Welcome to the Flipped Classroom

The what! classroom . . . ? For many, flipped classrooms represent radical change. If the old classroom was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my children! If it ain’t broke, don’t fit it!! Yet even skimming newspapers reveals growing concern about the state of education: the United States lags other nations in mathematics and science while children do not know “basic” historical facts; calls for reform range from cultural vitriol to dry bureaucratic reports. So what is and where does the Flipped Classroom fit in? For those unfamiliar, this blog—the first of a three-part series—will provide a quick historical context along with the basic concept, principles, and rationale for the flipped classroom; for those familiar, this blog will offer a review along with some amusing anecdotes for points of reflection.

A Brief Historical Context

Three closely related issues exist in educational reform: the purpose of education, the content of education, and style of education. The U.S. educational system was structured to create model citizens, drawing upon classical sources: Greek and Roman literature along with the Bible. This model used a traditional, teacher-centered didactic, top-down learning with teachers distributing knowledge and disciplining students who were viewed as passive vessels receiving information. Failures in learning frequently were interpreted as character flaws.

With the rise of industrialism, bureaucratic and production efficiencies created new educational demands, with expanded political rights and social roles, educator demographics expanded and included neglected perspectives. Tensions arose from these changes: one questioning the purpose—and value—due to market demands and one questioning the content—and social role—due to an expanded range of participating stakeholders. Each dynamic, though, frequently maintained the traditional, teacher-centered didactic. Still, evolving educational theories created innovations to improve student learning. For example, philosopher John A. Dewey questioned the passive role of the students and argued for experiential learning.

Flipped Classroom

1. Basic Concept. K. for the first time . . . what is this idea all about? The Flipped Classroom is an integral part of alternative teaching models emerging over the past couple of decades. More specifically, the framework was derived from the research of Alison King and Eric Mazure among others, while gaining impetus from Louisiana-born entrepreneur Salman Khan and his creation of the Khan Academy. By utilizing technology and transforming educational relationships, flipped classrooms promise greater student comprehension, retention, and utilization of materials in a range of disciplines and educational formats. In short, students receive the bulk of educational material remotely, generally on-line, from the classroom setting; the classroom, then, serves as a forum for the students to better question, understand, and integrate the material through student collaboration and the guidance of a teacher. Contrary to the traditional model, flipped classrooms are student-centered, break down hierarchy, and create educational partnerships amongst students, their peers, and teachers.

2. Principles. This all seems to include everything that’s already being used in the classroom . . . aren’t we just moving things around a bit? The teacher still is important . . . right? Yes and No. With the Flipped Classroom, elements of the educational process are redefined and retooled. In traditional styles, the teacher imparted information in the classroom setting, reinforced it on the chalkboard, and was the final arbiter of its interpretation; students were required to be alert and take notes. In addition to lectures, students might perform in-class assignments and readings to be judged by their teacher. In short, there was an educational vector from the teacher to individual students; homework served as reinforcement if not a test. Blended Education, alternatively, draw upon different technologies and types of materials. The significant surge of technology over the past couple of decades—wider access to the internet most importantly—created the option to alter and relocate the traditional educational vector.

