Why I Refused to Flip My Classroom

Why I Refused to Flip My ClassroomA handful of years ago I was teaching fourth grade when the whole idea of the flipped classroom entered my radar. The Educause definition of the topic states:

The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects, or discussions.

In short, get the direct instruction out of the way so class time can be dedicated to problem solving.

The Problem

Front-loading direct instruction goes against everything that I believe in as an educator, and therefore, so does the way in which most classrooms are flipped.

For example, let’s take a look at adding fractions with common denominators. For homework, students can watch a clunky Khan Academy video, or something comparable, and be force-fed the proper formula (add numerators, denominators stay the same). Then, at later points in time, these students can complete numerous problems that are identical to what was shown in the video (with just the digits changed, of course).

Students may be able to get all of the problems correct, but does it really mean anything?

In what has been called parrot math, “this approach suggests that children mimic mindlessly what teachers [or videos] model with the hope that somehow the mimicry will lead to learning. Do parrots understand?”

Furthermore, will the ensuing exercises, projects, or discussion (on which the majority of class is spent) actually matter to students when they already have the “right” answers?

The Solution

According to John Van de Walle, “It is important to understand that mathematics is to be taught through problem solving.”

To clarify…There is a considerable difference between students learning as a result of problem solving vs. word problems that are thrown at students after they’ve already memorized the basics.

Let’s examine another approach to teaching fractions with common denominators. When I taught this concept my students interacted with several pairs of electronic fraction bars through a paint program, and each pair of bars was already divided up for them into equal parts (to signify common denominators). Students were able to manipulate or electronically fill in parts of the bars in order to come up with equations (e.g. 1/5 + 2/5 = 3/5, 4/10 + 3/10 = 7/10, etc.). After generating several equations, the students looked for patterns, and based on these patterns they were able to “uncover” the proper formula for adding fractions with common denominators while also being able to explain why it “worked.” After, students practiced using the formula by applying it to basic problems.

Although a decent amount of time was allocated to students uncovering the formula, it was time well spent as they developed a conceptual understanding of the content. Less time then had to be devoted to “drill and kill.”

As Van de Walle declared:

Then, by allowing students to interact with and struggle with the mathematics using their ideas and their strategies – a student-centered approach – the mathematics they learn will be integrated with their ideas; it will make sense to them, be understood, and be enjoyed.

In the End

First, I cannot recommend enough the books of John Van de Walle, as his work explains in the most concrete way possible what it means to facilitate inquiry-based mathematics. In my previous district, when we made the Common Core shift, every teacher across all seven elementary schools was provided one of his books.

Second, although there is definitely more than one way to flip a classroom, this post reflects the one method that I have most commonly seen and experienced throughout my career. Also, while I have used math as an example, I do believe that the same overall ideas apply to all subject areas.

Finally, no matter what the approach, I cannot help but think that flipping a classroom is developmentally inappropriate, especially for students at the elementary level. If we want our students to engage in productive struggle, inquiry, and the uncovering of formulas, I have a hard time believing that these objectives can be fulfilled by watching of videos in isolation (no matter what the videos contain).

Nonetheless, I realize that these beliefs reflect my teaching style and my experiences, and I would be willing to be bet that there are educators who have flipped their classrooms in ways that benefit their students. So, if you are one of these educators, please feel free to contact me/leave a comment with your approach, as I would love to include your work in a follow-up post.

What are your thoughts on the flipped classroom? How have you seen it implemented effectively? Was it just a passing fad that’s already had its day?

Connect with Ross on Twitter.


30 thoughts on “Why I Refused to Flip My Classroom

  1. Hey Ross,
    Totally agree. A few years ago I tried the Flipped thing. I felt that there was no real change in what we were doing. It also took away from doing all those amazing lessons that we can use to engage student curiosity, thinking and understanding. In a flipped class students don’t get to experience the math and fall in love with it!
    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks, Jon! I think it’s interesting that you tried flipping and then went back. As you imply, there’s more to math than “correct” answers…I look forward to connecting again.

