The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

Turning the tables on flipped classrooms

Sitting in lectures has never been a favourite pastime of mine. The scenery of the room rarely has more than 3 colours, and that’s including the door and the doorknob. The acoustics of the room are either so good that a single snore can be heard across the room, or so bad that the lecturer cannot be heard.


Most of all, I’m not the type that learns best while sitting and merely “absorbing”.

And that’s what lecturing assumes. Lecturing is an incredibly traditional method of “teaching” that assumes the student is a sponge. However, real learning is not solely absorption. Real learning requires understanding the concepts in the student’s own terms, then applying it and questioning the validity of these concepts so that he or she may test the boundaries. Many teachers and professors only do the first two points, but if the student is not critical of what he or she has learned, then how can  the student contribute to the betterment of society?

This is why the flipped classroom was introduced.

In traditional classrooms starting from primary school, this is the typical plan of a teacher during a typical lesson:

  1. Take up homework (some teachers don’t even do this though)
  2. Teacher-directed lecture on a topic.
  3. Students take notes or listen and watch teacher write things on the board, or put up things (By this point, most of the period is gone)
  4. Teacher introduces an activity (usually homework or desk work). Students get about 10-15 minutes to do this
  5. Period ends

Because most of the period is gone, there isn’t a lot of time for students to apply the knowledge they are expected to have learned (read: absorbed), let alone questioning the concepts.

The flipped classroom “flips” the situation. Instead of the teacher lecturing to an entire class during class time, the students listen/watch lectures at home, or do the readings at home, then discuss the readings and homework next class.

Sound familiar? This is the ideal that universities are trying to achieve. The prof assigns a reading, you read it at home, you may be expected to write a summary paper, and a discussion about the readings take place the next class.

One of my classes is a flipped classroom, and I do not enjoy it.

In theory, the flipped classroom is pretty good. I’ve briefly mentioned it here, but I want to critique the glorification of the flipped classroom. Not everything new works well, after all.

The flipped classroom assumes that all students can understand the material with relatively little error. In truth, this is absolutely not true. What happens when the student misunderstands the concepts, and continues to do his or her assignment? This results in something that is taboo for all teachers who truly care about their students’ learning: fossilization.

Fossilization is the process through which an error is ingrained in the student’s understanding of a concept due to a prolonged duration of not fixing the error. This happens when the teacher does not correct the student’s error at the time of committing the error.

Students encounter all types of bumps down the road when interpreting a text or a piece for themselves. Even if the teacher corrects the mistakes in the next day, it will definitely take much longer for the student to fix the error in his or her memory than if the teacher corrected them on the spot.

Secondly, courses that are highly abstract (ex. liberal arts and humanities) are not recommended to use the flipped classroom. Obviously not all types of subjects are suitable for the flipped classroom. Abstract subjects are extremely prone to interpretation, and this can lead to misunderstood concepts left, right, and centre. Subjects like maths and hard sciences have less chance to have debatable errors, so the flipped classroom would be beneficial for these types of courses.

I’m not suggesting that lectures be condoned for abstract subjects, but there can be a presence of a forum for students and the teacher to communicate in, like a subreddit or an EdModo to discuss difficult concepts.

Some teachers claim that students can move at their own pace because flipped classroom is student-centered. However, this assumes that all students have the self-discipline to actually do the work. This may be true for university students, and less true for high school students, and even less true (if there’s any more “true” left to use) for elementary school students. Setting your own goals and your own pace and following through requires a strong sense of commitment, a high level of interest and good self-discipline to really benefit. Yes, the flipped classroom is individualized, but is it tailored to students’  needs?

All educators should be cautious when deciding to use the flipped classroom. Lectures can be disengaging, but at the same time, the lecturer can use props and different ways of speaking in short periods of time to engage the audience. The main bit about lectures that makes it highly unsuccessful is lectures that are too long for what the topic is worth. In general, a lecture that is longer than an hour should definitely warrant a 5-10 minute break.

Sitting in a lecture isn’t always bad. After all, it’s a lot better than standing in a lecture.


