Friday, November 18, 2011

In Defense of Flipping the Classroom & the Lecture

There's been a lot lately about "flipping the classroom," a teaching method where students are to view a lecture at home --ostensibly on-line--of their teacher presenting key concepts while saving doing harder and trickier homework-type assignments for in class. This idea appeals to me and I've been somewhat surprised that so many other education peeps out there whom I follow don't seem as enamored. Not only are they disparaging of the idea, but they seem to think "lecture" is synonymous with torture.

Before I begin I want to offer two caveats. First, the access problem is no small one and if not satisfactorily solved, could easily be a deal breaker. Second, I am envisioning this for older students, not necessarily for younger ones. As I've written about before, considerations of grade, age, and subject are very important in any conversation about teaching and learning.

Now, I wouldn't flip the classroom all of the time (getting stuck in one practice or approach is never a good idea) or get rid of outside-of-class readings and I wouldn't say it's going to "transform education" (puh-lease), nor would I call it a silver bullet method (don't believe in silver bullets), but, again, access issues aside, what's not to like?

As a teacher, and this was partly because I generally taught students who didn't have a lot of support at home (though these same students would lack access to technology, as well), when I assigned more challenging reading, projects, papers, and essays, I had them do a lot of the work in class anyway because that's when they needed guidance the most. I saved easier reading assignments and exercises that involved practicing or analyzing what students had already learned for homework.

Other aspects of flipping the classroom that excite me: Teachers can record their lectures a few times until they get it just right and then maintain a video library, if you will, of these presentations. Teachers can share and exchange video clips with one another. Students can have access to the library of them and can view each presentation as many times as they need to. They can access the library anywhere, without having to lug a textbook with them, and unlike a textbook, it's a living source of information. The teacher can get feedback on it and alter it easily if necessary without having to send it back to the publisher; students can leave comments or questions beneath the video. For someone who can't even upload digital photos from camera to laptop without assistance, I sound pretty excited about this, don't I?

During discussions of "flipping the classroom" I have been disturbed (and this has long bothered me) by how many of my fellow educators, bloggers, and commentators use "lecture" as if it's a bad word, dismissing it as an instructional technique almost out of hand. Flipping the classroom is just another form of lecturing! Lecture?!? You can't lecture the children! Heaven forbid. Lecturing is baaaaad. Well, I disagree.

To me, the problem isn't giving lectures per se, but rather with how and when they're done. Lectures come in all shapes and sizes. Certainly, lectures can be monotonous and boring, but they can also be lively, creative, interactive. So, there are good lectures and bad lectures, and there are times, places, and audiences for lecturing. Some audiences and topics require shorter lectures and some longer. When you go to hear Alfie Kohn, Diane Ravitch, Deb Meier, or Jonathan Kozol speak, you're listening to a lecture. Listening to a news report? That's a lecture. TED talk? Lecture. Author reading? That, too, is a lecture.

When I was in ed school (to read some of my thoughts on ed schools, read this post and this comment I made on the same post), I learned that the lecture was one way to present information, or teaching methodology, but lecturing was definitely frowned upon. (As you can imagine, I especially loved being lectured on how it was bad to lecture.) When I was student teaching high school US Government, I did everything but lecture. Finally, as I was gathering feedback, which I did often (come to think of it, much more often than I did as a regular classroom teacher. Why was that? Adding that to my list of things to change when I go back to the classroom) the students were growing frustrated and unresponsive. So we stopped to talk about it. One student hesitated but then said, "Look, Ms. Levy, you're asking us to work together and put together presentations on topics we don't really know anything about. We need you to teach us about them first, to tell us about them. You're the teacher--you're supposed to know about these things." I looked around and saw the rest of the class nodding in agreement. So, for the rest of my time, I lectured more, not all of the time, but more often than I had been. On the day when my university adviser and supervisor came to observe me, I happened to have a lecture planned. In our debriefing, she asked me, and I knew this was coming, what I could have done differently besides, "you know, just standing up there and lecturing." I explained to her that I had been doing all of the other stuff but that the students had told me to lecture more. She raised her eyebrows and said, "Huh. Interesting." To her credit, she didn't evaluate me negatively on this (she actually was a fantastic teacher and adviser).

The following summer, when I started my first teaching job (and I wrote about this particular class before here) I taught tenth grade English. If I recall correctly, we spent about one quarter of the class explicitly on writing. On one piece I decided to have students do peer editing. This, I had been told, was a great thing to do, but it was a disaster. The students really got into it and tried their damndest but it wasn't working; they weren't properly editing one another's work. The straw that broke the camel's back was when as I was circulating, I overheard two students arguing heatedly about a rule of punctuation (awesome!) But they were both wrong (arrgghh!) Nobody was learning anything and worse, the students were reinforcing bad habits and giving one another terrible advice.

Since then, I've learned to assess what students already know or have been successfully taught before expecting them to "teach one another" or "learn cooperatively." For example, after teaching lessons on how to give constructive and diplomatic feedback, I have students give one another feedback on what they take away from or hear in another student's piece or suggest questions they think might be left unanswered. However, I avoid peer editing or advice that involves peers giving advice on how to write or explain rules of grammar when they don't know them themselves. That, ahem, is my job.

Which leads me to another problem I have with privileging group work or cooperative learning over direct instruction or lecturing. I've seen it as an excuse to be lazy and I've seen it done wrong. Here kids, you do this. You're responsible for your own learning now. Go forth and teach yourselves. I'll sit back and do nothing. Of course, students should certainly be responsible for their work and learning but they need some help and guidance along the way. Of course, instruction beyond direct presentation or lecturing has its place, but it's not an anti-dote to poor lecturing.

I will end this with some much more articulate and organized thoughts on the subject of group work from Diana Senechal. As usual, she says exactly what I'd like to say myself.


  1. There is so much pressure to be the "guide on the side" instead of the "sage on the stage." Teachers can get dinged if they dare to arrange desk in ways that promote individual concentration rather than social grouping.

    I just had my post conference after my fall observation. I did a whole group instruction lesson on identifying sequencing words in text to elementary students with learning disabilities. My principal remarked that I was doing all the work. I did not entirely agree, as students were listening, taking turns identifying the sequence words, and using their own words to summarize. However, I will be sure to do something more group oriented for the spring observation.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Anonymous @1:57.

    I feel strongly that there's room and need enough to be both the "sage on the stage" and the "guide on the side." Part of being (and learning to be) a good teacher is knowing when each approach is warranted. Same with doing more or less "work," as your principal put it. Actively listening is work and one of the tricks of the trade is knowing when to talk and "work" and when to listen and let the students do the work.

    Thanks, again, for sharing and keep on reflecting!

  3. Interesting post, Rachel. I'm cringing at them teaching each other bad grammar!!! I wonder also if the kids are so used to the lecture,it becomes their safety blanket?
    But what you say about a mixture of approaches makes so much sense. A lot of times we swing back and forth to extremes which aren't helpful.


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