Let’s Scramble, Not Flip, the Classroom

We need a new instructional model to replace the lecture-only format, but let’s not simply replace one rigid approach with another, Pamela Barnett argues. Rhetoric matters.

February 14, 2014
U. of North Carolina Wilmington

The “flipped classroom” is the idea of the moment, advocated by everyone from Bill Gates to Eric Mazur, the pioneering science educator. This educational innovation is exciting and promising – but I’d argue for a slight revision to the discourse to make sure we don’t replace one rigid format with another. My suggestion: let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom.

Educause, a leading organization for advancing the effective use of instructional technology, defines the flipped classroom “as a model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed." In the well-known Khan Academy model, students view short video lectures at home, freeing up class time for heads on and hands on engagement with course content, guided by the instructor. Proponents are definitely on to something – why did practice so often happen as “homework”?

Isn’t it better for a student who is stuck on a problem to have access to an instructor who can ask the right questions, offer feedback or explain difficult concepts or processes? Isn’t it better for students to analyze texts and images together in a community of learners, taking in new perspectives as they build understanding, rather than going it alone and then coming to class to hear what the professor thinks? 

The “flipped” classroom seeks to be an antidote to the traditional model in which content is delivered in class by a lecturer, and homework becomes the site for students to practice. Some of the excitement is due to recognition of the power of active learning, and suspicion about the effectiveness of long lectures. Lecture can be a useful teaching tool, but we now know that lecturing for 50 to 90 minutes straight is money into an incinerator, so to speak. Given limits to students’ attention spans, there is a law of diminishing returns when lecturers persist in “covering the material” past the 20 minute mark. The flipped classroom model uses short, more digestible, lectures.

"If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity."

Yet I believe the lexicon for this change – flipping, reversing, inverting or overturning -- is problematic, and might encourage some to stop short of conceptualizing a more promising transformation.  Manifestations of the “flipped” could become as rigid as the 19th century “all lecture, all the time” mode being critiqued.   

Faculty should not stop lecturing to assembled students in favor of “all active learning, all the time” in classrooms. In the 21st century, the lecture plays an important role in helping students find a path in the avalanche of text and information.  How does a disciplinary expert organize and evaluate this information? What ideas rise to the top and what are the relationships among them?

The best lecturers clarify key concepts with concrete, relevant and sometimes timely examples. They also inspire students, by investing their delivery with passion and enthusiasm.  The bottom line: lecture has persisted because students need to hear from teachers. When trimmed down substantially and used intentionally in combination with other methods, lecture need not be relegated to video clips.

While not all proponents are advocating for a simple inversion that places all lecture online and all active learning in class, this reversal is the dominant way of discussing the phenomenon. If we name this innovation more precisely, we could lead some faculty to adopt it in more nuanced and effective ways.

Words matter. If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity. I think it is time to update our vocabulary, guiding the dominant conceptualization toward a more nuanced practice for the good of our students. What is good for our students is a scramble or mix of direct instruction and practice and feedback. The beauty is that technology affords us opportunities to provide for both needs in both online and face-to-face contexts. We need to use these two teaching approaches -- direct instruction versus facilitated practice -- intentionally to help students meet our learning goals.

What does this look like? Students in a scrambled class might start in the online environment by watching a short lecture or reading a course text, before engaging in an online discussion with fellow students.  After engaging in these learning activities (which entail direct instruction and practice with the course material) they might complete an assessment that would enable the instructor to evaluate student learning and identify areas of difficulty or misconception.

This model of regular assessment before face-to-face class meetings is a key component of Eric Mazur’s version of the flipped classroom, known as “Peer Instruction.” (Indeed, Mazur has been experimenting and writing about his own robust and flexible version since the early 1990s.)  Assessment activities online might include inviting students to submit questions, take a quiz or write a response to a targeted question.   

Instead of coming into a “flipped” classroom for the engagement and practice, the mix of content transmission, practice and assessment has already begun.

The scrambled classroom enables a variety of approaches for the face-to-face environment as well. Class meetings in this model could include short lectures which introduce new concepts or address misconceptions that were revealed by online assessment. Direct instruction can then be mixed with active engagement, giving students the opportunity to practice new skills like applying, evaluating or synthesizing course concepts. Ideally, students will have opportunities to collaborate with each other. Students can also take advantage of the instructor’s presence as a responsive facilitator, as they wrestle with new ideas or skills. 

The instructor might end face-to-face class sessions by assessing for understanding, using low-tech classroom assessment techniques like the “one-minute paper” or “the muddiest point” or with technological tools like classroom response systems, better known as “clickers.” If questions or misconceptions are revealed, the professor might use that knowledge to build his/her next lecture, to be delivered in either the virtual or face-to-face environment.   

We are at an exciting moment in education, with an abundance of technological tools to use for delivering content and engaging students. Wherever we teach on the continuum from face-to-face to hybrid to fully online instruction, we can and should be using technology in accordance with best practices. 

With the scrambled classroom model, we are challenged to learn new possibilities, but also to design instruction based on principles we have known about for some time.  In the scrambled classroom model, the innovation is not so much “online learning,” but “human learning” supported by all that the 21st century brings to the table.


Pamela E. Barnett is associate vice provost and director of the Teaching & Learning Center at Temple University.


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