Flipped Classrooms and Learning Theory

Flipping the Classroom and Learning Theory


As far as I know, flipping in its current form was invented by a couple of chemistry teachers in Woodland Park, Colorado, which (aside) I used to drive through to go rock climbing about half of all my weekends in college.  The only other thing Woodland Park was known for was a really good donut shop and high school football.  Basically the teachers made their lectures available online so they could focus on problems and labs during class time.  I first read about it in some teacher weekly magazine.  “How efficient,” I thought.  Why “waste” class time doing something that does not require a classroom or lab space?  When do students need help more—in a lecture or while doing problem sets and labs?  As a physics major in college, the answer for me was very much wholeheartedly the latter.  Click here for a version of the Woodland Park flipping origin story.

Woodland Park, CO, with Pikes Peak.

Flipping the class has gained lots of steam, and is now a widespread practice from college campuses all the way down into elementary schools.  While originally the lecture was the only part of the class available online, now flipped classes have a myriad of resources and content there, too.  This article from the Economist is over a year old now, but highlights some of the basics people should know.  In the example provided, an elementary school in Palo Alto uses the Khan Academy videos for math instruction.

From a learning theory standpoint, flipping has some attractive features and some drawbacks.  In the article they talk about lectures in general:

“But lectures, whether online or in the flesh, play only a limited role in education. Research shows that the human brain accepts new concepts largely through constant recall while interacting socially. This suggests that good teaching must “de-emphasise lecture and emphasise active problem-solving,” says Carl Wieman, a winner of the Nobel prize in physics and an adviser to Barack Obama.”

When they say how the human brain accepts new information, considering this is the Economist, you can be sure they are referring to quantitative research in cognitive theory.  How human brains accept new concepts, however, is not a question that is answered in any definitive way by any of the major learning theories.  That’s why they’re called theories.  It’s nice to think that we’re so far along in the study of learning that we can say that new concepts are learned best with “constant recall while interacting socially,” but there’s still debate.  I don’t even know what “constant recall” even means, but it makes me recall Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In another story, Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, was highlighted on NPR for “seeking to lose the lecture.”  As if this was some great discovery of a physics professor, NPR and others ignored the work of learning theorists.  It turns out, educator researchers have known for ten thousand years (give or take) that lecture, by itself, is not the best teaching method.  But, to get back on track here, watching or listening to a lecture online is not the only teaching method at play in flipping.  The whole point was to spend class time doing something else.  If that doesn’t tell kids that the lecture is less important than the work, I don’t know how else you would send that message.

But that takes us to a more powerful argument brought up about Khan Academy specifically:

“Second, even in [math and science] KhanAcademy implicitly reinforces the “sit-and-get” philosophy of teaching, thinks Frank Noschese, a high-school physics teacher in New York. That is, it still “teaches to the test”, without necessarily engaging pupils more deeply. Worse, says Mr Noschese, KhanAcademy’s deliberate “gamification” of learning—all those cute and addictive “meteorite badges”—may have the “disastrous consequence” of making pupils mechanically repeat lower-level exercises to win awards, rather than formulating questions and applying concepts.”

Gamification, while it may have its own adherents and “originators” (like Mazur and his not lecturing), is based on behaviorist theory.  The main criticisms of behaviorism include the eventual breakdown of reward-seeking behavior and lack of transfer.  Numerous studies have shown that, at some point, you just can’t bribe people to do things any more, even things they originally enjoyed doing.  Putting a badge, or an apple, or (new studies show) a salary  higher than $75k at the end of a task does not promote motivation for improvement.  Once basic needs are met, the main thing that motivates people is purpose.  And when your purpose is to get to the end of a learning module on the Internet…ummm, that’s not as good as helping people in need, or staring at a wall.

This doesn’t take a learning theorist to understand.  When you make learning about something other than learning, like earning a meteorite badge at Khan Academy, or scoring high on a standardized test, you cheapen the experience.  When you add something superficial to incentivize something meaningful, you weaken the whole enterprise.

On another note, I did some qualitative research last spring on a flipped class at a large southeastern university.  (Wonder which one).

I found that for students who were excited about the material, the flipped nature of the class was a huge boon.  The professor had made so many resources available online that psyched students could really get a way deeper understanding of the material than they would have from a traditional lecture-based class.  Another thing was that attendance was about twice as good in the flipped class than the lecture class.  If showing up counts (and Woody Allen has always said it does), then that’s a fantastic result.

But for students who weren’t as motivated, and many were taking the class as a gen-ed requirement, the material online seemed disjointed and hard to keep track of.  As one student told me, “I don’t like all this online stuff, and none of my friends do either.”

All of this may be irrelevant.  (Ha, that’s the understatement of the year).  If researchers find that the results of learning from flipped classes are close to traditional classes and student evaluations don’t change much, we, or our kids, will all be experiencing flipped classrooms.  Cuz they are cheaper.  They can be used as an excuse to have fewer teachers.  People are looking at MOOCs the same way, and I’ll probably need to write about them next.

On a less cynical note, the flipped class reflects our culture better than lecture-based classes.  As the human rights movement has spread across the world and developed over time, people have realized that just cuz someone has a position of authority doesn’t mean they know what’s good for you.  You can say this has gone too far, but the authority of teachers is in the same boat as the president.  Before Nixon, (or so I hear) everyone respected the president.  Now look where we are today.  Since teachers can’t just claim absolute authority, it’s good to set classes up in a way that makes the teacher the learning facilitator, rather than the super-infallible expert.  In a flipped class, students can explore the resources that interest them rather than memorize the content of a lecture that may or may not be 100% accurate.  It may or may not be the best method ever devised to teach and learn, but if it increases the democratic nature of education by increasing learner choice, I’m all for it.

