stuff.

This is known as “the sage on the stage” model, or, as Brazilian Philosopher and educator Paulo Freire calls it: the Banking Concept:

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.

(Source: The Banking Concept of Education by Paulo Freire)

To put it another way, an active all-knowing speaker educates groups of passive ignorant listeners.

Freire’s conclusion is that this approach doesn’t work because …

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

This conclusion is kind of what the stupidly-named “flipped classroom” idea is about: moving away from the “sage on the stage” approach of shoving facts into passive students’ memories, to a model where the trainer becomes “the guide on the side”, helping active learners to engage socially to enquire, discuss and discover in order to build genuine understanding and deep knowledge.

Learnt taught

Here’s one definition of the poorly-named “flipped classroom”:

The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of the course are reversed

(Source: 7 things you should know about a flipped classroom by Educause Learning Initiative)

When we dig a little deeper into the same article, we discover that what they mean is:

almost any class structure that provides prerecorded lectures followed by in-class exercise

So not just pedagogical, it can also apply to adults (“any class structure”), and not really reversing the lecture and homework elements exactly, it’s about having pre-recorded knowledge transfer followed by in-class collaboration to build understanding.

… an instructer “flips” by replacing lectures with more active forms of student engagement in the classroom

(Source: Can flipped classrooms help students learn by Nancy Lape, Rachel Levy and Darryl Yong)

That’s not what “flips” means, but I will try to reel in the pedantry.

What is a flipped classroom?

It’s about two things, neither of which have anything to do with the word “flip”:

  • The knowledge-transfer bit is taken out the classroom and given separately beforehand (ideally via a video or similar)
  • The classroom is used to reinforce the learning through exercises and social interaction (what Salman Khan calls “discovery camp“)

This was how my first degree course was constructed:

  1. Attend a lecture
  2. Read the source material
  3. Attend a seminar to discuss it all

Same principle.

It didn’t work so well because the two methods used to transfer the knowledge were boring and hard work, and step three was often misinterpreted to mean “attend a pub” rather than “attend a seminar”, but the structure was basically the same.

But let’s not be cynical. Whatever else happens to human civilization and the world and stuff, one thing I know for sure: we cannot let the cynics win!

The success of the wrongly-named “flipped” model depends on two things:

  1. The pre-course content (builds knowledge) must be accessible, engaging and of high quality
  2. The classroom element (builds understanding) must be about making the most of reflection and the social experience

This makes sense.

I have acquired more knowledge from self-directed use of YouTube and Wikipedia than I did in over twenty years of formal study at school and university.

To paraphrase the great Mark Twain:

My learning has been (and still is) largely separate from my schooling

Or see above for the same sentiment expressed in Venn diagram form.

The intersection between the two circles is when training/teaching was effective.

I don’t like the term “flipped classroom” (not sure if I’ve made that clear), but I reckon it’s about trying to make sure the “stuff I’ve been taught” circle (circle 1) is more effective in driving the circle “stuff I’ve learnt” (circle 2).

Not for any other reason than the whole point of circle 1 is to increase the size of circle 2!

If it doesn’t do that, then it has no reason to exist!

In fact, circle 1 should be mainly a subset of circle 2

More like this:


How do we do this?

We need to look at what’s going in the areas of the circles that don’t intersect.

I would guess – and I would love to do the research on this so I didn’t need to guess – that the non-intersecting elements of each circle are mainly made up of:

Stuff I’ve been taught (circle 1):

  • Stuff I didn’t find interesting and/or relevant
  • Stuff I was told about by a “sage on the stage”

Stuff I’ve learned (circle 2):

  • Stuff I found interesting and/or relevant
  • Stuff I was engaged in
  • Stuff I discovered formally (by my own investigations, in groups, or with “a guide on the side”)
  • Stuff I discovered informally (through experience)

The most effective place is the intersection of the two circles, and the point of the flipped classroom is to grow the intersection by making circle 1 use the methods and motivations in circle 2.

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