The Flipped Classroom

I teach because I search, because I question, and because I submit myself to questioning”. ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

Silvia "flying" from a risk in the coast of Victoria, BC
Silvia “flying” from a risk in the coast of Victoria, BC

What a week!

Last week I finished another PIDP course (that one on enhance media for learning), had my first Lab test on the Botany of Plants and finished acting as a moderator for an online forum on “learning styles” at my other PIDP course…I also presented yet another version of Intro to Permaculture at the local library, canned more peaches and a spirited plum jam and prepared my youngest child for his first day in high school. Oh, and in the meantime, I worked as always, 9-5 (yes, I still have one of those)…no wonder I ended crashing exhausted and dreaming with the little urban farm one day I’ll create…

Here I am again, and my task today is to write about a “trend” I learned from the forums in the last two weeks…a “trend” many of us have been loosely using but that promises to flip the way we teach and add some freedom (and more care) to the already over-criticized but slow changing educational system…

Bear with me as all my posts have Permaculture thinking embedded in them! (this is: systems thinking, ethical thinking and proactive-design oriented thinking)

What is the flipped classroom?

The flipped classroom is preparing lessons in a way where the students will watch previously selected videos, read articles, blogs or book chapters, listen to podcasts and generally “study” before coming to class…

The videos may be pre-selected and curated by the teacher o created by her (recording herself or a process) and the same is applicable to podcasts, blogs, websites, articles or any other material suggested.

The classroom time is then used to apply the already learned topics to case studies, projects, discussions, laboratories and so on. It is also used to clarify terms and processes, detect misunderstandings or difficulties with the material and do one-on-one or small group mentoring when needed.

The benefits are many: quick learners can go over the material at their pace, without the usual “boring” happening during class. Slower learners or those who struggle with the material for any reason can take more time and rewind the videos or re-read…the class time is engaging for all and not a lesson on how to stay awake when you are dying inside.

While I realize that I have been using this many times, it was not in a super-organized way and it made me clash with many of its drawbacks: students don’t read/watch what they were supposed to and this delays the classroom or makes it less engaging, it takes a lot of time to create and organize the material and it may not work well if the instructor doesn’t have a platform (such as Moodle) to run forums, organize links, videos, etc.

I have tried it with my clients, who are all newcomers to Canada: they are provided with links to read, research and videos to watch. They are also provided with questions and some specific topics they would need to research before attending the workshops. 30% of them don’t read the email where this information is shared and 80% don’t do all the things they were suggested…

I also found that my current Permaculture Diploma mentor uses this method: he sends us emails with the list of resources and guiding questions we are supposed to read/watch/reflect on and journal in between classes. Some of us do read and check all the book chapters, links and videos and work on the questions, design and journaling, but there are also many who don’t…

Silvia in an undated picture (Venezuela) with her sixth grade students (now probably in their late twenties)
Silvia in an undated picture (Venezuela) with her sixth grade students (now probably in their late twenties)

Does it work?

I am currently taking a course that may be perceived as the flipped classroom: we go online to study from some slides and the occasional mini-video, do some quizzes and participate in a forum. We are also given a reading guide and are supposed to study from the book. Then we have the lab, where we would apply what we learned by observing plants, fruits, leaves, flowers and (last week) plant cells…

However, many of the students are somewhat frustrated by the lack of interaction with the instructor and other students (online), and the quality of the materials. The instructor is also frustrated with the fact that only four or five students (from a group of around 25) have participated in the forum, with only two posting every week (yes, I’m one of them)…

In all the cases above, I have found two factors affecting the results:

Learners:

Adult learners are expected to be self-directed learners, but the reality is that many aren’t so: it may be the systems (both cultural and the most specific traditional education system) that have shaped them into dependent, passive learners always waiting for the teacher to say what the goals are, where the resources are and how to get there; systems that have created the expectation and assumption that the role of the teacher is “to teach” and their role as students is “to be taught” (whatever that means)…and that means that we are surrounded by people who are quick to complain when the teacher “fails” in his role, but slow to take responsibility for their own lives (by controlling the what, when, how and why they are learning)

It may also be that learners are ill equipped in what should be the most basic learning of them all: learn how to learn (and I’m not referring only to the specific toolkit of meta-cognition and practical strategies, but also to that magical piece inside of some of us that “pushes” us to learn and find ways to deal with the challenges we encounter: motivation).

