The flipped classroom has it all backwards

October 29, 2013

The one constant in the teaching profession is the regular introduction of new education fads. Whole language, open-area classrooms, and “new math” are a few examples from the past.

Sadly, the lack of hard evidence for these and other fads did little to prevent them from being widely adopted.

Now another education fad, flipped classrooms, is making its way into schools. In flipped classrooms, students watch instructional videos at home and complete their assignments during class time. Advocates claim students in flipped classrooms are more engaged in their learning than students in traditional classrooms. .

Carolyn Durley, a biology teacher in Kelowna, BC, recently appeared on CBC Radio to expound on the alleged benefits of flipped classrooms. Durley first heard about flipped classrooms at a professional development conference two years ago in Colorado and was so excited by this concept that she completely revamped her instructional approach. In her view, the change was beneficial for her students.

According to Durley, students in the 21st century acquire content knowledge from a variety of sources and may not look to their teachers as experts the same way they did in the past. As a result, Durley believes class time is best used providing one-on-one tutoring to students who can then learn new content at their own pace by watching instructional videos at home. This is a way for teachers be “a guide on the side” and not “a sage on the stage.”

However, Durley’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical about this approach. First, flipped classroom advocates place too little emphasis on the subject matter expertise of teachers. While students can use their computers and smartphones to access content, this does not take away from the ongoing importance of teacher directed instruction during class time. No amount of online reading or video watching can match the effectiveness of a history or science teacher who knows her subject well and can communicate it clearly to students.

Second, flipped classrooms become impractical when used with multiple subjects. A high school student with several teachers using the flipped classroom approach could find himself spending several hours in the evenings watching a variety of instructional videos. This excessive use of screen time becomes even more problematic with young students.

Aside from the testimonials provided by advocates, there is no evidence this approach is any more effective than other instructional methodologies. While there is a great deal of evidence for the effectiveness of direct instruction, a decidedly traditional approach, the same cannot be said for many innovations such as flipped classrooms. Thus, the wholesale adoption of this approach is premature, to say the least.

That being said, there are times when it may make sense to flip the classroom, especially if the videos provide better instruction than the textbooks or teachers. For example, a pilot project in Nova Scotia is currently providing free tablets to approximately 300 grade 7 students. One of the purposes behind these tablets is to enable students to access math videos from the Khan Academy’s website.

These videos will almost certainly have a positive impact on the math skills of these students. Unlike the fuzzy math found in most textbooks and curriculum guides, the Khan Academy videos actually show students the simplest and most efficient way to solve math problems. In fact, all of the standard mathematical algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division feature prominently in these videos. Ironically, Nova Scotia students with the newest technology will learn math the old-fashioned way—and will benefit from the experience.

Of course, all of this could be done without bringing a single tablet into a classroom. Teachers could teach the standard algorithms using textbooks that actually contain proper step-by-step directions. While watching a solid instructional video about a math technique is good, getting the same lesson from a teacher in the classroom who can answer questions at the time she is teaching the subject is even better.

For a small number of teachers, the flipped classroom has a certain amount of appeal. However, it is premature to push for the wholesale adoption of this approach. Better to stick with proven methodologies than chase after the latest fad solely on the basis of a few enthusiastic testimonials.

Students shouldn’t have to wait for a good education

September 21, 2013

People say that “good things come to those who wait.” Maybe they do. But this saying is cold comfort to the families of more than 8000 children who are waiting to get into the most popular charter school in Calgary.

Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) enrolls about 3000 students in its seven campuses across the city. While the school would like to accept more students, the government caps its enrolment. Meanwhile, families on the waiting list are left to wonder whether they will ever have the opportunity to get their kids into this school.

It isn’t hard to see why FFCA is popular. While regular public school administrators and school boards are largely under the sway of the latest edu-babble fads and failed progressive ideologies, FFCA encourages its teachers to use strategies that actually work.

Among other things, this means teachers take charge of their classrooms and provide lots of teacher-directed instruction. In math class, students memorize their times tables, learn the standard algorithms for basic operations, and do lots of practice questions. In reading, FFCA teachers make regular use of phonics because of its proven effectiveness. Students learn proper grammar, receive regular homework assignments, and write a lot of tests. Obviously, parents want their children to be able to calculate and read effectively.

While these traditional methodologies are very popular with most parents and some teachers, they are anathema in education faculties where teachers are trained. Education professors regularly encourage prospective teachers to be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” In other words, the last thing they want is for teachers to provide a defined knowledge base and skill set to students. They downplay the importance of academic content and focus on social issues and the students’ self-esteem.

The influence of this failed ideology can be found throughout the public school system. Fuzzy math, invented spelling, no-zero policies, incomprehensible report cards, and lax discipline are only a few examples. Parents are fed up with how their neighbourhood public schools have been turned into laboratories for a never-ending succession of senseless fads. They want their children to receive a solid education, and consequently they flock to schools like FFCA.

At first glance, it seems surprising that schools like FFCA are not popping up across the country. Considering the pent-up demand for a back-to-basics education approach, there would be no shortage of students.

Unfortunately, despite all the lip service given to diversity, most public school boards are highly monolithic. With the notable exception of Edmonton Public Schools, school boards tend to control everything from teacher professional development to the textbooks used in class, leaving local school principals to simply implement board directives. Also, school boards don’t like it when students try to attend schools outside their designated catchment areas, and they throw up as many road blocks as possible. It is not surprising that public school principals usually fall in line.

If it wasn’t for the Alberta charter school legislation, passed in 1994, FFCA wouldn’t exist today. Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the jurisdiction of public school boards. Like other public schools, they are non-sectarian, open to all students, and do not charge fees. However, their autonomy makes it possible for them to offer courses and programs, such as basic math and English, which simply do not exist in public school boards. Hence, FFCA’s back-to-basics approach is serving the needs of students.

While charter schools are common in the United States, Alberta is the only province that allows them to exist. As a result, FFCA won’t be opening up sister branches in other parts of the country, no matter how much demand there is. Even in Alberta, charter schools don’t exactly have it easy. The government only allows 15 charter schools to exist at a time, and it makes each school re-apply for a charter every 5 years. The government also caps enrolment at each school so they cannot expand to take in more students.

Charter schools, like FFCA, have proven their worth to students and parents. If Alberta made it easier for new charter schools to exist and provided more support to the ones that do, fewer students would need to sit on a waiting list. As for the rest of the country, it’s time to follow Alberta’s example and allow charter schools a chance to revolutionize public education.