  2. I have colleagues who think flipping is great. I think my students benefit from the conversations we have around why math works the way it does. I want to have these conversations as we are uncovering a new topic, so they can integrate the ideas with the procedures.

    • Thanks! These conversations are so important. Although I think they can be done virtually, such as through an LMS, often times face-to-face is what is needed (especially with younger students).

  3. Ross,

    I agree with your comments. And most of all I agree with the comment on the Van De Walle books. They are an amazing resource. It is one of my go to resource when developing PD that is centered around Inquiry Based learning.

  4. I always wondered how parents felt at home. I know with my students, many of them have plenty of extra curricular activities, and they may not have the time to watch the videos enough to understand. Many kids can easily watch a 3 minute Kahn video, but is watching it one time enough to understand what is going on?

    • Thanks, Eric! I do think that one of the benefits of having these videos handy is that they can be watched multiple times, at a student’s own pace/learning level. I believe the bigger question is when they should be watched…In general, I do think that watching a 3-minute video one time is not enough.

  5. Ross,

    You’ve nailed it. As Jon mentions above, simply shifting around a lecture dominant / direct instruction approach does not get away from the problems associated with that style of lesson. It is simple to tell students how to add fractions, but it is also simple for students not to listen. Tossing them an algorithm without an opportunity for them to uncover the math behind is sucks out all of the curiosity and fun.

    In recent years, I have been shifting to a task-based approach that encourages students to use the inquiry process to solve the problem prior to using any form of algorithm. Make ’em sweat it out, leveraging intuition and prior knowledge to come to a solution. Then, we try to make a rule/algorithm/formula for what we have just uncovered. At times, they get there quickly, while other times, I need to step in and do a bit of guiding – however, all students know they can solve that type of problem without the “teacher’s way” and thus they can feel confident that they can get out of a jam if an algorithm let’s them down.

    Now that I’ve “flipped” my classroom from a traditional lesson with direct instruction at the forefront to a task-based discovery approach, I couldn’t imagine letting the introduction of a new concept be wasted on a 5 minute, Khan-style video. I can’t get enough of the satisfaction I feel when students dive into a new problem and a connection is made to a brand new concept.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Kyle! As you say, once the shift is made to inquiry-based, it is hard to imagine going back to a traditional style in which student “errors” are minimized. Also, as you touch upon, inquiry naturally lends itself to differentiation as you are freed up to step in and provide individual/group guidance when necessary.

      When I taught fourth grade, at first there was an obvious contrast between the way I taught math and my instruction in all other subject areas, as I couldn’t figure out the “formula” for moving the math towards inquiry. So, I had a bit of an “aha moment” when I read the Van de Walle books (and no, I do not benefit from their sales).

      Many teachers are looking to make their instruction more rigorous (and not just in math). But, along with these types of shifts we usually need explicit direction in regards to how these changes can be made.

  6. Thank you for the article. As I watched several teachers “try” to flip, I kept wondering why? I asked my high school honors daughter about flipping and she said, “Don’t do it.”. I turned to a blended classroom instead. Cooper, thank you for the validation. Student relationships need to be developed in class. No video (even of ourselves) can do that.

    I think I’m going to read more of your articles. Keep up the good work.


    • I am in my 3rd year of flipped learning and the thing I like best about it is having more meaningful relationships. When I lectured I talked to maybe 4-5 students per class, you know, the same ones that would always answer or ask questions while the others sat there passively. Now I am happy to say I have the opportunity to connect with all 24 students each and every day. The video is just the beginning, it is what goes on in class that is most important and flipped learning has given me that opportunity.

  7. Unfortunately what was presented in the body of the blog and the discussion that ensued are representative of not understanding flipped instruction nor understanding how to use problem solving in instruction. There must be a thoughtful opportunity to create a need to know a skill to be developed in order to solve a meaningful and compelling problem.

