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Don't Ride the Bandwagon

August 20, 2014

I have come neither to praise nor bury the flipped classroom. I have come to say it's your choice whether to flip or stand your ground. The same goes with every other trend that's come, gone, or looms in the future. When teaching assistants, adjuncts, or new faculty ask me what teaching style they should use, my answer is: Begin with what makes you comfortable, experiment when you feel more secure, save the stuff that works, and jettison what doesn't.

Many academics like to think that the life of the mind is trend-proof, but that's not true. Nor should it be. Each generation of students brings different skill sets to the classroom, new research deepens our understanding about how we learn, and thoughtful people come up with exciting news ways of doing old things.

Problems emerge when we confuse new techniques with miracle cures, or ignore the research that tells us that there are multiple learning styles, not a one-size-fits-all style yet to be discovered. One of the first things with which a less-experienced instructor must come to grips is accepting that he or she won't reach every student. It's impossible to be all things to all people. If you have a class of 40 and 30 think you're the best thing since microwave popcorn, 8 rank you in the middle of the faculty pack, and 2 think you are Satan's spawn, you've done a great job. If you're like a lot of faculty members, though, you'll obsess over the last two. Don't. The real challenge is to get 31 to adore you, though the quest can lead to trouble if you're not careful.

Last spring, my best friend decided to flip his introduction to computer science class. He posted reading assignments and an online quiz on Friday, closed the quiz at 10:59 on Monday, and walked into his 11 a.m. class that day and introduced higher-level material based upon what students were supposed to have mastered. Some students did really well, some had tried taking the quiz without careful reading, and some simply didn't get what the text was telling them. One could take a hardball approach and say that those who tried to skip the reading got what they deserved and the clueless were in the wrong class. Insofar as my friend was concerned, though, flipping flopped.

Flipped classrooms presuppose that all students learn according to whatever conditions one establishes. This is, of course, true of all classes no matter what method(s) one uses. The problem wasn't that the flipped classroom method is bogus; it's that it was too far outside my friend's comfort zone. For him, there were too many baffled faces and too many laggards. More to the point, he hated the flipped classroom. It bored him. He tried it because his school was leaning on faculty to implement flipped classrooms.

Call it a bad choice. My friend was already a popular, creative professor who had been cited numerous times for outstanding teaching. One day we were discussing his dissatisfaction and the idea of just stopping arose. He did – happy professor, happy students.

My own experience with the flipped classroom mirrors his. I've seen it, have been to training, have been impressed by some of the results others have produced, and have experimented with it. I believe in it, but I don't like it. It's just not me.

I employ a modicum of flipping in small classes, but I'd rather take up yodeling than do it for an entire semester. Give me a class of 60 -- large for prolonged meaningful discussions and way too many for a seminar – and I'm at my best when I slip into an Oprah role; that is, an informal lecture in which I often come out from behind the podium and wander amidst the class soliciting comments. But that's not for everyone either. I once had a new TA who was terrified the first time she saw me in action. "I could never do that!" she cried (almost literally). There may come a time in which she can, but why should she copy me if she teaches better some other way?

One of the biggest problems with educational trends and models is that they can entice instructors to venture beyond what they do well. To return to an earlier point, education is indeed trend-prone. I'm amused when told that flipped classrooms are new. Really? I used to do this a lot when I taught high school in the early 1980s, except we called it "reviewing homework" and "pop quizzes" back then! Does anyone remember self-assessment? Drills? Behavioral models? Inquiry learning? Experiential education? TV courses? Case method teaching? The open university? Values clarification exercises? Individualized learning modules? Great Books courses? Student-directed learning? Collaborative learning? The common core? The early days of PowerPoint? CD-ROMs? Distance learning? If the flipped classroom is the newest and shiniest, does this mean that MOOCs are already over?

Every one of the above (and more) is a good idea – for some students and some instructors. The real question is, which ones work for you? There's a lot of middle ground between getting in a rut and straying too far from one's comfort zone. For new hires, though, it's a good idea to find one's voice before trying to modulate it. Don't feel like you must jump on the latest bandwagon if you're not ready – it hurts to fall off.
 

 

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