A little over a year ago I wrote a post about the flipped classroom, why I loved it, and how I used it. I have to admit, the flip wasn’t the same economic and political entity then that it is now. And in some ways, I think that matters.

Here’s the thing. When I recently re-read the post, I didn’t disagree with anything I’d said. Yet my brief love affair with the flip has ended. It simply didn’t produce the tranformative learning experience I knew I wanted for my students .

When I wrote that post, I imagined the flip as a stepping stone to a fully realized inquiry/PBL classroom. And the flip’s gradual disappearance from our learning space hasn’t been a conscious decision: it’s simply a casualty of  our progression from a teacher-centred classroom to a student-centred one.

What is the flip?

The flipped classroom essentially reverses traditional teaching. Instead of lectures occurring in the classroom and assignments being done at home, the opposite occurs. Lectures are viewed at home by students, via videos or podcasts (found online or created by the teacher), and class time is devoted to assignments or projects based on this knowledge. In theory, this sounds terrific.

When I first encountered the flip, it seemed like a viable way to help deal with the large and sometimes burdensome amount of content included in my senior Biology & Chemistry curricula. So many times in the past I had thought what many science teachers must think: “I’d love to do more hands-on activities, but we have to get through the content first.” The flipped classroom might offer a solution.

My flipped experiments

I first encountered the flip in a blog post. At the time, it was a relatively new idea (at least in the K12 world). There weren’t any websites or books devoted to it. And while the particular post I read was actually expounding the virtues of traditional teaching vs. the flip, I thought, “Flipping could actually work.”

My students loved the idea of trying something that very few other students were doing. Some of my students even benefited from watching and re-watching videos. Even so, we used it sparingly. We never moved to an entirely flipped classroom that required my students to watch lecture after lecture, day after day, by video. Even so, when we did “flip,” it felt more like we were juggling the traditional lecture around than moving forward into a new learning paradigm.

We began to shift

As I shifted my classroom from teacher-centred to student-centred, my students began to do lots of their their own research. Sometimes this resulted in them teaching each other. Sometimes they created a project with the knowledge they were acquiring. But the bottom line was that their learning had a purpose that was apparent to them, beyond simply passing the unit exam.

What was my role? I helped them learn to learn. I prompted them to reflect on their thinking and learning, while at the same time I shared my own journey as a learner. I helped them develop skills such as using research tools, finding and evaluating sources, and collaborating with their peers. My goal as a teacher shifted from information-giver and gatekeeper to someone who was determined to work myself out of a job by the time my students graduated.

The flip faded away

As this new way of learning played out over time, my students found they didn’t need me to locate or create videos for them. Instead, they learned how to learn, and they were able to find their own resources. For me, this was a much more important skill than following my directions or using the resources I told them to use.

As this shift occurred, the flip simply disappeared from our classroom. It took almost a year for me to notice it was gone. Instead, our classroom had become a place where students discovered and shared their own resources, while engaging in projects with each other. There was no need for me to assign video homework or create portable lectures. It all happened during class.

Lest anyone think we were able to do this because we learn in a high-tech school, that’s not the case. We weren’t a 1:1 classroom. We used whatever devices my students had, which often was a couple of iPads, a few computers, and student cell phones. There were students who didn’t have a device, so other students shared. We made it work and everyone learned.

The flip is gone for good

While I may not have intentionally removed the flip from my classroom, I would never resurrect it. Here’s why:

1) I dislike the idea of giving my students homework. Really? Yes. Students spend over five hours a day engaged in academic pursuits. I think that is enough. Recently I’ve been reading Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth. He has mined the research on homework thoroughly, and — overwhelmingly — it shows that homework has no long-term impact on academic achievement. That’s likely shocking to some teachers.

But beyond this, I think there’s more to life than being engaged in academics. Students need to participate in a variety of pursuits — sports, music, drama, meaningful jobs — to fully develop all of their talents and discover areas of interest. Furthermore, students need to spend time with their families. What right do I have impinge on this?

2) A lecture by video is still a lecture. This summer I had the opportunity to speak with a superintendent from a division outside of my own. He was curious about the flipped classroom. We were with a group of educators and he asked if anyone present had used it. Since I was the teacher with the most experience with it, I spoke about what it looked like in our classroom. Mostly I talked about inquiry learning and student choice.

At the end, he looked at me and said, “So the videos — did you make your own, or use ones that someone else had made?” My immediate thought was, “you don’t get it.” I was candid: “If you think it’s only about the videos, then you have a really shallow definition of what this could be. The real power is when students take responsibility for their own learning.”