24 comments on “Turning the tables on flipped classrooms

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  8. lonelyscientist
    January 22, 2013

    I really like this post. Everything is spilled out. I’m a freshman in a medical school and my course is mainly “problem-based learning” which is quite similar to the flipped classroom and it took me a whole semester to adapt to it. As for the fossilization, that’s completely true. I hate it when it happens.

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  10. tk1ng
    January 20, 2013

    The flipped model gives me the willies too, especially when evangelists tell us we have to go all in or it won’t be magical enough.

    I’m a terrible lecture learner, really bad at following audio, easily distracted. I can actually hang on lectures now if I get to backchannel about them – the multi-tasking is enough of a handful (and it is all focused on the information being presented) that my mind doesn’t wander off and do other things. I’m not a lecture nut.

    What I am is a ZPD/scaffolding kinda guy. These might be old fashioned ideas, but if I’m lecturing, I try to involve students as much as possible in order to gauge if (as you mention) they understand and can articulate what we’re doing accurately. I spend much more time seeing if they can do what we just learned and correcting them individually while we’re doing project based in-class work. For me, teaching happens when you figure out if a student is in the zone (familiar enough with adjacent knowledge to be able to make the leap into a new idea), and if they aren’t, you’re frantically scaffolding around what they do know to see if you can get them into that zone of proximal development.

    Anything you can teach yourself after reading a text book probably isn’t new knowledge, and in any case, until you attempting to replicate it yourself, it’s not your knowledge at all.

    Teaching is a tricky dance, trying to get clarity on ideas that students themselves may not know that they know (or don’t). Flipping the classroom always felt like offloading that responsibility onto students, not what a master learner (the teacher) should be doing. There is value on student centred learning, but the idea that students are capable of maximizing their own learning is a myopic one that diminishes the expertise of a good teacher.

    Great post!

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      January 20, 2013

      Thank you for your support! Yes, I’m familiar with ZPD, and I am quite in favour of it. I find scaffolding logical: how else would you make meaning without prior knowledge? When I teach, I give a short lecture, then most of my lesson time is based on a group activity that involves students moving around and talking with each other. It gives me a break, and also allows me to see if they know how to apply it.

  11. Danielle Harris
    January 20, 2013


  12. jcmarckx2009
    January 20, 2013

    I have nominated you for The Very Inspiring Blogger Award.
    Check it out here…

  13. Pete Laberge
    January 20, 2013

    I don’t know. My worry about this “flipped model” is resources.

    1. Teachers think they are all professional videographers. I wish someone would teach them they are not. Just because your iphone has a camera, does not mean you are Cecil B Demille. Most teachers are more like Alfred Hitchcock….

    2. The concept might work for really smart kids who have a personality that fits that learning style. But what of people who do not fit that style? We have come up with nothing new or useful. In the past, kids who could not learn the old lecture way would fail. Today kids who cannot learn this way, will fail. This is no panacea. And I wager as many people will get left behind as before.

    3. The model assumes only 1 class is doing it. So instead of homework, we give the kid an hours of lecture to listen to at night. But when 5 classes flip, the kid now has 5 hours of homework. And that assumes each video is listened to only once. That changes things!

    4. The model assumes a 2 stable “yuppie, 2 parent, 1 kid family”. The kid has the latest computer, does work in his home office, has the fastest internet, and had all the latest software. Good thing there are o broken families out there! There are no low income people without the latest Apple, lacking the lastest O/S, and making due with a lower speed of net. (Videos suck up bandwidth.) And there are no broken families either. No families with 2 or 3 kids, of different ages, maybe sharing a computer. Of the idyll Utopian world of teachers. If only they knew the real world was different!

    5. And as was pointed out in the article: What happens when the kid does not understand? He has to go to school the next day and try figure it out then. Will he? Will the teacher take the time? “Watch my video again!” is not the answer. And while helping Bob, who did not do his learning last nite, the teacher has little time for the other kids…

    6. Talking to a camera, is one thing, Talking to 30 people is another. When you talk to a camera it is too easy to fall into the monotone interview voice. And of course, there is no one to interrupt or slow you down. So your “presentation” tends to slowly speed up, until you are talking at 100 mph/kmh. I have seen it happen. Also, what looks good on your home PC, on your O/S, using your browser, with your software, and with your graphics card and monitor… may not look good on someone else’s PC. (Even if it is an Apple. After all, we know only Apples are used in education.)

