Teaching Opinion

Flipped Instruction or No Instruction?

By David Ginsburg — February 10, 2013 2 min read
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One premise of the flipped classroom model is that students should spend most of their time in class interacting with content rather than listening to teachers present content. And I couldn’t agree more, as I wrote in an earlier post on differentiated instruction:

Improving at anything takes practice. And not just any practice, but productive practice. If, for example, you want to be a better swimmer, it’s counterproductive to spend hour after hour in the pool when your stroke is dreadful. Correct your stroke first, then swim laps. And correcting your stroke requires skillful coaching. Coaches can only help, however, if they know what you need help with--e.g., a swimming coach must see what’s wrong with your stroke in order to help you get it right. Same goes for acting, music, art, and pretty much anything--including academics! And when it comes to academics, you as the teacher must be that skillful coach. For students to become better writers, they should therefore not only write more, but write more in your presence. For them to master math, they need to do more math in your presence.

Another premise of the flipped classroom model is that in order for students to interact with content in class, they must watch a videotaped lecture on that content before class (courtesy of their teacher or a virtual teacher like Salman Khan). In short, students watch the lecture at home, then work in class the following day on what would have been their homework. Hence the term flipped instruction.

But what if students don’t need any instruction? What if they could learn from an activity by simply engaging in that activity? What if lectures are unnecessary, as I asserted at a recent workshop for new teachers?

Granted, students can choose to not watch a video lesson if they already know the material. Yet even when a student is struggling with something, a video will only help if it addresses the source of that student’s struggles. But usually teachers only present one approach. Take, for example, comparing the values of fractions with unlike denominators. Most lessons only cover the common denominator approach. Forget about converting to decimals, comparing to benchmark fractions, or any other method that may not only be more efficient than the common denominator approach but also improve students’ conceptual understanding.

There’s no way around it: one-size-fits-all direct instruction isn’t conducive to differentiated instruction. And this is especially true when it’s provided via video, since teachers can’t ask questions that allow them to assess and address students’ misconceptions.

And lectures aren’t just unnecessary for material students have seen before. Even when they’ve had little or no prior exposure to a concept or skill, students can often learn that concept or skill through investigation or discussion that builds on their prior knowledge or sparks new knowledge. And when students are stuck, it doesn’t always mean they need a lecture. Just asking kids the right question is often enough to help them move forward.

I’m not suggesting you kick back while students learn or don’t learn on their own. But a true flipped classroom model would involve little or no direct instruction--live or via video--up front. Instead, students would have a chance to learn by doing, with free access to resources that can help them (technology--including cell phones, class notes, past assignments, each other, books, and as a last resort, you).

Teachers, meanwhile, would circulate to assess what students know and what they don’t know (and why they don’t know it). They would help students troubleshoot as necessary, and determine what if any post-activity whole-group instruction--correction: whole-group discussion--students would benefit from such as sharing solutions and insights, addressing common misconceptions, and scaffolding understanding to a deeper level.

Again, the flipped classroom movement has had a positive effect on teaching and learning by stressing the importance of kids doing more math, more writing, more science in our presence. But let’s not do flips over this until teacher-led instruction--whether on site or on screen--is limited to what students need, when they need it, and how they need it.

Recommended reading if you’re considering flipping your classroom or you’ve already flipped it:

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.