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Brian weighs in on the flipped classroom

September 8, 2011

In my intro physics class today, I chose to send students back to do their computer exercises. I don’t always send them back, but today I did. For these problems, students had to pick out various x vs. t ; v vs. t; and a vs. t graphs for a free-falling object. They also had to answer some questions about the direction of acceleration of an object on the way up, down, and at the top of the motion. Having students do such things is really the “do problems in class” part of the flipped class model.

In my flipped class, I tell students all the time that’s it’s their job after computer exercises to bring what’s confusing back to the whole class. Not surprising, pretty much everything was confusing, because all they had to go on was a reading and some practice problems. Having students do these readings is the “do lecture at home” part of the flipped class model.

To me, it’s not really about the flipped class. To me, it’s about something entirely different. See, interesting thing happens in my class when students know (1) that I care about what they think, (2) that it’s OK to be wrong, and (3) that class is the place to sort out confusion. The interesting thing isn’t surprising. They start telling you what they think. They start being ok with being wrong. They start demanding that we sort out their confusions in class. They won’t even let me “wash them over” with curriculum. I might try, but they won’t let me.

This has some really amazing benefits. I spend class time talking about and working on problems where students are actually struggling. Today we spent most of our time talking about acceleration–what it means, how it could possibly be the same direction the whole time in free fall, and when and why you would call it positive or negative, and how to solve problems. I also get to rely on students to do a lot of the teaching–they come to insights that they want to share with the whole class. Today, after having drawn some motion maps, a student says: “This must mean that the speed that it leaves your hand is the same speed it has when it comes back down and hits your hand”. Bingo!  They also come up with alternative ways of explaining the same thing. Today, they had three different explanations for why the acceleration of a tossed ball can’t be zero at the top. They discussed conceptual questions. They worked on problems. And we talked as a class about the big ideas and these problems fit within them.

This I think is what the “flipped classroom” is supposed to be about. But I will tell you, the flipped classroom is not what makes this happen. It requires that I make adjustments constantly. It requires that I be constantly assessing students. It requires that I constantly make decisions about whether something a student brings up is a interesting tangent to hold off on, a worthwhile insight to share, a confusion we need to address now, or a confusion that can wait. It requires that I decide whether the questions students are supposed to work through are worth it, now or ever. It requires that I anticipate the difficulties students will most likely have, so that I am not completely improvising. It requires that I constantly probe the “affect-meter”, both for the class as a whole, and for individual students.

Although I am in the habit of mind to do these things, I am not a veteran teacher with years of experience. Somedays, it happens more naturally than others: I may do a good job of anticipating where the struggles will be; my choices to include or abandon problems are good ones; my “in-the-moment” listening and decision-making is both effortless and productive. But other moments, it is a struggle. Things are a little less smooth than they should be. Maybe I didn’t engineer the right variation of the activity or question. Maybe I let the emotion of the room fall flat. Perhaps I didn’t anticipate enough of the difficulties they’d have, and I’m struggling to know what to do next. Those times, it makes class exhausting. For the most part, those days aren’t bad; they are just more exhausting.

I can understand why people are big advocates of flipped classrooms. I am certainly a big fan of using class time to sort out confusion. But that doesn’t happen because students are reading at home. It doesn’t happen because you decide to do problems in your class. It happens when you are constantly doing your own inquiry into your students at the same time they are constantly doing inquiry into the content. It is at the intersection of those two inquiries that something resembling the dreams of the “flipped classroom” are possible.

Flipping your class is not a structural change, where you invert homework and lecture. Flipping the class is a process change where two usually independent inquiries converge into the same space and time.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2011 12:39 am

    It sounds to me you’ve started taking the business of assessment more seriously. That’s always been the struggle in higher education – as the numbers of students we attend to grows, how does one maintain adequate levels of assessment? I first started to feel this in my Junior level course in Physical Chemistry as it grew from 20 students, to 30, then to 40 and eventually as many as 70 students. When a small class, I could assign work and monitor it every other class day – this is a course where completion of a single problem might cover 10 pages of paper. That becomes impossible with a large number of students. I was forced to back off of assessment – they still did the work but I was unable to react to their problems – because there were too many problems.

    And that is still the struggle. It seems to me the same must have occurred in high school classes at some point because when I taught HS (now in the dark ages, ca. 25 years ago) I was spending most of class time doing assessment and responding to holes in learning. Things had not yet “flipped” the first time, away from constant assessment.

    I wonder what caused the change away from active assessment? Does anyone have any ideas about this?

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