If You Haven’t Read Henry Giroux, You Don’t Know Boo.

Henry Giroux is a sociologist of education that writes mainly about what he (and others) call “critical pedagogy.”  For him, schools are not just neutral deliverers of information to students—they are sites where the cultural values of society are implied and enforced, where students and teachers resist and conform, and where the greatest potential exists to make humanistic reforms for society.  And that’s where critical pedagogy comes in: by examining the structures of society (including schools) and tendencies of cultures, educators can teach in a powerfully emancipatory way.

He has written prolifically, and it’s not like I’ve read a whole lot of his work, but recommend two articles.

The first, Theories of Reproduction and Resistance in the New Sociology of Education: A Critical Analysis, is a tour of contemporary sociology of education from the perspective of class, race and gender.  It reviews and explains what some of the most important educational critics are saying about how schools reproduce the status quo and how students and teachers can break out of that mold.  Written in 1983, the authors he reviews are a who’s who of the canon of sociology of education and cultural studies: Apple, Bordieu, Gramsci, Althusser, and many more.  While much of Giroux’s work is nearly impenetrable due to vocabulary and a sense of hurry, this essay is measured and accessible, if long.  He explains the theories so well, I dare say you don’t even need to bother reading the original work (GASP, I take it back, we should all read everything by everyone).

Touching on topics like the hidden curriculum, symbolic violence, ideology, hegemony, in the framework of reproduction and resistance, Giroux lays out strengths and weaknesses of each theory, and in the end presents an alternative theory that relies on the agency of individuals.  While it was abstract in 1983, he went on to describe his theory and what it would look like in practice in many of his other articles.  In Doing Cultural Studies: Youth and the Challenge of Pedagogy, he offers a model for teachers on how they might teach in the way he described in the 1983 article.  He describes the importance of teachers and suggests they take on the role of public intellectuals.  The model describes how teachers can use popular movies in their classrooms to challenge the messages and stories presented by dominant media.  This is critical pedagogy in action.

So read some Henry Giroux!  He presents a real challenge to teachers in today’s schools to be transformative educators.

NYTimes Education highlights

Educators of all levels and stripes should keep up with the NYTimes education page.  While they do not have much on rural education, what do you expect from a paper based in NYC?

There were three recent articles that deal with race and disparities in schooling.

Bussing in Boston:  A powerful example of white flight, Boston city schools are only 13% white, down from 72% in 1967, which was before a judge order to desegregate.  Now they have students who live on the same block who go to different schools.  It’s very difficult to build community support for a school if the community members don’t attend it.  But kids who are happy where they are don’t want to be forced to go elsewhere.  The problem, they say, is that they need more higher quality schools.  My idea: bus some of the private school teachers in to the city! :)

The 30-Million Word Gap and NYC race disparity: I first heard of the 30-Million word gap in a This American Life episode called “Going Big.”  A famous study by Hart and Risely found a huge difference between the number of words kids hear depending on whether or not their parents are working class or wealthy.  NYC uses a standardized test to determine who can go to the best high schools, and despite the city’s assurances that the tests are objective, the number of African-American and Latino students admitted to top high schools is tiny.  Test advocates have been saying the same thing for years, but unbiased scientific instruments they are not.  This article points to the essential unfairness of the tests.

[Wealthy] Parents Pitch in: In Austin, an architect worked to build an outdoor classroom for his kids’ school.  Nice work, if you can get it done for you.  I hope, as does the principal of the lucky school, that it will serve as a model for other schools, not just in Texas, but around the country.  A local architect in Knoxville is working on a similar idea for Pond Gap.

There was one article on the ultimate teaching strategy: Problem Based Learning (PBL).  This is the way education should be done.  Period.  Find the problems that kids are motivated to tackle and guide them towards a related goal.

Technology integration is a pretty key part of PBL when it comes to sharing the results of a project, as you can see in the article.  Another trend in technology is the digital humanities.  This article introduces the idea and briefly discusses some examples.  One is Giza 3d.  Check it out!

And finally a short report on some educational psychology research.  People are constantly putting old news in the news.  Children behave like scientists?  Not a surprise.  Baby Einstein is worthless?  Say it ain’t so.  Children learn through play and experimentation?  We’ve been all over that since I don’t even know when.  Can we credit Rousseau with that idea?  If we narrow our discussion to the history of educational psychology we can say Piaget and Vygotsky both advocated play.

What’s left out of this article is an important idea: as children “behave like scientists,” there’s one thing they are not doing: separating the knowers (themselves) from the known.  Scientists (and the psychologist who wrote the study) constantly project their worldview on to toddlers, but children create meaning through context and connections.  They learn from their world and about it, whereas scientists focus almost exclusively on the latter.  Youngsters are not yet subject to Plato’s cave, Descartes’ mind-body split, or the reductionist bias ubiquitous in our culture.


Time to Get Relevant

Has anyone done a dissertation on how many people read dissertations?  Can academics make their work relevant to large numbers of people and still manage to do a unique study?  How about this one:

Woody Guthrie and John Dewey: Pedagogy of the expressed?

There’s a movement in some graduate schools to make academic work more relevant.  At the Harvard Graduate School of Education, earlier this year they did an event called “Hack the Dissertation” in which they examined ways to make dissertations more relevant.  Check out their collaborative site here.  They have a manifesto, videos, and links to many, many more ideas.