  8. 4 years ago when I was under a strict pacing calendar, I found flipping to be my best bet. I was expected to cover a topic a day and assess on Fridays. I did not have time for exploration etc. Flipping afforded me the time in class to have conversations and target areas of need by placing students in ability groups to make good use of instructional time.
    After two years of Common Core, my flipping looked very different and aligns nicely with Kyle’s thoughts. I would teach an exploration and make students struggle in class. Next I would send them home with a video that explains the algorithm and makes meaning of the math they struggled with in class. The next day, I wold provide practice with the skills learned through the exploration and flipped video.
    The in-class practice would be determined by a formative assessment where I would first see what students understood from the exploration and formative assessment then put students in ability groups. The formative assessment helped me group students based on need and target instruction accordingly. I don’t think anybody truly flipped their entire instructional practice. Just like good teaching, we asses what needs to be taught and find the best means for delivering that learning experience.

    • Julie,
      I teach math also and found that I love having a flipped classroom. Each day I am afforded the opportunity to teach my students to struggle with a concept they vaguely know about. This dynamic allows the kids to develop so many skills, mostly the 4 C’s. I spend a lot less time lecturing and a lot more time exploring. Almost every day I get to talk about gathering evidence and where can we go to collect evidence to help us with this concept. After piquing their interest, they can go home and watch the video and instructional piece that may be useful to them for solving the concept.

    • Thanks, Julie! I think the key point you make is that the students watch the “direct instruction videos” after the exploration/struggle, not before. I would be interested in talking sometime about how this contrasted to what your classroom looked like prior to the Common Core…I look forward to connecting again!

  9. I have used the flipped classroom model when teaching IGCSE physics. However, I would not recommend this model as a general rule. In my case, I only flip the classroom when I feel it makes sense: when there is something which is not conceptually hard but requires extended practice. For example, when theory is extremely simple but problem-solving can get complex. On the other hand, I prefer a more hands-on, inquiry-based approach when tackling more abstract concepts, for example that of the electric field. Unfortunately IGCSE co-ordinated science leaves very little time to cover an awful amount of content, which does not let me spend time developing things the way I would like.
    I also find that the way problems are chosen is extremely important. I try to introduce two or three key ideas in the videos (which I record myself), which then get developed and extended by problem solving. It makes no sense to ask the same question over and over again with different numbers: questions have to challenge the students’ understanding and make them think. For example, if I were talking about Newton’s first law, I would make students consider situations where intuition and physics seem to give different answers, such as the fact that when you’re riding a bike at a constant speed forces are balanced, despite your feeling that you are making an effort: you’re just using all this energy to cancel air resistance, not to “move” the bike.
    I also use hinge questions both at the start and at the middle of a lesson, where students use coloured cups to show their answers. This helps me clarify common misconceptions before they take root.
    As a corollary to your post, I would say that the model itself is less important: what’s important is being thoughtful about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. This is not an all-or-nothing affair: you can flip some lessons and not some others or you can flip part of a lesson. You can also use flipping as a redundant source of information for students who missed class or who need to constantly review.
    PS This is the first time I comment here, but I find your blog a constant source of enjoyment.

    • Eduard, thanks for reading and commenting! I think it’s impressive that your “level of flipping” is based on the complexity of what you are teaching. As you state, it’s not about the model, but being thoughtful about what we’re doing. Sometimes I think we’re too quick to do something just so a label can be attached to it…Also, I love how you bring up that “it is not an all-or-nothing affair.” Thanks again!

