What is a flipped classroom?
The idea of “flipping” the classroom is not a new one. In a letter from Sylvanus Thayer to President James Monroe in 1828, Thayer wrote “A professor can deliver lectures to many more [students] than he can thoroughly teach.” Instead of lecture, Thayer believed that students should be responsible for the content and that class should engage the students in demonstrating/explaining the concepts/principles being learned thus requiring the students to prove their understand the concepts. Note: Thayer’s letters refer to the education of cadets at West Point.
Both the Thayer and Socratic methods of teaching are examples of a flipped classroom. The Thayer method of teaching mathematics and science, like that of the Socratic method for the humanities and social sciences, requires the students to complete some type of activity prior to class and to come to class prepared to engage in the content through working problems, giving short presentations (recitations), asking questions and participating in discussions. The professor is then available to answer questions, present mini-lessons to address a common question, challenge the student’s understanding, and raise academic questions for the application of student knowledge to real-life situations.
So what is behind the modern flipped classroom movement?
I propose that the impetus behind the modern flipped classroom movement is three fold.
Firstly, the rate of change and innovation occurring today requires individuals to be able to self-teach/self-educate in order to stay ahead or just keep up with the trends. Most students engage in some form of self-education outside of their academic experience. And while instructors may cringe when a student states they “Googled it”, the act of independently searching for content on the web is a strategy for self-teaching. How deeply they conducted their research and whether the information they found is accurate or not is another issue.
Secondly, while there has been a recent insurgence of screencasts and online video I’d challenge that the new flipped movement is not about the videos created on Khan Academy, iTunes U, TED and the like. But instead that it is about what those videos represent. Knowledge. Information Exchange. Ideas. Innovation. Empowerment. What the Khan Academy, iTunes U, and TED video opportunities don’t do extremely well is provide an outlet for engagement with others to share thoughts, ideas, questions, and experiences. This type of sharing is the basis of the academy and life-long learning.
Thirdly, the flipped movement has been fueled by the explosion of social media and networking. Whether it’s Facebook, Google +, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitter, etc the opportunity for individuals to engage with and share knowledge, information, and experiences with a network of people has lead to an expectation of engagement. If a student does not feel they are being engaged in the classroom, they will find another way to engage.
So why the flipped classroom?
The flipped classroom model is one way the academy can address/take advantage of the deficiencies noted in each of the driving forces listed above. “I Googled it” can become a discussion around data validity, media evaluation, and the rigors of academic research. A TED talk watched by one or more students as part of an assignment or discovered as a part of research may spur a discussion of social change, environmental conditions, medical challenges or artistic movements. A comment or string of posts on a social media outlet can result in a stated hypothesis and a point of departure for new research, community outreach/activism, discussions around marketing strategy, etc.
Placing the responsibility for learning on the student also gives the students an outlet for delving deeper into the issues, topics, and research that are of interest to them. By removing or limiting lecture as suggested in the flipped classroom model, class time can be used to promote and encourage deep learning, creativity, engagement/collaboration, the development of new ideas, and higher order thinking. This type of engagement over the long term aims to develop the students desire for self-improvement leading to life-long learning.
How can I flip my classroom?
The standard answer I, as an Instructional Designer, give a faculty member who asks this question is “That depends.” Once the fairly nebulous response is delivered, we enter into a discussion around a series of questions such as “What is your teaching style? What are the course goals and objectives? How do students currently engage with the content in class/outside of class? How are the students evaluated? What would you like to see happening in class or in your student’s learning that you don’t currently see? How comfortable are you with relinquishing some of your control as an instructor to the students?
The answers provided by the faculty during this conversation guide how the flipped experience is designed. Flipping the classroom is not an easy out for faculty. Depending upon the extent of the flip it may entail a complete course redesign. Even if a faculty member decides to flip using recorded lectures, the time it takes to make a quality recording is longer than one might think. The point of these statements is not to discourage faculty from considering the flip, but to emphasize the importance of a good course design/redesign process. It is imperative to realize that how the new approach is introduced to the students will determine the success of the approach, but that is true no matter what instructional methodologies are implemented.
Will the flip include video lectures watched outside of class?
Not necessarily. There weren’t any vodcasts, screencasts or podcasts in 1828 and yet Thayer still managed to flip the classroom and place the responsibility for learning on the student. There are many ways to flip the classroom. Video lectures should not be seen as the sole method of flipping. The flip may be mini research projects assigned between classes for presentation in the next class meeting. It may be questions posed for individual reflection outside of class to enable more in-depth conversation in class. It may involve students engaging with individuals from other countries via social media outlets and arranging a panel discussion with those individuals in class. It may be reading scientific articles and assigning individuals/teams to blog the article for discussion outside or inside of class. The options are endless.
How do I flip my classroom?
I’d encourage any faculty member looking to flip the classroom to seek the assistance of an Instructional Designer or a member of their campus teaching and learning center. If you don’t have access to either resource, ask yourself the questions listed above. You might also consider eliciting feedback from a peer, your department chair, or even former students.
 A typescript of this letter is available in The West Point Thayer Papers 1808-1872, edited by Cindy Adams, 1965.