Education Opinion

Flipping the New York Times

By Justin Reich — October 09, 2013 3 min read
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Tina Rosenberg from the New York Times has a piece out today on flipped classrooms, with a small contribution from me. I want to add a few pieces of context and clarification on two points: efficacy and public perception.

First, does flipping classroom work?

Tina has a terrific paragraph about the complexity of answering this question. She describes the efforts of the Clintondale High School to flip their entire school. A turnaround school that adopted flipping as a schoolwide transformation effort, Clintondale has seen substantial reductions of failure rates and increases in grades. But these are internal markers. You can, in theory, make improvements in those things simply by lowering internal standards (I’m not saying this is the case in Clintondale, but it’s why researchers are often not keen on using grades in analyses). So, another thing that you might look at is test scores. Here’s Rosenberg’s paragraph on that:

Results on standardized tests have fluctuated; they went up in 2012 and then dropped. But state education officials note that last year Clintondale had a large influx of students from Detroit, many of them from low income families (standardized test scores of poorer students tend to be lower). Three years ago 64 percent of Clintondale students were low income, and now 81 percent are. Also due to an accounting quirk, some high-achieving students had their most recent test scores counted as part of a school consortium, and not as part of Clintondale.

So a series of accounting quirks makes tracking the impact of these innovations more difficult. And really, we don’t even care about grades and test scores. We care about lifetime outcomes like civic participation, college persistence, and career readiness, which are going to take years and years to collect data on.

I have a great respect for the intuition and experiences of educators who believe flipping classrooms has powerful results for their students. But from a perspective of public research/policy consensus, we will not have a clear vision, for at least a few more years, about when flipping works, how much, for whom, and under what conditions.

Second, how much support is there for flipped classroom experiments?

I’m quoted on this issue in the article, and I’d like to refine my comment:

But the flipped classroom is a strategy that nearly everyone agrees on. “It’s the only thing I write about as having broad positive agreement,” said Justin Reich, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard who studies technology and education.

I would say that there is an extraordinary upswelling for support, in K-12 and now increasingly in higher education, for conducting experiments around flipping classrooms and rethinking our use of time and place. I would say there are very few people that are arguing that flipping classrooms is creating new harms. There are, however, plenty of people that think there isn’t any there there with the flipped classroom. As Tina writes, in a position I agree with and expressed to her:

The most serious critique of the flipped classroom is that it’s not a big enough change.

From that perspective, flipping bad instruction is just another form of bad instruction, (lectures... now, at home!), but there is a real opportunity cost to putting energies into too small steps. Ian Bogost may have one of the best articulations of that position.

So, I’m conflicted on all things as is my nature, but on the whole I think the too-small-critique isn’t yet warrented. I think flipping classrooms is a small innovation that many teachers feel like they can take on. I think it’s an innovation that gets people thinking about how they use their time, and how they can ensure that students can do the most difficult work in the place where they have the most peer and mentor support. I’m hopeful that the teachers who engage in these efforts to rethink their teaching and learning will ultimately enjoy the experience of enriching their instruction and continue to push forward for more innovation and more effective approaches.

So to that end, I think I share Tina’s assessment: just videotaping some lectures is not going to transform education, but steps towards rethinking teaching and learning do matter; to that end, the early results are promising.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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