    7. When I went to school, I must have had some dammed good teachers. They could talk for an hour, hold our attention, stop during the hour, see that we were catching on (I swear a couple had eyes in the back of their heads!), and also allow some discussion, and make sure we all had done 1 or 2 sample math, chemistry, or other such problems in class, where we could get help if we screwed up. A few could even answer questions without having to look stuff up! Homework was still given yes, too much of it… Projects were still given, also. Being a professional procrastinator I always did mine at the last minute. As one teacher said to me: “This is not bad, and the ink is not even dry. If you ever considered starting the thing more than 20 minutes before it was due, you could do good work and get A’s. I gave you a C. What do you want for 20 minutes effort?” But of course, there are no such teachers today.

    8. There may be one good thing about it: Now that the teachers are putting all their best teaching out on the internet, and in video form, that means this teaching is available to anyone, anywhere. So why hire expensive teachers who will not be teaching, but using Mrs,Jones videos instead? Let us merely give Mrs. Jones a simple royalty, so she can get rich, retire from teaching (which she is desperate to do), and make only videos. Then, instead of teachers, we can hire far cheaper “Learning Guides” for all the schools that used the JONES METHOD VIDEOS.

    Coming from the world of business, I like this. We could finally bring educational costs in line, and standardize quality. And those standardized tests would finally make sense. Since all teachers would use quality JONES Method Course Materials, we can forget the useless quizzes, and tests, and assignments, and projects that most teachers dream up on their own… Finally, a standardized working syllabus! And JONES tests, could replace those expensive Federal standardized tests that assume that a kid in Rhode Island, needs to AND knows exactly what a Kid in Hawaii knows and does!

    I like the standardization. The possibilities of high quality materials. The new “common core curriculum” that would be possible, and the huge cost savings. Labour is the biggest cost in education. This could be a creative way of controlling that cost. We should begin a large, well supervised, big data, industry monitored, 100% trial flipped, trial project… somewhere soon. And in 25 years we would know for sure if it worked.

    But I wonder….

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      January 20, 2013

      Thanks for bringing up the points about socioeconomic status (SES). Today’s flipped classrooms may actually exclude more kids than it includes because some kids may not be able to afford a computer. And even if the public library was an option, would the children have time to go there if they have issues at home that preoccupy them?

      Luckily, education is not business oriented (and I don’t count those private tutoring centres). “Blueberries” is a very short story that explains why school shouldn’t be run like a business because it can’t be run like one.

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  17. jcmarckx2009
    January 19, 2013

    I teach high school History, and it was the hardest shift for me to go from lecturing the full period (my only experiences in college) to actually engaging the students with student-direct learning. I try to mix a variety of activities, including lecture/note-taking, into 15-minute segments. I think there is room for some of the concepts of the flipped classroom, but I would not adopt it as a sole method of teaching.

    • RightFromYaad
      January 19, 2013

      I think at least one or two periods a day can facilitate this new method of learning. If we think we are perfect then we are doomed to fail. Perfection can only be achieved through constant change…Sadly teaching is not changing enough to enhance learning.

  18. theveryhungry
    January 19, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this perspective!

  19. Malkire
    January 19, 2013

    I teach in a high school that has been promoting this model for some time. I find as a teacher while the “setup” might take a little longer, the outcome is great as students really take ownership of their learning.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      January 19, 2013

      Personally, I think flipped classrooms can work really well if teachers do enough frontloading (or setting up, as you say) to prepare students for the amount of commitment and responsibility needed for flipped classrooms to really work. I don’t doubt that some great things can happen. I also think that there should be a good mix of different teaching models just to spice it up for students.

      • Malkire
        January 20, 2013

        Oh absolutely. As our headmaster also says, “there is no one “silver bullet” for teaching. Rather, flipped classrooms is one tool in a teacher’s kit.

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This entry was posted on January 19, 2013 by in education, school, teaching and tagged , , , , .


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