Why Flipped Learning Is Still Going Strong 10 Years Later

Flipped Classroom

Why Flipped Learning Is Still Going Strong 10 Years Later

By Stephen Noonoo     Oct 3, 2017

Why Flipped Learning Is Still Going Strong 10 Years Later

Ten years ago two Colorado chemistry teachers unleashed a brash concept on a K-12 landscape where few questioned the age-old formula of lecture, homework, assess, repeat. It was the early days of YouTube (then two-years old), and it was getting cheap and easy to make and post videos, so the two teachers—Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams—proposed shifting lectures to videos students would watch at home, and asking students to come to class prepared to problem solve with their peers. It became know as the flipped classroom—a modern, video-based version of a model pioneered by a handful of higher ed professors during the 1990s.

A few years later, the concept lit up like rocket fuel thanks in part to the catchy name, along with fast-growing home internet connectivity and a shout-out in Sal Khan’s popular TED Talk. Or maybe it stemmed from the fact that anyone could get the gist of the teaching idea in the time it takes to rattle off a sound bite. “It’s a simple model,” says Bergmann. “Simple designs work well, and simplicity makes things happen.”

Whatever the cause, it was a hit with teachers everywhere. By 2008 it had its own conference, FlipCon (which closed domestically, but not internationally, in 2016). A New York Times headline went so far as to call it a “ Death Knell for the Lecture,” while other mainstream media outlets scrambled to cover the craze. Detractors predictably sprang up to call it an online video fad. And Bergmann, Sams and Khan turned it into a bonafide career path.

What was less certain then was that flipped would still be going strong a decade after those first bite-sized chemistry lectures appeared online, and that it would spawn a global movement, picking up devotees in dozens of countries around the world, or that edtech companies from EDpuzzle to PlayPosit and Schoology would still be making money off it long after that first news cycle came and went.

Of course, the flipped movement still has its critics. It can mean more work for students and teachers alike, it disadvantages students without strong home internet access and it’s all too easy for teachers to get it wrong, isolating students even further. “A kid who does not do their homework normally will not watch the lectures at home even if you hold them accountable,” educator Chris Aviles has written in a screed against the model’s hype.

But notably, a cohesive opposition movement has failed to materialize, in part because research on its impact in the classroom has generally been positive (or at least neutral). Perhaps also because as flipped learning has evolved, it has adopted much more of an open-ended definition. It has become hard to pin down as it finally begins to shake off the stigma of an online video fad.

“When you ask people what the flipped classroom is, they automatically go to the videos,” says Ryan Hull, a Kansas middle school teacher who has been flipping his social studies classes for the past six years. “I know that making a video is probably the most intimidating part for most people. But you’ll find the vast majority of my time now is dedicated to figuring out what in the world I’m going to do in a class period where I used to talk for 35 minutes.”

The promise of more time for active learning is key to the flipped appeal, its fans say. Equally important, the approach offers a readymade solution to a universal problem: In the information age, how do you teach students to think for themselves when so many answers are just a Google search away?

“We feel that everything is changing,” says Sigrún Svafa Ólafsdóttir, a Danish-language teacher in Iceland who has traveled across Europe as a flipped-learning trainer. “I could be babbling about something trying to convince you to listen to me, but if you need this information you could just look it up. We have to do something about that, and it’s really a global issue.”

Flipped OS

Early this decade there was perhaps no one person—not even Bergmann or Sams—more associated with flipping the classroom than Sal Khan, due in no small part to the more than 140 million views his Khan Academy videos had racked up by 2012. But to hear Khan tell it, that association was little more than a coincidence of timing. Namely, his videos were approaching critical mass just around the same time as flipped learning was coming into its own.

“I kind of fell into this a little bit,” says Khan, in an interview with EdSurge. “Halfway through my TED Talk, I do say ‘flipped,’ but I didn’t even realize there was something called a flipped classroom movement when I said this. Almost by coincidence there was this flipped classroom movement and this meme—and it’s a powerful movement.”

Khan makes no bones about the fact that both he and his nonprofit have benefited from the association. But he says Khan Academy has a “mixed relationship” with the term flipped classroom. “I always put an asterisk by it and I always say, ‘This is kind of just the start,’ he says. “It isn’t strictly about saying homework in class and lecture at home: it’s doing what’s most appropriate in the right place when the student needs it.”

But if Khan was the face of the movement, at least to the outside world, Jon Bergmann has always been its heart. When flipped hit it big, he left the classroom to free up time to travel the world spreading the gospel of flipped (Sigrún Svafa has seen him in Iceland—twice). Along the way he helped found the nonprofit Flipped Learning Network and, more recently, the Flipped Learning Global Initiative, an organization that combines research with a community of practicing flipped learning experts (and a new certification program).

A year and a half ago, Bergmann tasked his researchers with evaluating the flipped-learning movement, looking at both published studies and stories collected from educators over the years. In the end, the researchers came up with a handful of perhaps unsurprising conclusions: flipped learning is constantly evolving, has transformed class time into active learning time, attained a global following and is creating new job opportunities. Through examinations of classroom surveys such as Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up, the Flipped Learning Global Initiative estimates that around 16 percent of U.S. teachers are currently flipping their teaching, and 35 percent would like training on the subject; 46 percent of principals want new teachers who know how to flip a classroom.

