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Flipped classrooms: Let’s change the discussion

Since Sal Khan’s 2011 TED Talk, the Khan Academy has been nearly synonymous with “flipped classrooms.” This is because since then, Khan Academy has been promoted by the Gates Foundation as well as major media outlets like CNN and CBS. But, what the media and outsiders (non-educators) fail to recognize is that Khan Academy is “just a tool” and not a methodology or pedagogy on its own. Debates have raged simultaneously in educators’ circles, especially in social media and blogs, about the benefits (or lack thereof) of flipping. Through all of this, the term “flipped classroom” or even “flipping” has been misconstrued and inaccurately represented. Rather than argue about titles or labels, let’s get into the philosophy of flipping.

We need to change the vocabulary. The term “flipped classroom” has an implication of isolated instances or a single mode of instruction … sort of like, “If you do x, y and z, then you have a flipped classroom.” I want to lay out major themes that can be found in all instances of flipping. Flipped learning as an idea encompasses a variety of individual practices that are tailored from class to class, by teachers, to meet the needs of their students. The practices and methods teachers use vary, just as traditional teaching methods vary from class to class. However, there are philosophical parallels between any two classes that promote flipped learning.

  1. Students have a voice. Flipped learning is about reversing the roles in education. The teacher is no longer the center of attention … students are. Class time is spent focusing on their needs, not on the teacher’s schedule. Students are encouraged to make decisions, question, succeed and fail in a supportive, dynamic learning environment. Choice is rampant in flipped learning, and students are given an opportunity to defend their choices as a partner in learning rather than a subordinate.
  2. Teachers improve their craft. Flipped learning does not mean a teacher can relax and sit back while kids work through computer problems or worksheets. It also does not mean that all content is moved to video. Good pedagogy is absolutely essential, and it is the teacher’s job to continue to provide dynamic and varied learning experiences based on observation and assessment. In fact, a teacher’s ability to differentiate and personalize learning in a flipped setting is enhanced; students are given choices on which activities they want to work through and the teacher can help tailor that path to the strengths and weaknesses of each student or group.
  3. Flipping leads to a fundamental redesign of school. When we reverse learning roles and begin to integrate content that is available anywhere and anytime, the role of school begins to take a fundamental shift. Is class time best spent listening to a teacher when students can find the same content on the Web whenever they want it (or need it)? Of course not. The role of school needs to shift from content delivery to supported learning, whatever that may be. Flipping can help make that shift. Content is supplied as a resource in the learning process rather than the starting point. This can take the shape of video in some cases, PBL or inquiry in others. It depends on the class and the learning goals. There is no single method of content delivery, and in fact, should be a mixture of methods to meet the needs of diverse learners.

Too much of the discussion around flipping has been on the technology. Let’s begin to focus on the philosophical decisions teachers and schools need to make to move education forward in a connected world. For me, flipping the learning process was the best way to make that shift, and that’s simply what it is — a tool to push teaching and learning forward. I am continually learning and improving on what has worked in the past to become a better teacher.

There are thousands of teachers across the country making the same decision. But, there are also teachers who are deciding that flipping is not the best thing for their students, and that is totally fine. Flipped learning is not a one-size-fits-all approach nor is it appropriate in every situation.

In the end, the decision to flip or not to flip can be made by only one person: You. Understand that making the decision to flip (or not flip) your class cannot be done whimsically. No decision you make in your approach to teaching should be. You are responsible for serving your students. Your class will need to meet your student’s needs. No one else can do that for you. Flipping is so much more than using video to deliver content. It is a mindset that requires you to totally rethink the way teachers and students interact on a day to day basis. Let’s talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing and continue to learn from one another.

Brian E. Bennett (@bennettscience) is a science teacher living in South Bend, Ind. He has spoken nationally and internationally on flipped learning, most recently speaking at ISTE 2012 in San Diego and as the opening keynote speaker at the 2012 Flipped Learning Conference in Chicago. Bennett writes frequently about flipped learning on his blog, Educator, Learner.