  • Technological Innovations. While digital and internet technologies are the key elements of blended learning, it is important to remember that technology always has impacted the style of educational practices. I fondly remember my father recounting how he constructed a giant (and operational) slide rule to teach his students; similarly, nobody could hold a candle to his overhead projector and transparencies. Why are these examples significant? Because technology gave the teacher the ability to condition content and delivery based on real-time student needs and questions. Technology can condition the educational dynamic instead just offering a simple flow of information. Digital technologies and the internet offer students the option to learn outside of the classroom (at home or the library) and/or without direct teacher instruction (using a digital/technological interface). This flexibility can accommodate a variety of student needs to progress at their own speed and more closely review difficult concepts. For many younger learners, this technology already is second-hand and reinforces existing skill sets. Blended education has a wide array of options and models. Educational goals and existing educational environment influence one’s choices.
  • Alternative Aptitudes. The scholarly community differentiates between a range of cognitive skill sets (or, as suggested by Martin Gardner, “types” of intelligence); similarly, there are different means to develop such. For example, many are familiar with the notion that artists and designers are “visual learners.” Such is the same with other skill sets (e.g., memory, ordering, et cetera.) Information can be adapted using the internet and digital means best suited for an educational task. The classical Socratic method still can be valued (direct learning through questions and answers), but lest we forget, writing and speaking, too, are mediums of information.
  • The Educator’s Role and Homework. With traditional didactics, homework was integral to the learning process; inability to succeed was interpreted as a lack of discipline. As such, the teacher served as a performance judge; alternatively, in flipped classrooms, the teacher serves as a mentor who fosters a community different from the traditional classroom. This should not be all that foreign: think of the roles of students and teachers in science labs. Instead of being a point of judgment, homework is transplanted back into the classroom, that is, the classroom becomes the arena where concepts and information are more fully explained and integrated together. This makes sense if the ultimate goal of education is mastery.

3. Rationale. So, again . . . remind me . . . why is this important? Shouldn’t students just listen and spend enough time doing their homework and less time watching television? This, again, is a very good question. With all of the new educational approaches and theories, let us briefly reflect back to the historical context: the Flipped Classroom is NOT about the grand purpose of education, and the Flipped Classroom is NOT about the content of education. Rather, flipped classrooms can be utilized to improve educational goals, that is, helping students to understand, remember, and, actually, use the material at hand. There may be some differences across disciplines, but . . . it is a universal educational style.

  • Comprehension and Micro-Learning: In the traditional classroom setting, student comprehension could be limited by a variety of factors—distractions, length of instruction, et cetera. We all have memories or can simply point to popular culture references of the teacher “droning” on . . . Wha, wha, wha, wha-wha . . . But if education is viewed as a supportive community, not a top-down convention, the process of learning can be satisfying, even an adventure. One of the key elements of comprehension is micro-learning. What is it? An anecdote first, if I may. As an undergraduate, I had a difficult time learning new material. O.K., then, just put in more time? But the more time spent seemed fruitless, reading the same pages over and over again. I began to realize that it was easier and more efficient to break down the information in smaller bites (no pun intended). In so doing, I was able to more easily retain information by envisioning relationships and arguments. Micro-learning draws on this logic.
  • Retention and Mastery Learning: While most educational systems have year-end examinations, a problem exists with the relation of such tests for learning. Short-term learning is a very different skill than maintaining a mastery of a body of knowledge. Ultimately, one can comprehend when being taught while not being able to retain that information for future use. I recall a high school physics teacher who permitted his students, including this writer, to take any of classroom test as many times as desired (changing numbers and the like of questions). What? Isn’t this cheating? Well it depends upon your definition. If cheating is crude competition, then yes; however, if education is viewed in the context of educational mastery, then no. Part of the problem associated with the mastery of knowledge is based on alternative approaches to the education. Recall apprenticeships undertaken by sushi cooks: for one year, the apprentice only works on cooking rice. Again, what? If I am paying for this, I want my money’s worth! Yet the approach of a master is not to offer a certificate, but rather to ensure individuals will be competent, independent professionals. Without student mastery, the teacher is regarded as remiss. Regarding academic education, we should, with some irony, remember that universities originally were based on this guild model, which accounts for its top-down control and narrow scope. Yet, mastery learning is still essential regardless of counterproductive traditional didactic styles. This is the role of the flipped classroom, adapting teaching styles so that everyone can be a master.
  • Utilization and Experiential Learning: As noted in the section on mastery learning, the model of education utilized by guilds and trades draws heavily upon experiential learning. The style of education is not simply mastery of information, but a means for understanding when and how to use that information in “real-life” settings. Recalling one of science classes, the final exam presented students with a geological map charting the outcrops of various rock types; based on the year’s learning, students were expected to generate a geological cross-section depicting the various inclines and synclines. While I found the test an extremely satisfying test and use of the year learning, many stared at the test and did not know what to do. Unfortunately, the class did not employ the type of experiential learning that would have empowered the students to more easily connect “textbook” information with the “real world.”

