Sep 16, 2013
There’s a trend in education to go overboard with an idea. Whether it’s State or Federal bureaucrats passing knee-jerk requirements and legislation, or individual educators latching onto the latest fad and embracing it completely, it seems like there’s a compelling need to go to extremes in our schools and classrooms. Granted, I could actually be mistaken about the latter. My impression regarding individual educators comes mostly from articles, blogs, and comments from around the internet, but it still concerns me a bit. At the risk of becoming a pariah, I’d like to suggest that virtue lies in moderation (Thank you, Aristotle). My thoughts this week regarding this idea lie around Flipped Classrooms.
In a Flipped Classroom, students learn new content online by watching video lectures or listening to podcasts, and what used to be homework is now done in class with teacher becoming more of a ‘facilitator’ - offering guidance and interaction with students, as a replacement for lecturing. The idea being that the ‘Sage on the Stage’ is now the ‘Guide on the Side.’
About a year ago I spoke with the principal of a middle school in West Palm Beach, Florida who asked me which I saw a teacher’s role as. Was it the Sage on the Stage or the Guide on the Side? My answer is both at once.
I love active learning. I love being able to do activities that reinforce concepts and make them meaningful to students. That being said, the students need the Sage to be able to explain the lesson or unit topic to them in a way that each student can understand.
‘But Mr. S,’ I hear you say. ‘The students are getting that bit of the Sage. They watch or listen to the lectures as the “New Homework.”’
Yeah, ok. They are getting the Sage in theory. I see three problems right off the bat. The first of these is that there are still students out there who don’t have computers or any similar means of acquiring the lecture portion of the lesson. You might think, ‘Oh, they can get it in the library/media center/what-have-you.’ You may be right, but that’s highly inefficient and inconvenient for both the student and his or her peers who might also need access to the digital facilities if they also have to spend the time in the media center viewing and reviewing class lectures. Further, how much of the lesson would such a student be able to effectively recall for the next day (unless they engage in repetitive memorization which adds to the inefficiency)?
Second, what does the student do when they have a question or they need clarification? A student can’t get an immediate answer from a video or podcast that is merely talking at them. The teacher can’t adapt the lecture to offer another approach to the lesson that might be clearer and have more personal meaning for the individual learner. I could watch a calculus video a hundred times, but if I don’t understand the way it’s being presented, I’m not going to understand it whether it’s the hundredth time or the hundred-thousandth time I’ve watched the video. The video doesn’t know that I’m struggling, and it can only repeat itself. The Sage, on the other hand, can retailor their presentation to the student, offering alternative ways to approach the topic that make it more understandable and accessible to them.
Theoretically, in the Flipped Classroom, students are at the center of knowledge acquisition. They are linked to this process by means of engaged active learning as they perform in-class tasks. The instructor now needs to be able to facilitate the learning process without influencing student choices - to work alongside of the student and to be able to oversee the growth and development of students. The teacher needs to be able to tell the student during the discursive stage of class if their understanding of the topic is outright mistaken. I recall media commentator and Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once saying that teachers take away freedom – that is, the freedom to be ignorant. That before a ‘reactionary teacher’ got hold of him, he was free to believe that William Shakespeare was born in 1574 (Honestly I don’t remember what year he said on the program.) and that H20 were ‘really the initials of a spy.’ In taking away the interactivity of a true lecture, we allow students to retain that freedom of ignorance.
Thirdly (and if anything will turn me into an outcast, it will be this), how many teachers already have difficulty getting their students to do homework assignments? It may be fairly cynical of me to say so, but I have noticed that a common reason why many students are placed in an AIS-type class (be it during school hours, after school, or during Saturday school), is failure to turn in assigned work. How much more difficult will it be to get a student to watch or listen to a lecture – especially for a subject or topic in which they have little or no interest, nor which is meaningful to them? Further, in a world where, when a student asked to write three things about themselves wrote ‘I. am. athletic,’ I find it even more doubtful that many students will take the time to write a meaningful reflection or provide something that a teacher would really want to use as an ‘authentic assessment.’
I will give Flipped Classrooms a concession, though. They do help teach students how to be responsible for their own work and manage their time effectively to some extent. However, in an age where my effectiveness as a teacher is judged by student results, I don’t feel comfortable trusting my vocation and my students’ futures in large part to a talking head on a screen, whether it’s my own or someone else’s.
I am not saying that I am wholly against Flipped Classrooms or any other new idea that comes down the pipe. I just would really like to see more study and investigation done on theories before they’re touted as the greatest thing since, well, the last greatest thing that was paraded before us.
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