Of course, the reality is that many if not most teachers who opt for the flipped classroom strategy are not pursuing a student-centred approach to teaching and learning. The traditional model of learning is simply being reversed, instead of being reinvented. The lecture (live or on video) is still front and center.

Learning isn’t simply a matter of passively absorbing new information while watching a lecture on video; new knowledge should be actively constructed. When we shifted to a student-centred classroom, my students took control of their learning, and I quit lecturing. I haven’t lectured in almost two years.

3) I want my students to own their learning.  It’s been stated that “At its most basic level, the flipped classroom gives students more control over their educations, allowing them to start and stop or rewind important lectures to focus on key points.”  To me, this isn’t giving students control over their education, although it may be creating new markets for content-oriented videos and related materials.

In our classroom, we sit down with the curriculum, and students actually see what the outcomes and objectives are. We then have a dialogue about what my students’ learning might look like. They have a choice over what order they are going to work on outcomes, how they are going to learn and reach those outcomes, and how they are going to show me what they have learned.

As my students worked with me to invent our own version of student-centred learning, we realized that the three questions every student in our classroom had to answer were: What are you going to learn? How are you going to learn it? How are you going to show me your learning? This became our mantra — our framework for learning.  This is what it means to give students “control over their education.”

4) My students need to be able to find and critically evaluate their own resources.  Consequently, if I’m continuously handing them resources, they are not going to learn this skill. It’s more important for my students to learn to learn than to absorb the content in any video I might make and hand to them, with most of the thinking already done for them.

What did our classroom become instead?

Last year in my Chemistry class, our last unit was on Stoichiometry, which, essentially, is chemistry math.  We had approximately 10 concepts to learn in 8 weeks. Each concept built upon the other, so there was a specific route we had to follow for it to make sense. Beyond that, how we got there was completely open.

I told my students we had 10 concepts to learn in 8 weeks. They could work at their own pace, with whatever resources they chose, but in the end, we all needed to be done in 8 weeks when the semester ended. On the first day we all started in the same place. I had provided a rudimentary outline of the concepts we needed to study on our wiki (which we’d been using all semester to create our own digital textbook). My students chose the resources that helped them learn best. Throughout the 8 weeks, students sent me the ones they considered “best of the best,” and they were added to our online textbook. And it really was “ours.”

What happened over the coming days is that my students fanned out. Some shot ahead because they found the initial concepts quite easy. Others needed to hunker down to really grasp them. My students differentiated their own instruction. They worked at their own pace, since they chose their own resources. They could do extra work at home if they felt it necessary.

I talked to every student every day. I could look at their work, have them articulate their thinking process, and see where they were struggling. I could spend time helping those who really needed it. The thing I find about Chemistry is that many students lack the background knowledge to begin to make the neural connections that are essential for understanding it. Some students experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance, and when they do, we talk about that in the context of their brain development.

To work through the concepts, some chose on-line stoichiometry sites, others preferred pencil and paper, and still others constructed models of their thinking. One student decided to use a traditional textbook. The students who needed to talk through their thinking could do so with their peers or with me.

Essentially, they needed to construct theories as to how stoichiometry works, rather than watching a video and memorizing the equation. As Alfie Kohn states, a learning environment that promotes constructing knowledge “treats students as meaning makers and offers carefully calibrated challenges that help them to develop increasingly sophisticated theories. The point is for them to understand ideas from the inside out.”

That’s how most people learn best, learning things from the inside out, and I don’t think lecture videos promote this.

Was it chaotic?

No. The thing that I didn’t expect was that my students created flexible groups, depending on what they were working on. They found peers who were working on the same concept they were, so that they could help each other. Sometimes they realized who they couldn’t work with on a particular day, and found a different group of peers to work with instead. And to solidify what my students were learning, we engaged in hands-on activities and labs that actually used the Chemistry concepts they were studying.

For the first time, none of my students were left behind. Everyone learned Chemistry. Everyone received credit for the class. And my students became more adept at research, thinking, collaborating, problem solving, and reflecting on their own learning. Everyone finished on time.

It’s not about fads – it’s about ownership

I’ve learned that inquiry & PBL learning can be incredibly powerful in the hands of students. I would never teach any other way again.

When students own their learning, then deep, authentic, transformative things happen in a classroom. It has nothing to do with videos, or homework, or the latest fad in education. It has everything to do with who owns the learning.

For me, the question really is: who owns the learning in your classroom?

About the author
Shelley Wright is a teacher and education blogger living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in Canada. She has taught high school English, science and technology, and currently works as a National Faculty member and PBL consultant for the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). Her passion is social justice and helping her students make the world a better place. She blogs at Wright’s Room. Follow her on Twitter at @wrightsroom.