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.

2 thoughts on “Flipped Classrooms and Learning Theory

  1. Good point on the relationship between motivation and success/satisfaction with flipped courses.

    One point that I rarely see discussed is that the majority of the subject areas and courses in media reports about flipping and blended courses are in the sciences, from the elementary grades up to the postgraduate/professional. (Even in reporting about the Khan Academy, the examples given are nearly always from the math and physics videos.) Is there something inherently incompatible between flipped formats and the humanities and social sciences? Or is this more of a simple result of the history of flipping, which appears to have originated in science classrooms? This becomes an important issue as flipping/blending gains greater prominence, and there are some potentially serious implications for best practice.

  2. Excellent coverage of flipping, Brian (and I’m sure glad to learn of its origins and that it didn’t begin at IHOP! :o). I also appreciate your thoughts on badges. Motivation is such a difficult facet of education. I think social learning theory offers some excellent motivational applications for all three pedagogical approaches. Would love to hear your thoughts on that, as well.

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