Is flipping ‘out’?

Does “flipping” your classroom really work?

I’ve written about this a few times since I first flipped my AP Macro class two years ago. In my (anecdotal) experience, it’s been extremely effective. But a new study from West Point (reported in this EdWeek blog) says not so fast.

Is it time for me to reconsider?

In this study, researchers randomly assigned 1300 cadets to traditional or flipped math and econ courses. Students either watched video lectures and did problems in class (the “flipped” treatment) or listened to lectures in class and did (identical) problems at home (the “traditional” class).

The research found short-term-only gains in math performance — though mostly just for already high-achieving, white male students — and no gains (though no losses) in econ performance.

Is this just another education fad run wild? The placebo effect at work in my own classroom? Should I be rethinking my pedagogy again? (It’s so frustrating trying to keep up with best practices.)

I don’t know, but when I read the original white paper, I was struck by a few things. Namely, the truth is more complicated than the headline.

#1 The researchers asserted that West Point was an “ideal setting” for this research because the courses are standardized and focused on problem-solving (though less so for econ, they acknowledged). But later in the paper, they explain that there is a “high level of discipline” in the classrooms. Also, they have an average class size of 16.6.

This student group is not representative of most public school classrooms I know, and definitely not mine. One of the advantages I’ve found in the flipped classroom is that I’m not having to constantly redirect 36 high school freshmen to pay attention to my lecture (and put away their phones). Presumably, this is not such an issue for 16.6 cadets in a small room.

#2 They stressed the standardization of the curriculum — of course, that is key to an unbiased trial — but I think that misses the whole point of flipping your classroom. It’s not about the videos; it’s about what you do with your gained class time.

I didn’t put my lectures on video so that students could spend class time doing the same old worksheets they used to do (or not do) at home. I did it so that we could spend class time in more creative, engaging ways. I created new curriculum that allows for more simulations, discussions and open-ended problem solving. 

#3 The researchers acknowledge that the econ professors, in particular, were brand new to the flipped classroom and “not in favor” of it. I think all teachers would agree that it’s hard to do a good job the first year, especially when we’re implementing something we don’t believe in. The original paper noted: “Having a math instructor who prefers teaching the flipped classroom is linked to an approximate doubling of the flipped classroom treatment effect.” That seems pretty significant — but wasn’t mentioned in the summary or headlines.

#4 The researchers noted that many cadets didn’t watch the videos, which were standardized and probably kind of dull. But they did not tell us whether the students did the homework problems; they weren’t collected.

This is problematic because if students are trained in a particular school structure (read, go to lecture, do homework assignment) and they do it religiously, but they don’t adapt quickly to the new structure (watch video, do problems in class), of course it won’t work well. 

I’m guessing the disciplined West Point students are a lot more likely to actually do their homework than my students, so they benefit more from the traditional structure than my students did. It would be nice if they’d collected that data to share.

The most troubling part of the research, certainly, is that the flipped model didn’t seem to bring the same benefits to women, black and Hispanic students. The authors don’t offer any insight into causes here, but the EdWeek blog suggests the problem may be that higher-achieving students dominated professors’ time during the interactive, workshop-type setting. 

If that’s the case, the West Points professors were not implementing the flipped model very well. I’ve found that many more students — including the quiet students and struggling students — are willing to ask questions in my class with the flipped model, but it’s because I go to them, rather than waiting for them to seek me out.

What’s the take-away here? The researchers suggest that educators should “exercise caution” when implementing the flipped instruction model. I would suggest that we should exercise caution when implementing any instruction model — and also when reading news reports on academic research.

Unfortunately, I think, too many readers will seize on headlines like “Flipped instruction doesn’t work” and fail to read the fine print. We can do better than that.

Martha Rush is a teacher, author, curriculum developer, speaker — and occasional blogger. She’s working on her second book, a joint project with Quarter Zero to bring lean entrepreneurship to more high school students. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information on Martha’s projects. And have a great start to the 2019-20 school year! @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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