Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Why we flip

We have a responsibility when evaluating our own teaching to exercise the same skepticism and critical thought we expect of our students. Ed-tech marketing may be masquerading as pedagogical philosophy, but we must not throw the pedagogical baby out with the technological bath water.Ultimately, the flipped classroom shifts the emphasis of a class from content delivery to higher-level thinking and application, from the instructor’s activity to the students’ work. That is the flip that matters. Decisions about when and where to do what are secondary, and decisions about technology are even less a priority.

Source: The flip that matters – UMW DTLT

A good piece to read as a counterpoint to yesterday’s Atlantic piece arguing that the removal of the lecture is hurting students.  Still, I often feel disconnected from discussions about flipped classrooms simply because I sort of…hate the technology aspect of it? Or at least, I hate that that is always such a big part of the discussion, because that’s not the part that’s hard, and needs talking about. How to get all students on board with a non-lecture class, which often involves changing perceptions of what learning in college is about, and efficiently and effectively  running discussion – those are the things I struggle with and that need talking about. I struggle with them even in my upper-division seminars where I’m assigning weekly journal articles and primary sources.

A seminar, for the unfamiliar, is somewhat like a flipped classroom only we’ve been doing it for ages and it’s not sexy. Perhaps that is why, then, the flipped classroom discussion always includes technology, and engenders so many “but what about the lecture!?” pieces; rather than seeing itself as drawing on the tradition of seminars, it comes out of an impulse to change the space normally reserved for the intro-level lecture course, to reverse engineer one system into resembling another.

I suspect, though, that the distance I feel between how I teach and the discussions I read about flipped classrooms comes from something deeper. As Kris Shaffer puts it in the piece cited above:

Ultimately, the flipped classroom shifts the emphasis of a class from content delivery to higher-level thinking and application, from the instructor’s activity to the students’ work. That is the flip that matters.

David Perry drew this idea out further in a post this morning, which you should read in its entirety:

By flipping a classroom, you take the content acquisition out of the class and push students to work on that on their own, then do the critical thinking and analysis in active ways within the classroom…Lectures are fine. People learn stuff from lectures. They just learn more from actively working with material. We know this.

Both Perry and Schaffer emphasize what the central question behind evaluating flipped learning (or any pedagogical approach) should be “Do my students learn better this way?” Depending on what your goals are, your pedagogy should change, but the question of student learning should be central – always. Too often, in these summertime teaching thinkpieces, the questions seem to be “How do I want to teach?” “How do I think my students should learn?” and “Why can’t everyone just learn like I did in college?”

The flipped classroom/seminar should ultimately be about meeting students where they are and helping them grow, and if technology helps you do that, great. For me, if I could find a way to do this without reliance on tech, I would, simply to make it more accessible for students who lack easy access to technology (yes, they exist, and they’re important.)

But there’s a “kids these days” crowd that seems to resent the very idea of meeting students where they are; instead, constant thinkpieces tell us what students “should be able to do” in college. We hear this a lot, but there’s a rather ominous unspoken second half to that sentence “This is what students should be able to do, and if they can’t, maybe they shouldn’t be here… 1)Perhaps those who argue this should consider their role in creating the primary/secondary ed system that has produced these students? My students will give you an earful on how poorly prepared they feel after years of standardized testing.

As Perry argues:

The “flipped classroom” movement is an attempt to bring traditional liberal arts benefits of discussion and active learning into the non-elite classroom.

Certainly there’s some who’d argue active learning isn’t the “most efficient method” of teaching in non-elite institutions where efficiency matters in particular ways; I’d argue that much of what we call “teaching” isn’t doing a whole lot anyway. But I suspect that some of the pushback against deploying these methods in non-elite spaces is simply another expression of the second unspoken half of that sentence: “If students can’t learn in a lecture…should they even be here? Why should we waste time and resources and attention on these students? Why should we have to meet them where they are?” 

Perhaps this explains why lots of sub-par thinkpieces on flipped classrooms are framed as tech pieces, rather than as how to use seminar-style learning in spaces where it hasn’t traditionally been used. Do we actually think all students deserve to learn like those in elite institutions? Those students who may have the educational and social capital to learn well from lectures get the privilege of seminars, while those who need seminars the most get lectures, all against a background of our go-to refrain: “education is the path to social mobility!”

NB: I know that I am fortunate to be able to teach this way, both as a grad student at an R1 and as a VAP at a non-elite private institution. I know that many, many academics would prefer to get out of 250-person lecture halls. The role faculty play in determining class-sizes and enrollment is its own vexed question; this is directed more at those who have a philosophical objection to active learning, rather than those who are placed in positions that would make it incredibly difficult to deploy, especially contingent labor.

References   [ + ]

1. Perhaps those who argue this should consider their role in creating the primary/secondary ed system that has produced these students? My students will give you an earful on how poorly prepared they feel after years of standardized testing.

1 Comment

  1. I think part of the problem – at least for history – is that no matter how we approach it, the class almost always at least *appears* like content delivery on the surface. So many of our classes have names like “US History to 1877” and “Europe in the 20th Century” and so on, and then we teach them in chronological order and work hard to provide a lot of context so our students can understand things – in truth, we end up actually delivering so much content (and creating the appearance of delivering content) that it’s no wonder students think content delivery is why they’re there. And of course, even when we are doing different (even radically different) things, students have so many assumptions about what history “is” (that you allude to here and elsewhere) that it’s hard to get them to move beyond those.

    To your larger point, though – this is an attitude that I found depressingly common at the large state institution where I was a graduate student. Many faculty, it seemed to me, were unwilling to even consider meeting students where they were by adapting their pedagogy. Mostly it manifested as small variations: “You can’t assign so much reading because they can’t do it.” “You have to assign a lot of reading because they get so little out of it that they need to do more.” “You have to lecture because they don’t have the tools to read primary (or secondary) sources.” Rarely was there much thought given to how these students were supposed to get better at these things – perhaps simply by repetition. And I think you’re correct that underlying this is a certain antipathy towards the students themselves – that students who would require that much pedagogical labor don’t belong. Probably institutional incentives play a role in this – what’s the old joke about the surest way to be denied tenure being to win a teaching award? But I think it also speaks to the backgrounds of most faculty – the aforementioned large state institution I attended had, I think, one faculty member whose graduate degree came from a similar institution, and barely more who had attended state institutions as undergraduates. Other people have written about the capture of the academy by a very small number of incredibly elite institutions, and I think that matters a great deal (and is something to be resisted).

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