The Flipped Classroom and Its Discontents

A couple of years ago, in a “professional development” (a term I use both loosely and charitably when referring to the role it plays–or doesn’t–in the institution in which I serve) session, a colleague presented a workshop on the concept of the flipped classroom. I confess that my initial reaction was incredulity followed closely by hostility. After all, this person basically confessed (in my view) to turning over direct instruction in his classroom to a series of internet videos. To make matters worse, he presented no research to buttress his assertions about this style of teaching, save a promotional squib featuring a couple of young teachers (or actors playing young teachers) acting like fools as they extolled the virtues of the flipped classroom. I assumed this was the advertisement from the vendor supplying the material;  whatever it was, it was far from the kind of research validation I personally would need to see to consider adopting this method in my own classroom.

More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that during the latest round (over the past couple of weeks) of high-stakes state testing here in New York, while I was proctoring math tests, several students complained that they didn’t understand the material because the flipped classroom didn’t help them to learn it, let alone master it. A couple were particularly disgruntled by their experience with the flipped classroom.

About eighteen months after the presentation I attended on this, while reading Jerome Rekart’s The Cognitive Classroom (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013),  I came upon this passage, which again aroused my skepticism about this method of instruction:

We know that even with intensive daily exposure to video instruction in language, infants fail to maintain phonemic awareness (i.e. ability to differentiate between the sounds that are particular to a specific language) of the learned language, unlike infants who received face-to-face instruction (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003).

Whether such studies have any bearing on older children or adult learning remains to be determined. If similar results are seen with other subjects and age groups, as they have been with the acquisition of English in early childhood, it will seriously squelch the current fervor over ‘flipped classrooms,’ with their reliance of video delivery of lecture material (Sparks, 2011).

The Sparks citation refers to this article, from Education Week, by Sarah D. Sparks. Ms. Sparks ably covers the pros and cons of the flipped classroom approach. Unfortunately, what emerges is a lot of uncertainty about the method in general, and in particular whether it is effective for all students.

As it turns out, there is a plethora of research on the flipped classroom. Even a search on ERIC (Education Research Information Services) limited to peer-reviewed articles with their full text available on that website turns up dozens of articles on the effectiveness of “flipping” a classroom. And a search of the Internet using the term “problems with flipped classrooms” also turns up page after page or articles on flipped classrooms, some of them balanced analyses like this article from Mary Beth Hertz at Edutopia; some are skeptical, as is Robert Talbert’s blog post from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Many, however, are corrosively critical, like this article from Professor Jonathan Rees of Colorado State University.

As both a teacher and a blogger, I really have no horse in this race. Because I serve students who struggle, this method of instruction would be flatly inappropriate for my classroom. What concerns me is the unquestioning acceptance of a pedagogical method that clearly shows mixed results; moreover, I have never much cared for the magpie-like fascination among some teachers and educational administrators for every shiny new thing that comes along. Many of these programmatic curricula are untested, and simply don’t stand up to tried and true instructional methods. But, again, they’re new! They’re shiny! They are–to use a word much beloved by the credulous–innovative!

We owe our students and their parents (the property tax payers who underwrite our salaries, incidentally) better than this. If we want to be treated like professionals, we must actually conduct ourselves as professionals. That means we don’t just uncritically accept every pedagogical fad that comes down the pike. We must review the research, consider methods of application of new pedagogical strategies, and finally and most importantly, consider the needs of our students.

If we fail to do so, there is a nice solid noun to describe what we’re doing: malpractice.

4 responses to “The Flipped Classroom and Its Discontents

  1. Great piece. Video instruction is no substitute for human interaction and transaction.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Seems like a way to make the schools for poor people cheaper to run after the Republicans succeed in economic segregation of schools.

    Liked by 1 person

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