But the exercise also determined that flipped learning wasn’t just another teaching strategy competing with other models, such as project- or mastery-based learning, but rather a kind of bait to get instructors interested in broader teaching philosophies. “We’re saying we need a simple way to move from active to passive learning, and the simplest way to do that is via flipped learning,” Bergmann says.

One of Bergmann’s favorite ways of thinking about this broader strategy comes courtesy of one of his research fellows, Robert Talbert, a math professor at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan. “He used a metaphor to describe this,” Bergmann says. “Think of flipped as the operating system of education. All the other active-learning strategies, such as project-based learning, inquiry and mastery learning—those are the apps. Flipped is a framework to make this all work.”

It’s Not About Video—Until It Is

Aaron Sams was one of the original co-founders of the modern flipped-learning movement, and, like Bergmann, he too has crisscrossed the globe giving talks and training teachers. Recently though, he’s taken a step back to pursue a PhD in STEM instruction, and he has begun to explore more general questions of what makes good teaching (as opposed to good flipped teaching).

“I used to talk a lot about the fact that flipping is not about the video, it’s about what you do with your classroom time,” explains Sams. “But the more I think about it, good teaching is about what you do with the classroom time.” Flipping, he says, is a tool to help move the classroom toward active learning, and a better use of face-to-face time. “So I would probably take a few steps back from what I said a few years ago—that it’s not about the video—and say, I think it kind of is.”

Khan suggests that while video-based instruction is inferior to human interaction, it still holds value as part of what he calls “micro-explanation,” whereby students can turn to their teacher’s lectures (or, say, Khan Academy videos) to reinforce concepts during the active-learning process, at the exact moment they’re ready to learn them.

Lecture still exists in a flipped model, but the way professors use it is far different. Once lectures are turned into a series of modular videos, students can consume them as needed. Ryan Hull, the middle school teacher in Kansas, practices what he calls the “in-flip,” where students watch videos in class, “so that when they have questions, I’m here.”

Cara Johnson, a former high school anatomy teacher in Allen, Texas, who now works as an instructional coach, has even seen students whose teachers have not adopted a flipped model approaching their peers in flipped courses to get their videos. “Now it’s just the expectation,” she says of flipped learning at her district. “Students know the power of having that just-in-time instruction.”

Masters of Flip

Teachers who have been flipping their classrooms for a few years tend to follow a similar trajectory.

They might be nervous or skeptical in the beginning, flipping their class unit by unit as they collect enough activities to fill up class time. And at first many students resist. Research has shown that students sometimes have a hard time using passive video effectively, and often need help being more productive during active-learning time. “For students that have figured out the game of high school, it was like I was changing the rules, and that was frustrating for them,” says Johnson about the early days of changing her anatomy class.

“When I switched to mastery learning, I took away the due dates,” Johnson explains. “I said, ‘Look, here’s what I expect you to learn, and here’s everything you need to learn it. Go learn it, but I’m not going to tell you to learn it by this date.’ All of the students took a sigh of relief.”

Mastery- or competency-based learning is one of those fuzzy pedagogical terms that is open to interpretation. Khan calls it a “loaded word” that educators use in different ways. To him, mastery learning is simply not pushing kids ahead when they’re still struggling. “It just means that you have multiple tries to make sure you don’t have debilitating gaps.”

Part of its appeal to flipped educators is that the mastery-based approach carries the Bergmann-Sams seal of approval. Before Bergmann began thinking of the flipped classroom as “the glue that holds it all together,” he and Sams promoted the idea that within a flipped classroom, entire units could be given to students at one time to learn at their own pace. And still, within a mastery-based flipped learning classroom, there would be time to spare for projects, genius hours and Socratic seminars galore.

“Applying the concept of mastery learning to the flipped classroom just makes sense,” says Hull, who like Johnson, has introduced the concept to his middle schoolers. When his students are ready to move on, they must show him they’ve mastered at least three-quarters of the material. At that point, if they want better grades they can always go back to past material they struggled with and try again.

Really, Hull says, he’s pulling from the work of researchers such as Benjamin Bloom, who advocated a mastery approach more than forty years ago. “Education runs in circles,” Hull says. “Mastery learning worked back then, and now we’re coming back to it, and it’s still working.”

Johnson, Hull and even Sigrún Svafa, the Danish teacher, have all run classes that seem positively Montessorian. Hull boasts that on any given day, students in his class can be working on five or six different things. Sigrún Svafa, who teaches adults returning to high school, gives her students an enormous amount of flexibility to work on the areas where they feel weakest during class time. And Johnson is helping with a project in a physics teacher’s classroom where students are spending the entire period figuring out how to create an enormous Mondrian painting from a tiny model.

But the same three teachers have also spent class time giving short lectures on topics they love, teaching students how to be better independent learners and hosting group conversations on topics in the news. The secret to making it all work, they say, has nothing to do with eliminating direct instruction from class. Rather, it lies in the true flexibility that the flipped-classroom provides.

“I say to people, ‘It’s not forbidden to have a good lecture in class,’” Sigrún Svafa says. “That’s really nice sometimes—just to talk about something you love. But if you record all the boring stuff, there’s so much more time for all the amazing stuff.”

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