Graphics: Is the Flipped Classroom really reinventing education?

The concept of a “flipped classroom” emerged in the late 2000s as an alternative (or the beginning of one) to the classical system of teaching where the teacher introduces the content in class and the students practice it at home. Instead, in the flipped classroom, students learn the content at home, and do the “homework” in class. The concept’s creators, two American high school teachers Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, first recorded lectures for students who had missed classes. Soon, however, the lectures became so popular that they decided to substitute all their classroom lectures with online ones, and use classroom time to engage with students individually. This flipped classroom allowed for students to learn at their own pace, enabling them to skip the online videos that they feel like they master, and repeat those on which they are stuck. The model proved a big success: many of the students’ performances improved, better preparing them for jobs that (should) await them, and they seemed to be having more fun than before.

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In a TED talk in 2011, Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, an online education platform whose videos many teachers use to flip their classrooms, was greatly applauded and acclaimed. Bill Gates, who was present, shared his insight that in front of the audience lied “the future of education”. After all, with performances and class enjoyment factors being bolstered by assigning students video-lectures, what else could anyone want from an education?

The concept and practice of the flipped classroom has emerged in a context of other educational innovations, particularly the use of online learning.  Among other examples that rely on video instruction are Coursera and edX, although those are more directed to post-secondary education. However, despite the increasing popularity of the flipped classroom and other current educational innovations, it is not clear whether these are as revolutionary as they may seem. The key question is whether they are just an improvement to the current, traditional system, or whether they actually constitute a stepping-stone towards a truly new approach to education.

Having this pre-conceived notion of what is to be taught, of what is right and wrong within each subject, and of what path education should take is a big problem. In this animated TED talk from 2011, Ken Robinson argues that such assumptions actually kill children’s creativity by standardizing them. Paulo Freire’s critique goes even further, blurring the lines between teaching and learning:

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Paulo Freire

“Authentic education is not carried on by “A” for “B” or by “A” about “B,” but rather by “A” with “B,” mediated by the world—a world which impresses and challenges both parties, giving rise to views or opinions about it. These views, impregnated with anxieties, doubts, hopes, or hopelessness, imply significant themes on the basis of which the program content of education can be built.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 93)

For Freire, every class has to be a collective learning experience, where teachers are only the facilitators, and students’ knowledge of the world around them is explored and expanded without an obsession for certainty or right answers. Therefore, students must play a fundamental role in defining the questions they set out to answer; no two classes would be exactly the same, and every subject, be it math, history, or biology, would be linked to real world issues as experienced by the students.

A more concrete and simple example comes from Dan Meyer’s 2010 TED talk on reforming math education. Meyer points out how the current system limits thinking by posing problems that are very much unlike those we encounter in real life. Solutions to real life challenges may not have data or a formula like the ones given in textbook problems. As a consequence, many students get impatient with irresolution and end up lacking initiative and perseverance. In fact, Meyer’s argument is backed up (in the video) by a quote by Albert Einstein, which says

“The formulation of a problem is often more important than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”

Thus, having in mind this ideal model envisioned by Freire, and in similar ways by Robinson and Meyer, we can then ask whether flipping the classroom represents a step towards or away from this alternative critical model of education. The flipped classroom and online learning, however, are relatively new initiatives, and are still in a constant process of improving themselves and overcoming challenges that arise. Nonetheless, from its basic idea, its potential to really challenge traditional educational models can be questioned.

Firstly, it seems that even in a flipped classroom, the assumption still is that knowledge can be transferred down to students. There is still a heavy weight put on lectures, instruction, and explanation; the only difference is that they are now online. In the classroom, although more time is dedicated to activities, there is no guarantee that these activities are not merely to “practice” the content explained in the video-lectures, rather than to come up with new ideas and to engage critically with them. In fact, the flipped classroom assumes a very clear separation between content and activity, whereas in the critical model proposed by Freire, such separation almost disappears, as the “content” of each class is influenced by the knowledge of the particular students present in the classroom. Once again, for Freire, education is a collective learning experience, where students and educators learn together and new content is brought up and engaged with simultaneously, not in a clearly divided sequence.

Secondly, although it can be said that education becomes personalized in a flipped classroom (each student learns at their own pace and has more one-on-one time with teachers), flipping a classroom may in fact increase standardization. The reason is that the same recorded lectures can be assigned to different classes, different schools, and can be watched for years. Bergmann and Sims recorded their own lectures, but, with many teachers assigning videos from the Khan Academy as homework, there is a high risk of homogenization. With the constant quest for “quality education”, it might be the case that only the “best” video-lectures succeed in what can become a video-lecture market. And quality, in this case, seems to always refer to Ivy League American universities, with little room for institutions that are non-Western or have different styles of teaching.

In conclusion, new educational initiatives like the flipped classroom and online learning have an uncertain future. While technology offers amazing tools to overcome practical problems such as poor test performances, in order for these new initiatives to bring meaningful change, core assumptions about knowledge, teaching, and learning will need to be rethought.

What is the future of the flipped classroom and other similar educational initiatives? Leave your thoughts below.

Allan Spessoto is a Research and Communications Assistant at INESAD.

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For your reference:

Freire, P., 2005. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York; London: Continuum.

Khan, Salman., 2011. Let’s use video to reinvent education. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Meyer, Dan., 2010. Math class needs a makeover. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Rezac, Daniel., 2011. Khan Academy: Great Idea- With One Glaring Hole. Edreach.

Robinson, Ken., 2010. Changing education paradigms. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.


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  1. Karen, that is a great point! Next year the Dialectic and Rhetoric level kids will be using the Literary Study to study the Bible. We often forget the the God of the Universe is tnllieg us the stories He wanted us to hear through the OT he chose the narrative and the style, not just the characters and the setting.



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