Monday, April 15, 2013

The Flipped Classroom

I have used a flipped classroom for the past three years, and I'm convinced of its efficacy, but not everyone is, especially not all of my students. Most leave my class fairly enthusiastic about the flipped classroom approach, but not all. I must do better, then, to help them understand it. You'd think this wouldn't be so difficult, as the concept is really rather simple: rather than delivering information locally (usually through classroom lectures) and then practicing it remotely (usually through homework), the flipped classroom delivers information remotely (through online lectures, readings, and exercises) and then practices it locally.

That's the flipped classroom in a nutshell: deliver information remotely, practice it locally. It seems easy, but after 12-15 years of learning in the old, traditional way, many students and teachers are uncomfortable with a flipped classroom.

Still, the movement toward flipped classrooms is growing. A Harvard Magazine article entitled Twilight of the Lecture talks about why Harvard physicist and Dean Eric Mazur has flipped his classroom:
[Mazur] asserts that he is “far more interested in learning than teaching,” and envisions a shift from “teaching” to “helping students learn.” The focus moves away from the lectern and toward the physical and imaginative activity of each student in class. Interactive pedagogy, for example, turns passive, note-taking students into active, de facto teachers who explain their ideas to each other and contend for their points of view. (“The person who learns the most in any classroom,” Mazur declares, “is the teacher.”) Thousands of research studies on learning indicate that “active learning is really at a premium. It’s the most effective thing,” says Terry Aladjem, executive director of the Bok Center and lecturer on social studies. “That means focusing on what students actually do in the classroom, or in some other learning environment. From cognitive science, we hear that learning is a process of moving information from short-term to long-term memory; assessment research has proven that active learning does that best.” Active learners take new information and apply it, rather than merely taking note of it. Firsthand use of new material develops personal ownership. When subject matter connects directly with students’ experiences, projects, and goals, they care more about the material they seek to master.
Mazur, I think, captures the heart of the revolution: shifting focus away from what the teacher knows (or doesn't know) and toward what the student is learning. Now, clearly Mazur knows physics, but that isn't the point of education. His students need to know physics, and like me, Mazur has already proven to himself that standing in front of the class and talking does NOT transfer knowledge to students. It can transfer a bit of information, but not real knowledge. It often doesn't even transfer information. I can tell my classes to do a simple task such as title a document in a particular way, and even write it on the board for them, and way too many still get it wrong. My students are not dense or even inattentive; rather, the lecture process is poor at transferring knowledge from my head to theirs.

So the flipped classroom reverses all of this, turning the focus of the class away from the teacher and toward the student. Unfortunately, lots of students don't like that focus. They prefer to sit anonymously in the back of the room pretending to take notes while the professor rattles on and on. The flipped classroom really messes with that kind of learning strategy.