Three things I learned through teaching a flipped class

December 4, 2012, 4:23 pm

Right after my last post — nearly a month ago — I began to ask myself, Why is it taking so much effort to blog? The answer was readily apparent by looking at my OmniFocus inbox, which was filled with orange-colored “Due Tomorrow” tasks having to do with making screencasts for the flipped transition-to-proofs course. I realized that I could have any two of my sanity, screencasts completed in time to deploy to the class, or regularly-appearing blog posts. I resigned myself to the fact that this semester I was screencasting instead of blogging. But now — it hardly seems possible — the screencasting is done and we’re moving toward exams next week. So it’s time to release the pent-up blog posts.

I have a lot to say about my experience going full-on flipped classroom with the proofs course. I regret that I couldn’t give more of a day-by-day accounting of how the class has gone, because I’ve been approached by a lot of people who are interested. For now, I just wanted to write about the three most significant lessons that I learned by doing the class flipped:

  1. It’s exhausting. I mean that in a good way. I taught both sections of my course back-to-back and every day after the second section was done, I returned to my office completely spent. That’s because we took the lectures out of the class meeting and replaced them with problems, done by students in groups, and my job was to keep the plates spinning. I’d have one group that was struggling just to understand the terminology and use the notation of a problem correctly, while at the same time I’d have another group that would breeze through the problem in 10 minutes. The first group I have to give help that is precisely gauged so as to get them moving without giving away the key concept; the second group I have to invent problems on the fly to keep them occupied. And there were groups in between. For 50 minutes, twice a day three times a week, my job is to be something like an academic air traffic controller, keeping all these students engaged, moving forward, and learning what they needed to learn. Anybody who suggests this is less work than just lecturing for 50 minutes, or even 20 minutes followed by group work, is out to lunch. But this is what learning looks like when it’s really working — you’re using up resources and pushing yourself and those around to places you’ve not been. A good form of exhaustion.
  2. It’s also sort of magical. I never got tired of seeing students come in, having put together a personally-optimal combination of viewing and reading, and work on problems together — screwing up and getting confused at first, but then through a combination of a little help from me and a lot of help from each other, finally figuring out the right proof strategy or coming up with some clever trick in their arguments. Students were learning and it was not because they were listening to me. The flipped class has left me with a profound appreciation of how mysterious human learning is. Our reduction of learning to lectures, note-taking, and homework seems almost offensively simplistic in light of that mystery. I think our students need more of the mystery.
  3. Students are ready to be taught this way. Maybe I just have unusually industrious and adventurous students, but I never had one remotely negative comment from students about how we were doing the class — and they had plenty of opportunities. In fact one student told me that he couldn’t see how this class could be taught in any way other than flipped. I think the flipped structure benefitted students in every conceivable way. It gave them more structured tasks to do outside of class, which helped their time management and cognitive load (especially the few students in my classes who had kids). It gave them time, space, and a social network in class to encounter difficult tasks and complete them. It freed up huge amounts of time outside of class to work on the Proof Portfolio. And I think students get that it benefits them in these ways.

I never told the proofs students this, but when I designed the course over the summer, I actually had two complete courses mapped out — one flipped, the other traditional that paralleled the flipped course. And this was done in such a way that if student complaints about the flipped version ever rose to the level of mutiny, I could activate the “kill switch” and revert the whole course back to an un-flipped form. I remember well the last time I taught a fully-flipped class and ended up getting wave upon wave of complaints from students, some of whom marched straight to the Dean’s office after the second week demanding that I “teach the class”. But it seems like, either because I’m in a different institution now or because undergraduates have passed some sort of tipping point, student tolerance for lecturing seems to be dropping in favor of teaching methods that actually treat them like adults.

I’ve always felt that, within 5–10 years, we won’t be talking about the “flipped classroom” — we’ll just be talking about the “classroom”. This way of teaching, in other words, will be normative and it will be straight lecturing that will seem odd, out of place, and ineffective. Maybe we’re closer to that point than I first thought.

Like I said, it’s been quite an experience and I hope to be filling in the details here very soon. What do you want to know about what went on?

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