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Thoughts on the culture of an inverted classroom

May 25, 2011, 8:23 am

I’ve just finished up the spring semester, and with it the second iteration of the inverted classroom MATLAB course. With my upcoming move, it may be a while before I teach another course like this (although my experiments with targeted “flipping” went pretty well), so I am taking special care to unwind and document how things went both this year and last.

I asked the students in this year’s class about their impressions of the inverted classroom — how it’s worked for them, what could be improved, and so on.  The responses fell into one of two camps: Students who were unsure of, or resistant to, the inverted classroom approach at first but eventually came to appreciate its use and get a lot out of the approach (that was about 3/4 of the class), and students who maybe still learned a lot in the class but never bought in to the inverted method. No matter what the group, one thing was a common experience for the students: an initial struggle with the method. This was definitely the case last year as well, although I didn’t document it. Most students found closure to that struggle and began to see the point, and even thrived as a result, while some struggled for the whole semester. (Which, again, is not to say they struggled academically; most of the second group of students had A’s and B’s as final grades.)

So I am asking, What is the nature of that struggle? Why does it happen? How can I best lead students through it if I adopt the inverted classroom method? And, maybe most importantly, does this struggle matter? That is, are students better off as problem solvers and lifelong learners for having come to terms with the flipped classroom approach, or is adopting this approach just making students have to jump yet another unnecessary hurdle, and they’d be just as well off with a traditional approach and therefore no struggle?

I think that the nature of the struggle with the inverted classroom is mainly cultural. I am using the anthropologists’ definition of “culture” when I say that — a culture being a system whereby a group of people assign meaning and value to things.

In particular, the way culture places value on the teacher is radically different between the traditional academic culture experienced by students and the culture that is espoused by the inverted classroom. In the traditional classroom, what makes a “good teacher” is typically that teacher’s ability to lecture in a clear way and give assessments that gauge basic knowledge of the lecture. In other words, the teacher’s value hinges on his or her ability to talk.

In the inverted classroom, by contrast, what makes a “good teacher” is his or her ability to create good materials and then coach the students on the fly as they breeze through some things and get inexplicably hung up on others. In other words, the teacher’s value hinges on his or her ability to listen.

Many students who are in that other 25% who never buy into the inverted classroom think that teachers using this approach are not “real” teachers at all. As one student put it, when they pay a teacher their salary, they expect the teacher to actually teach. What is meant by “teaching” here is an all-important question. Well, on the reverse side, if there were such a thing as a group of students who had only experienced the inverted classroom their entire lives and then entered into a traditional classroom, those students would think they are experiencing the worst teacher in the history of academia. The guy never shuts up! He only talks, talks, talks! We have to fight to get a word in edgewise, we get only brief chances to work on things when he is there, and we’re always booted unceremoniously out of the lecture hall (we used to call them “classrooms”) and left to fend for ourselves on all this difficult homework!

I’m convinced that bridging this cultural gap is what takes up most of the time and effort in an inverted classroom — forget about screencasts!

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