The efficacy of experiential learning draws upon many of the previously discussed issues—technology, alternative aptitudes, micro- and mastery learning, et cetera—all directed toward linking theory with practice. The key point with experiential learning is the use of these different components in a manner that enhances learning, not just granting the teacher free time.

Next week’s discussion will focus on how to utilize the flipped classroom in your educational and/or organizational setting. Again, please comment or email any suggestions or thoughts about this issue!

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Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist

How to Make Your Presentations Pop

Classroom settings create training challenges and opportunities.  Reminding ourselves about the experiential dynamics of the classroom can increase content retention while positively impacting participant perception about and satisfaction with your organizational culture of learning. After reading this blog, soon your trainings will be able to POP . . .

A primary experiential classroom dynamic is that of distractions, interruptions in the planned flow and rhythm of a presentation that detract from learning.  Interruptions always will be present to one degree or another—a participant coughs several times while another adjusts her/his chair; such interruptions are momentary by nature. Still interruptions can monopolize attention—a noise is heard; a coffee fell…did it splash…who’s reacting…should I help? Interruptions, however, can lead some to disengage or even become cynical—a computer is not working; restarting doesn’t help…a murmur envelopes the room…some check e-mail…“this always happens”…“it’s a stupid training”… et cetera.

With thoughtful preparation, a skillful trainer can prevent many of these interruptions from becoming distractions or to avoid them from even happening. The dynamics of distractions can be termed POP: Personal, Operational, and Professional.  This week’s blog will deal with personal distractions.

Personal Distractions

In theory, personal dynamics of distraction can be discounted: we are adults who can focus; we are professionals getting paid to work. While being adult and professional, participants are also human.  That is, while everybody has universal needs, everybody is unique with lives outside of work. Likewise, while nobody per se is exempt from training, nobody is taking the training is perfect. With this realization, trainers can appreciate several personal elements.

A. Trainer Identity. The tone set at the beginning of a session frequently conditions how participants will receive the information delivered. The trainer needs to be professional, positive, and welcoming. Also, trainers are “experts,” who need to be sensitive to the natural vulnerability of students in the learning environment. All of this is key, because initial opinions about the trainer directly impact whether and how the participants engage during the session.

  1. Clothing: If the trainer is from outside the organization, then one could simply wear traditional business attire, or even call the organizer to obtain a sense of the style of the audience. Alternatively, if the trainer is from the organization, he or she should wear clothing consistent with the organizational culture. For example, if ALL staff members wear casual clothing, then wearing a suit and tie could to alienate participants. Clothing may seem to be superficial—and, in many ways it is—but something as simple as clothing should not create a distraction that prevents participants from focusing or taking the trainer seriously.
  2. Approachable: While ostensibly an “expert,” the trainer truly needs to be approachable.  Smiling, as is often quipped, uses fewer muscles than a grimace.  If he or she is not positive, then participants are apt to feel a sense anxiety or to be negatively disposed, which ultimately distracts from the learning process. Also, when interacting, be sure to affirm questions and be non-judgmental; an audience can turn away from a trainer if the session is imbued with her or his sense superiority as opposed to excitement and personal warmth.
  3. Preparation: Organizations use trainers for their talent in presentation and ability to convey chosen information. The trainer needs to be prepared and, regardless of familiarity, still organize and prepare. Something may have changed meriting a revision in your presentation. If participants point out the error, then one’s authority can be diminished. Yet even this can be a positive learning experience: instead of being defensive, one should thank the speaker for the information while affirming that others should feel comfortable in sharing. Training is not simply a transmission of dry facts but a reciprocal learning environment. This helps participants to engage mentally and increases trust for in-class exercises.

