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Is Flipped Learning the Real Deal or Just the Latest Educational Fad?

It’s easy to see the appeal of flipped learning – but if you think it can replace instruction from an expert teacher, you’re doing your students no favours, says Alex Quigley...

  • Is Flipped Learning the Real Deal or Just the Latest Educational Fad?

Have you been ‘flipping’ learning lately? Every so often, newly coined words and phrases enter the educational lexicon.

Teachers everywhere pay heed with a rightly critical eye – given how many bad ideas get annually rebadged and regurgitated into schools – and yet, we are always seeking out solutions too.

So is flipped learning something to which we should give our attention, and perhaps trial?

First, it’s important to understand what people actually mean when they talk about flipped learning.

The ‘Higher Education Academy’, from the US, describes it thus: “the conventional notion of classroom-based learning is inverted, so that students are introduced to the learning material before class, with classroom time then being used to deepen understanding through discussion with peers and problem-solving activities facilitated by teachers.”

This isn’t a wholly new idea; in fact, it’s been simmering as a potentially popular approach to teaching for a decade or so. Popularised by the famous Khan Academy, flipped learning quickly became synonymous with technology and the notion of ‘teachers as facilitators’.

Other educational button buzzers like ‘independent learning’ and ‘problem solving’ were piled onto the bandwagon, too.

A quick fix

And, unlike so many others, this is a bandwagon that isn’t going away any time soon. Why so? Well, teachers of GCSEs and A levels across the country are trying to grapple with the gargantuan demands of a new curriculum.

My colleagues specialising in science and history regularly bemoan the sheer mass of content that now needs to be studied and learnt to succeed in the new linear exams.

Faced with too little time and high pressures, a quick fix becomes irresistible. ‘Flipped learning’ appears to offer a solution – skip the teacher-led instruction, cram more learning in at home, and hope it is understood when they get back to class.

Now, here is where the problems start to emerge.

Sure, you can flip your physics GCSE course so that ‘wave properties’ are studied at home, but realistically, how many of our students can grasp the complexities of traverse and longitudinal waves before first having the concepts explained and understood by their expert teacher?

What if the great YouTube video you selected doesn’t do the trick and misconceptions abound without being checked by careful teacher questioning?

By the time students return to class, misconceptions will have taken root, and twice as much time is needed to unpick and reteach the problems caused by flipping too early.

The power of the subject expert to introduce complex and challenging new learning means that any attempt to ‘flip’ needs the greatest of care and planning, if it is to be done at all.

Independent learning may prove a crucial end-goal for education, but it is not how novices best learn.

Teacher expertise

I am no Luddite either. Technology offers us some brilliantly effective shortcuts to knowledge and understanding. And yet, we cannot replace a great teacher with a collection of great online resources – no matter how skilfully configured our algorithms.

People can argue, but haven’t we always flipped learning? Isn’t it in fact little more than a glossy rebranding of ‘homework’; sending students out of class with a textbook, and instructions to ‘make notes on chapter 3’?

Well yes, to a certain extent – but if we accept this, then we come back to the issue of instructive guidance around how homework contributes to effective learning.

Rather than introduce new, complex concepts, it should be focused on practise and retrieving already learnt materials, with the likes of flashcard self-testing.

Since Socrates’ day, great teaching has had enduring conventions that have stood the test of time. Research evidence reiterates time and time again the enduring truth that explicit instruction, front loaded with expert teacher explanations and questioning, reigns supreme.

Flipped learning can be a helpful technique, used in moderation and with the most careful planning; but as a revolutionary model of curriculum delivery, frankly, it’s a load of flipping rubbish.

Alex Quigley (@huntingenglish) is Director of Huntington Research School, York. He is also author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap, published by Routledge.

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