A thoughtful response to trends

Teachers: How do you react when a new trend sweeps through schools?

Are you one of those enthusiasts who can’t wait to try whatever is new: fishbowl discussions, project-based learning, standards-based assessment, blended learning, formative clicker quizzes… or whatever comes next?

Or are you the type to sit back and wait, figuring this is just another fad, and it will die out before you ever have to implement it?

Most teachers I know fall into one of those two camps: the optimistic adopters or the serious skeptics. But there is a third option, one I would call the cautious testers. These teachers approach every innovation with healthy skepticism – but they’re willing to give most ideas a try.

How should a cautious tester respond to something like the “flipped classroom” craze? Exactly the way University of Pennsylvania professor Rebecca Stein did.

More on that in a minute.

Let’s rewind and review how the flipped classroom craze started. About 10 years ago, two high school teachers in Colorado — Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams — decided to record videos and have their students use class time to work on “homework.”

Their results were good. Students interacted more in class, and the teachers were able to help struggling students. Soon other teachers (and entire schools) were following suit, and reporting anecdotally higher grades and more student engagement. It didn’t hurt when MIT professors tried the technique and found it successful.

Bergmann and Sams have since made promoting flipped classrooms their life’s work, and they have plenty of supporters, including the powerful ASCD. The last two years the movement has hit critical mass, and suddenly everyone is talking about flipped classrooms.

If you haven’t heard about teachers at your school using this technique, you will soon. In fact, you might face pressure to flip your classroom this year.

So how should a thoughtful teacher respond to a trend like this? I wonder about this a lot. I don’t want to be a naysayer, but I also don’t think every new approach is the holy grail of education. That’s why I got so excited when I heard Dr. Stein talk about her research.

See, she decided to run both a traditional Microeconomics survey course last year in the fall and a flipped version of the same course in the spring. With the help of Penn’s Center of Teaching and Learning, she worked to prepare the most effective structure possible for her new course, and she kept detailed data on student demographics, attendance, and student attitudes as well as pre- and post-test scores, to eliminate bias.

She ran a careful, controlled experiment before leaping to conclusions: Brilliant.

What did she find? Dr. Stein hasn’t released a full analysis yet — she is repeating the experiment this year to collect more data. Preliminary findings show that students in the traditional course outperformed those in the flipped course, but that might be due to differences in who takes the course each semester.

This isn’t where I say “gotcha” and applaud myself for sitting out this trend so far. If Dr. Stein’s initial findings hold up — and similar research at Harvey Mudd College in 2013 showed similar results — then we can only conclude that flipped classrooms aren’t always better. We can’t conclude that they never work.

So where does that leave us? I think it reminds us why we should all be cautious testers. Teachers shouldn’t avoid trendy methods, but I wish we could approach innovation with a little more skepticism — and research — and not just jump on the bandwagon at the first anecdotal evidence.

It could be that flipped classrooms work really well for some teachers or some subjects, but not as well for all people and all situations. Let’s try to stop looking for magical, one-size-fits-all solutions and try to figure out what works for our students, in our classrooms.

So if you’re feeling pressured to try something new this year, don’t resist. Run  your own experiment, collect your data, and see what happens.