The Flipped Classroom

A disruptive revolution in pedagogy, or yet another educational fad?

flipped classroom.

Don’t look now, but classrooms everywhere are turning on their heads.

Photo-illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo/Photo by Marcin Balcerzak/iStock/Thinkstock

If you are in college, I don’t mean to alarm you—but you are probably being experimented on. Stop checking for both of your kidneys; it’s not that kind of experiment. But chances are, one or more of you courses is currently being administered upside down, or “flipped.” Everything is backward: The lecture is assigned as homework! The “homework” is completed in class! The sun revolves around the Earth, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

While there is no single model, in order to consider itself flipped, a course has to assign as homework what’s usually administered in person, often the lecture. This frees up classroom time to do what the homework would normally be—usually problem sets, now completed in teams or individually, with the instructor flitting about the flipped classroom, aiding the flummoxed with a flourish.

According to Inside Higher Ed, a recent study by the Campus Computing Project showed that more than two-thirds of U.S. colleges and universities are already, or willing to start, using lecture-capturing software to make lectures available to students at home—the gateway to a large-scale flipocracy. Proponents argue that flipping courses inspires students, gives them more control over their own learning, and frees more class time for meaningful interaction. Opponents bemoan the oversimplification of difficult course material, the technical difficulties, and the extra homework—for students, and for faculty.

But professors are forever annoyed—often justifiably so—at the possibility of “disrupting” an instructional style that is often the result of years of trial and error. Does flipping work? And if so, what, exactly, were we doing in college for all these hundreds of years?

The idea is so intuitive as to be obvious: Why sit through a lecture in person, if it’s going to be the same for everyone? Why not, instead, view that lecture at home on your own time, and have the instructor actually help you, one-on-one, to do the work she’s assigned? In the math, science, and programming classrooms where the model is popular, as long as the technology cooperates, students seem to appreciate both the interactivity and the individual guidance.

Some humanities professors are also experimenting with flipped classes—but it’s here that the flip threatens to flop. Sure, some subjects naturally take to the flip: In the first-year German courses I have taught, for example, booting grammatical explanations out of class might keep face-to-face instruction dedicated to activities, and thus make class a lot more fun and interesting. But many of the other humanities seem, frankly, unflippable: Literature. History. Philosophy.

The New York Times’ Tina Rosenberg insists that it’s worth it to have “students set their own goals and manage their own time,” while history professor and Slate contributor Jonathan Rees outright flays the very pretense. “Dear Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad,” he tweeted (and, as you can see, it incited a minor war), “When are my students going to do their reading?” And, he continued on his blog, with two-thirds of institutions rubbing their palms together at the cost-savings of digitizing their lectures, what if we all start being forced to flip against our will? Then, “it will become increasingly difficult for those of us who currently teach the way we want to teach to continue doing so.”

Rees might be onto something—first, a recent study out of Harvey Mudd College showed that flipping had little effect on learning outcomes. And also, what about the reading? I assign a lot of it, and if I piled on a 30-minute YouTube of me yapping about the connection between childlike being and the concept of “genius” in Faust, wouldn’t that incite mutiny? And what would constitute a “problem set” about Goethe, anyway?

I decided that rather than just flinch at this fledgling fad, I’d see what all the flap was about. Last semester, a few of my classes started flaunting a little ’tude about doing their work, right during the most flaccid weeks of our 16-week semester. After a hellacious journey through the Inferno—I’d never had students drag ass through the Ninth Circle before!—I decided that for our next text, Macbeth, these kids needed a change. So instead of flunking, I flipped.

One of the objections to the backward model is that it takes oodles of extra time to put lectures online, which often necessitates multiple takes, special equipment, and the mastery of proprietary university software. It also gives a professor the unwelcome feeling she’s creating her own obsolescence via the MOOC vids she’s recording on her own time. No thanks.

However, I teach in discussion-based seminar format—so, since I don’t really lecture anyway, I didn’t bother to YouTube myself pontificating on what “make thick my blood” means. I did put this slideshow online for them, though I worried it lacked intellectual heft. If all a Shakespeare seminar required was spitting out a few biographical facts and some lore about “the Scottish play,” class would be 10 minutes long. A slideshow is but a visual aid to our actually talking—about the reading, about how it fits in with the trajectory of the semester.

But, like the mediocre gymnast I’d been in my youth, I would not be deterred from attempting a flip. After all, what good was a Macbeth discussion if they didn’t actually read carefully? So, for class, I foisted upon them this “problem set,” a worksheet of passage-analysis questions that forced them to regard some passages with depth. (Whether this meant they were rereading the passages carefully, or reading them for the first time, was up to them.) I put them as fully in charge of their own mastery as I could, giving them three formats for class between which they could flit as they saw fit: them working quietly (very boring for me), me walking around to each group and addressing them one-on-one (less boring), and us opening the discussion up to the whole class (hooray!). Everyone handed in their “in-class homework” on their way out the door, and I graded them all that night (boo!).

In my case, the flipped class worked—but not the way you think. Yes, the students did a more thorough job reading Shakespeare than they had with Dante. But we never had a chance to have the kind of discussion for which college was invented: the kind that happens when careful reading gets done at home, so there is time in class for everyone’s ideas to be challenged, everyone’s theories to be pushed and tested. Yes, they read carefully—but the reading itself took up so much of class that I felt their “end point” was still, in some ways, more cursory than a traditional class would have been.

At the time, students seemed to enjoy the flipped class, although now I suspect this was because I was grading them. Because at the start of this semester (ours is a yearlong course), several asked timidly: “Are we going to have the flipped class again? Because … I didn’t really like it.”

“Only if everyone starts slacking off,” I smirked.

And that, my friends, is how the flipped literature class works for me. As a threat. As a punitive measure. Don’t want to read your Dostoevsky, young man? I will flip this class RIGHT around.

For me, though, the most interesting aspect of the flipped-course fad is that flipping is not that innovative at all. Just like its flashier cousin the MOOC, the flipped model prizes a method of conveying information—the lecture, huge, impersonal, and ever-prone to skipping and slacking—that many professors don’t even like. Why isn’t the solution to replace the massive lecture course with discussion-based seminars? How, instead, is the answer to record the lecture—to make it the length (and intellectual depth) of a TED talk, and even more impersonal?

Do not confuse this skepticism with a Luddite’s cry. Many “traditional” professors, myself included, love discussion boards, wikis, blogs, podcasts, and all manner of digitally assisted pedagogy. But for those of us blessed with smaller classes to begin with, where every “lecture” is different because it involves actually interacting with students, flipping can ring hollow. And indeed, perhaps it is smaller classes, rather than a flashy delivery model, that the edu-trendy should be flipping out about.