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8 Observations on flipping the classroom

One of the more unfortunate buzzwords to appear in online education circles and the press is “flipping the classroom”. This means that instead of lecturing students in lessons in school, the teacher records the lecture as a video and uploads it to YouTube – or recommends other people’s videos to the students. The students watch the videos for homework, freeing up the lesson for interactivity, project work and so on.

Would you REALLY want to watch this every night?!I not impressed with this brilliant “new” idea. Why not?

  1. It’s not actually new. When I did my post-graduate teacher training course in 1974 at Brunel University in the UK, the university library had thousands of videos and tape-recordings you could watch or listen to in study booths. The videos comprised not just lectures but televised interviews and documentary films. That was 37 years ago!
  2. Do teachers actually only lecture these days? Lecturing to students is usually (and rightly, in my view) regarded as an undesirable thing in schools. Sometimes they have a tendency to talk too much and ask too little, but that can be addressed through professional development on techniques found in assessment for learning. The answer to too much talking to, or talking at, students is not to institutionalise it in the form of video lectures but to reduce it.
  3. I would say that the best teachers realise that students don’t learn best by being lectured to, but that talking to students to give them facts or guidance is clearly necessary. In the best classrooms there is a good balance of different activities, including “lecturing”,and that kind of variety lends a sense of pace to the lesson, and helps to make it a good and enjoyable learning experience for the students.
  4. The Brunel anecdote in #1 illustrates a very important point: if you expect students to watch lectures outside normal school hours, you can’t rely on their having access to the technology. The school needs to ensure it has the resources and infrastructure to support such a change.
  5. The idea is unscaleable from the students’ point of view. In a typical English secondary (high) school the students will have 5 lessons a day. If each of those lessons becomes a video lecture to watch in the students’ own time, they will need to spend 5 hours a night watching YouTube. Is that feasible? Is it desirable from a health point of view? Is it even desirable from an educational point of view, given that the best homework activities require students to do something, not simply read, watch or listen.
  6. It’s unscaleable from the teachers’ point of view. No teacher in their right mind is going to teach a  full timetable and record all their lessons as lectures. What would  be a feasible proportion of lessons to record? I’d say zero, unless the school is able to allocate time for them to do so. It’s unreasonable to expect teachers to work full-time during the school day, and full-time outside school too!
  7. That leaves recommending other people’s videos. The only way I, when teaching, found it useful to do so was to tell students things like “Watch this video from 4 minutes in to 12 minutes in, then watch the second half of that video.” Other people’s videos (or lesson notes, or books, or radio broadcasts, or podcasts) are rarely completely suitable in themselves.
  8. Even it the idea were feasible, scaleable or useful, you still have to deal with the fact that lecturing to an audience is different to lecturing to an empty room and a camera. Even if nobody asks questions or makes comment, a good speaker will pick up on the mood of the audience, changing the direction where it seems efficacious, making the odd flippant comment to lighten the tone, or whatever.

In my opinion, the most brilliant thing about flipping the classroom is how well it illustrates that often when you examine in detail a so-called great idea you find that it’s not so wonderful after all.

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(c) Terry Freedman