  10. Ross,
    I commented on the Steven W. Anderson’s post that you reference here, and I will try to “sell” the idea of flipped learning in a similarly here as I did there.
    In the beginning of flipping, the general idea of making videos as homework is what started, and that still is where the majority of people start. However, the term “flipped learning” has morphed into more of a focus on pedagogy. After writing a 30 page literature review for my Masters work on Flipped Learning, I would say a better definition of Flipped Learning would be, “A teachers effort to critically analyze the content in their classroom and how it is taught. The teacher then makes the BEST effort to push lower-level Blooms outside the classroom for students to self explore/digest, in order to make MORE room inside the classroom for the upper-levels of Blooms.” The lower-levels consumed outside the classroom does NOT have to be videos (readings, discussion forum set up on an LMS, etc.) Where teachers will “fail” with flipping is by pushing lower-levels out in order to make more room in class for more lower-levels (skill and drill). The example you reference where a Math teacher makes videos and then does word problems in class is an example of this. Students never get beyond the Applying level of Blooms. Students need to work through Blooms in order to learn, period. How they work through that, and how LONG they work at each level is up to the teacher.
    One key fact that became apparent in my literature review is when teachers pushed out lower levels and worked in MORE upper-level activities (that is, activities where students are Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating) INSIDE class time, students perceived the class and content to be more valuable. As a result, attendance went up as well as classroom achievement and cognitive engagement.
    I have created a website based on my research. It is designed for teachers to self-lead a change from traditional teaching to flipped learning. Maybe it will also help paint a better picture than what I am doing here (http://jardo3.wix.com/flippedlearning). I co-teach a course for grad credit based on these same principles.
    I run into people who failed at flipping and then absolutely reject the notion. If a teacher says videos followed by skill and drill is bad pedagogy, then I whole-heartedly agree and stand with them. But teachers must be willing to change this misconception in order to see what research has proven HIGHLY beneficial of flipped learning.
    Love reading the other comments posted. Hopefully we can come to a common definition that reflects the true effectiveness of Flipped Learning.
    Let me know if any of my resources helped 🙂 I’m considering putting down the money for a domain if teachers find it helpful and useful.

    • After reading your comment I realized you conveyed exactly what I was trying to say, but better: flip the lower level, then work on higher level skills in the classroom. That is: take the parts where the teacher is not so essential outside and leave the parts where guided thinking is crucial inside. Thanks!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and respond! First, the idea of flipping not having to involve videos (but readings, discussion forums, etc.) is an interesting one, as videos are not always the best way to go.

      It’s pretty clear that lower-level at home to make room for more lower-level at school is pretty nonsensical. However, one of the main points of the post is that making room for higher-level can also be counterproductive if students are simply provided with an algorithm for homework and then asked to call upon it during class; I believe the direction instruction should generally come after the fact.

      Thanks a lot for the resource, and I’ll make sure to include it in the follow-up post!

  11. I have a few issues with flipping. First, I’m not a fan of homework. Secondly, there are still many students without Internet access in their homes. As an elementary teacher, I also believe it is impractical to expect students to “prepare” for the next day’s lessons.

  12. Thank you for the very though-provoking post Ross!

    I once refused to flip, especially in 2012, especially when I failed in flipping miserably. At that time, I promised not to subject myself to be seen by my students on video — it’s too much prep work and frustrating to execute… not to mention the awkward feeling of seeing and hearing yourself on video.

    However, teaching 4 different math classes in 2014, with 2 AP math classes to teach, there’s no way I can take my students to passing the AP test in less than 50 minutes of class period each day. So I gave flipping a 2nd try to give my students a fighting chance to at least get a 3 on the AP test.

    Based on my own experience, I am happy to say that I achieved my goal of using my flipped classroom to teach math not only to my college bound students but also to my algebra and precalculus students. My students still struggle, get frustrated, and feel defeated in my math classes, but now I have more time to be the expert in the classroom and have more time to show them ways on how math can be learned in school.

    In response to what you mentioned on your post about showing students clunky Khan Academy videos, resulting to teaching students parrot math is what I can consider as one of the pitfalls of having a flipped classroom— if done improperly. I agree with jbormann about knowing what you need to know about flipped classroom before implementing it as your teaching pedagogy.

    Is flipped classroom just a passing fad that’s already had its day? In my humble opinion, I think it will stay, with a few enhancements by educators who will choose this platform to help students in facilitating learning using multimedia technology.

    • Peter, thanks for taking the time to read and respond! It is great to hear that the flipped classroom has worked out for you and your students! I can definitely see how, at the secondary level, the limited amount of time with each group of students lends itself to wanting to flip a classroom.

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