Or it may be the indisputable fact that people are different: we will probably never have a 100% of self-directed (or, as it is preferred today, self-determined) learners. Gerald Grow (1991) has an interesting table that summarizes the role of the teacher for each different “stage” learners may be: http://www.longleaf.net/ggrow/SSDL/Model.html#Figure1 According to Grow, we teachers (or mentors, counsellors, etc) may apply certain strategies to help the learner to “move from dependent to self-directed, passing through “interested” and “involved”. These strategies go from authority/coaching, motivator and guide, facilitator and ending as consultant and delegator…when we (as teachers) bring expectations that our learners will be all in stage four (self-determined) and “teach” them at that level, we may be creating a lot of stress and de-motivating those who were expecting more structure and authority from us…

Teachers:

Unprepared teachers also post a challenge when trying to implement a flipped classroom model: teachers who fail to create a coherent module, do not set clear guidelines and expectations from day one, do not intervene when they see some students are not engaging with the material, or post inappropriate materials for the lesson they want to “teach” can expect withdrawal, lack of engagement, frustration and complaints.

For a flipped class to be successful, teachers have to:

  • Set clear expectations from before they start the flip
  • Teach students strategies of how to learn (take notes, brain-mapping, etc) or offer mentoring groups when possible
  • Coach those students who seem not fully comfortable and offer alternatives
  • Be clear on what lessons they will flip and what materials need to be created, collected or curated
  • Carefully coordinate the modules of materials with the activities in class
  • Provide ways for students to communicate among them and with the teacher (safe forums, etc)
  • Post short videos or break them into digestible “pieces”
  • Consider not re-inventing the wheel and using videos and materials created by other institutions, individuals, etc
  • Test all the material before posting again for accuracy, broken links, etc.

Technology, material and access:

“Flipping” only works if the technology students have access to the devices and tools that will allow them to watch, listen, read or interact with the materials.

A good teacher needs to make sure that she assesses:

  • Universal access: are all the learners OK with the format? Is there anybody who may not be able to see, read or hear the material presented? Are there enough alternatives for everybody to be included?
  • Social inclusion: are all the students able to access the necessary devices and tools such as Internet, laptops, speakers, etc (from home, from a community centre, school or library)
  • Diversity: are the materials and technologies appropriate for the age and ethnical or cultural background?
  • Literacy: are all the learners OK with the use of the technology or they may need extra help? Is the technology involved going to be a stressor or make them to feel inadequate or embarrassed or is it going to empower them?

Activities in class and follow up:

Many teachers who decide to implement flipped classrooms fail to “match” the two sides of this coin. If we ask learners to read, watch or listen to something on their own time before classroom, they expect that this material not only will match the activities in the class, but that the class will have plenty of time to:

  • Clarify terminology and processes that may be causing trouble
  • Share their findings and feelings with others (more if there is no forum or other way to check with each other between classes)
  • Receive coaching if stuck with a topic or at least guidance of where and how to find help
  • Apply the concepts in meaningful and hands-on projects where the teacher may be able to observe performance and provide guidance and feedback

The most important piece in flipped classrooms, as in any “trend” is to not forget what is the goal of any “teaching”: it is not the transmission of information but the sharing of a passion; it is not the opening of doors but the giving of keys so learners can open them; it is not the implementation of yet another “fad” but the looking at ways for making learning what it should never have stopped to be: an inspiring and ever-lasting looking for understanding of our wonderful world and its many ecosystems and beings, of who we are and how we fit in this world and why we are here

I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
~ Robert Frost

I’ll leave you with this wonderful video of a true teacher:

3 thoughts on “The Flipped Classroom

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