B. Courtesies. Remember to go over the basics surrounding the classroom site at the onset. Unless this is an in-house training, most will not be familiar with the location of various things: exits, elevators, restrooms, building cafeteria, food establishments in the area, et cetera; much less a courtesy, many jurisdictions require trainers at remote sites to provide disaster/safety information.  A good trainer will outline the training, define its goals, and share the anticipated break and completion times. All of this provides participants with focus regarding training value as well as a means to envision how the session fits into the rest of their day while eliminating associated distractions.

C. Physiological Matters. Especially for sessions lasting several hours if not the entire day, trainers must be cognizant of a certain type of interruptions.

  1. Sleep: In the context of morning or longer sessions, participants may present as sleepy and/or distracted.  This distraction frequently is created physiologically (and, ideally, not from the trainer).  In the morning, participants may not have gotten enough sleep and/or are exhausted; if possible, having refreshments always is a winning strategy—especially coffee. Alternatively, after returning from lunch, many experience the “postprandial dip,” that is, the diversion of energy from cognitive attention toward digestion. Hosts and trainers frequently provide an array of bite-sized, wrapped candies, which serve to “jolt” takers into a grateful attention. Other trainers ask the class to stand up, take a group stretch, and shake out their hands; another trainer, buttressed by studies, lowers room temperature a few degrees arguing it makes people less drowsy and more attentive.
  2. Hunger/Thirst: Having small snacks and a variety of drinks can be useful to create focus. Especially for morning sessions, participants may not have had time to eat that morning; having snacks and juices demonstrates consideration on the part of the host, while assuring the trainer that the audience will not be restless due to hunger.  Similarly, having bottled water available eliminates the need for participants to exit the room for the water fountain. Some budgets (and conditions) may afford for the provision of lunch—especially important when the session is located at a site not close to any food establishment.

D. Emotional Matters.  The dynamic of emotional matters is at once the easiest to identify while being the most difficult to resolve. When participants are anxious, depressed, or annoyed, then their attention span and ability to engage and learn is dramatically reduced. Emotions can be read through body language and expressions, but it is challenging to divine its origin. What are the results of their last performance evaluation?  Will the bank refinance their mortgage?   Can they afford to send a daughter to her college of choice? Unless the source is somehow clearly related to session and/or the trainer, not much can or should be done to address such matters.  

The trainer should effectively teach the subject matter, not serve as a therapist.  Still, trainers should be intuitively sensitive to and understanding about participant needs while creating a welcoming, non-threatening atmosphere that also is interesting. Engaging sessions mentally transport participants, granting them license to explore ideas unrelated to personal challenges and problems. You not only serve as an expert but as an entertainer providing a respite—all toward the end of helping members of the audience to learn.

E. Competing Technology.  Yes, welcome to the twenty-first century! Participants vary in technological competence: some multi-task several projects on different technologies while others get locked out of their organizational portal. Yet virtually everyone has an organizational or personal cell phone, tablet, and/or laptop; indeed, many use them while arriving at the session: checking texts, emailing, or making a quick on-line purchase (here, time is less money!).  Consumer technology is omnipresent, distracting the user and irritating others. If not careful, competing technology can steal the focus. Different strategies can be used to minimize distractions generated from competing technology.

  1. Participant Courtesy: At the onset, cheerfully, respectfully, though clearly remind everyone how competing technology creates serious distractions.  Ask participants to turn their technology off or to the vibrate setting. Also, provide a protocol for those who expect to receive urgent communication during the session; encourage them to sit at the rear of the classroom, ideally close to the door to momentarily leaving the room to afford them privacy and avoid distracting others. When interrupted by an errant cell phone ring—and it will happen—avoid irritation and simply ignore the interruption unless the receiver actually is orally responding to the caller. In such scenarios, trainers should politely request the cell phone user to finish the call in the hallway. (Most are embarrassed and will hastily comply.)
  2. Session Agreement: Again, discuss how competing technology creates serious distractions. Now, and this is a bit bold, ask everyone to hold up their cell phone, and after they do, then warmly and softly implore them to turn off their cell phone at that moment or—at the very least—to switch the setting to vibrate. Relay a humorous anecdote to ease any tension. This can create a humorous aside and a bonding moment of levity should a cell phone ring.

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Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist