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What’s different about the inverted classroom?

August 6, 2013, 3:02 pm

5054820405_51aeb16fca_mThis will be my last post for a couple of weeks, since my family is headed out of town on vacation to Tennessee and I am determined to unplug for a few days. On the way back, I’ll be stopping in Columbia, Kentucky to give a day-long workshop on the inverted/flipped classroom for the faculty at Lindsey Wilson College. True to the form of the inverted classroom, I’ve given the faculty a homework assignment to finish before the workshop that includes watching two videos (here and here) and reading two documents (here and here) and then answering some questions. I plan on using their responses to the questions to fill in the details of the framework for the workshop that I am putting into place.

I’m happy to say that the faculty are doing their homework. One of the themes from their responses is something I’ve seen quite often before and it’s something that I want to address, and that is: The flipped classroom doesn’t seem like anything new.

This isn’t a bad, wrong, or pejorative thing to say. It comes mainly from people in the humanities and the sciences who look at the discussion or seminar classes they teach or the lab sections they design and see the flipped classroom in the DNA of what they’ve been doing since forever. And of course there’s a lot that’s correct about this. The inverted classroom has roots in the case-study methods from law and business, and it has strong affinities to lab courses and studio- or seminar-style courses where some of the best learning occurs. So yes, if I’m running a flipped classroom I am going to be riffing heavily on the best teaching practices I see in those styles.

And yet, the inverted classroom is not merely the reinvention of the wheel. There’s something distinctly different about a flipped classroom than just mapping the pedagogies above onto mathematics or whatever I am teaching. Here’s what I think those differences are:

First, the inverted classroom places a lot of intentional structure on the out-of-class experience. We don’t just hand students a book or a PDF or a bunch of videos and say, Read/Watch these and then we’ll discuss them in class. The out-of-class experience for students in a flipped classroom is structured. If you go by my model, then the structure consists of paired lists of learning objectives, meticulously curated or crafted print and video resources, and finely-honed exercises to get the most out of the reading/viewing with the minimal amount of work. It’s not just about getting ready for class – the out-of-class work itself has a purpose to it that exists apart from what happens in class. And that purpose is to take one incremental step towards being a completely self-regulating learner.

This is not to say that existing studio, lab, or seminar courses don’t have this purpose in mind for out-of-class work. In fact I think the best ones do. But I can’t recall ever hearing anyone say that the purpose of the outside reading or pre-lab was to become a better learner – certainly I never heard this when I took these kinds of courses in college. The purpose was to get ready for class, and that’s it.

Second, the inverted classroom has a specific purpose for class time as well, and this purpose seems slightly different than an ordinary studio/lab/seminar course. I think that purpose is to put all students in situations where they have to make a leap in their knowledge – and also to be maximally available when this leap occurs. I know that I want every student in a flipped class session to leave the class meeting feeling like they just had an intellectual adventure: They got some basic knowledge on their own, but then in class they had to do something with it that they really didn’t think they could do – and then they did it, with the help of their friends and their professor. Maybe I’ve watched too many MacGyver episodes and it’s bleeding into my teaching, but I want my classes to work like this. Studio, lab, and seminar courses are fantastic and in the best moments of those courses, students are making these leaps all over the place. But I don’t see this kind of leap-making as something inherent in the purpose of those courses for every student every day. In the flipped classroom, at least the way I envision it, that is the purpose.

So while the similarities between the flipped classroom and studio/lab/seminar courses probably outnumber their differences, there is something different, and it’s in the intentionality of the design behind both the in- and out-of-class experience. Another way of saying it is that without that intentionality, your fancy flipped classroom is nothing more than a garden-variety seminar course and not necessarily a very good one at that. Keep the purpose in mind!

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rocksrain/

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