Recap of a "Flipped Classroom" master class

I’ve seen lots of great examples of flipped classrooms–thanks, in part to lots of time spent with interesting people like Sarah Smith-Robbins (@intellagirl)–but I had yet to hear a really concise definition of “flipped classroom” that went beyond the idea of homework not done at home. Until yesterday.

A flipped classroom means the students engage in the tasks of an expert in a particular content domain during the class period, instead of watching and listening to an expert in that content domain. (Joan Middendorf, IUB CITL)

By contrast, when someone says flipped classroom, they usually mean that students view lectures and do reading outside of class and then use classroom space to do homework and labs. The problem is that this definition is a pretty shallow version of what it means to learn. It also creates a barrier to entry for humanities instructors who tend toward independent writing tasks as homework, which is a very difficult task to bring into the classroom effectively.

The idea of performing an expert task under the guidance of an expert, on the other hand, is a more robust, flexible way of thinking about the “doing homework in class” model. The become-an-expert approach is wholly oriented toward the appropriation of skills and engagement with a field, and it makes mapping in-class activities to humanities skills much easier. Learning means a student appropriates the key concepts and skills of a discipline and begins to use them independently. Yes, homework can help do that, but talking explicitly about homework without talking about the motivation behind the homework leads to repetitive tasks and knowledge policing, not skill and knowledge appropriation. Talking instead about accumulating expert skills–with the kinds of scaffolding that only an expert can give–addresses appropriation in very specific terms.

It’s a subtle difference, but it’s also an important one. In the class I observed yesterday–Prof. Leah Shopkow’s Medieval Heroes, a 200-level survey of medieval Europe–the flip was evident in the combination of two related tasks: outside homework and in-class projects designed for public consumption.

The first part of that–outside homework–is an acknowledgement that student activity outside of class needs to be policed. Whether students are watching a lecture (though in this class, there is a textbook that replaces lectures) or reading a primary source, they need to be accountable to their classmates and their instructors. The unflipped version of this is that information from lecture and outside readings show up on a graded in-class exam. In this medieval-history flipped classroom, an outside homework assignment required students to provide basic information about their outside reading, which they could then use in the classroom.

Their classroom task is a series of posters. The final poster in the series will be judged by professional historians and viewed by members of the public. These two tasks are quite common for professional historians. The first mimics a peer-review system that provides important critical evaluation of the methodology that drives a historical argument and its evidence. The second requires the students to communicate a nuanced historical argument in clear terms to an audience with little knowledge of the time period. Both tasks require appropriation of a number of expert historical skills: evaluation of sources through close reading and contextualization, audience evaluation, and argumentation.

Here, too, we can see another “flipped classroom” standard at work: STEM and business classrooms have been the focus of the flipped-classroom movement (unless you’re heavily embedded in the digital humanities world), and many of the observers came to see what a flipped classroom could be like in a humanities setting. Regardless of the discipline, the key educational theory at work is constructionism, which basically says, “If they build it they will understand.” (Hey, as long as we’re being trite about how education works, might as well commit to the cliche.) Doing, rather than being taught, is the fundamental underlying principle.

There are, of course, some weaknesses. Constructionism by itself doesn’t tackle the question of environmental and social variables–how important are teacher prompts? Interactions with fellow students? What kinds of barriers exist between an instructor’s learning goals for the students, and the students’ goals for the class. Still, the expert-skill model that I saw at work yesterday provides a better model than the “do your homework” model.

Update: In a discussion about the flipped classroom, Prof. Shopkow made one important observation about classroom engagement that I left out and which she was willing to post here.

"The key words, though, are that it works better, not universally or perfectly. The hard part for me is that while this way of teaching provides opportunities to help students learn who want to learn and lets me know who is learning and who isn't, it isn't much help with those who aren't inclined to get with the program. And it makes me very aware of those people who aren't inclined to get with the program. In a conventional classroom, one is only occasionally rudely awakened by evidence that one's students aren't learning (and in a big class, if the lead teacher is not doing any of the grading, he or she may not realize that this is happening)." With the idea of increased engagement--rather than complete engagement--in mind, skill appropriation becomes an even more important goal. A flipped-classroom setting is a great environment for great students, and an even better environment for students in the middle who benefit most from the expert training. However, it can be an eye-opening experience for students who are hoping for a passive classroom environment (and for the instructional staff interacting with those students).