The flipped classroom in philosophy–need to change lectures too

Somehow I missed all the hype about the “flipped” or “inverted” or “reversed” or “backwards” classroom over the past year or two. Just saw an excellent post on some Twitter feed or other (can’t remember which) that brought the whole idea to my attention–discussed below. At first I thought it meant inverting the classroom in the sense of the teacher no longer being the main expert, or the content-deliverer, but the students taking a more active role. Ummm…no. It’s more than that.

There is a truly excellent discussion of this model over at the User Generated Education blog, called “The Flipped Classroom Model: A Full Picture” ( I’m glad this was the first exposure I had to the whole idea, because it really helped me see the “full picture,” or at least the bigger picture, surrounding this new way of handling class time.

The idea is pretty basic, but as Jackie Gerstein (the author of the User Generated Education blog) points out, it’s too easy to get caught up in its seeming simplicity and miss how the technique could be best put to use in a larger educational model. To invert one’s classroom, one no longer uses class time to deliver content–that is done outside of class time, through things such as recorded video lectures, web resources, texts, etc.–but rather to engage in other sorts of activities that, in some educational contexts, have traditionally been done as homework. For example, one could have students apply knowledge in the form of problem solving, working on case studies, doing experiments, and more.

This video, showing what Aaron Sams (a teacher in Colorado) does with his class explains and illustrates the idea succinctly: He and Jonathan Bergmann have written a book about the model and their experiences using it: Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day (International Society for Technology in Education, 2012). Jonathan Bergmann has a blog with lots of information about the idea, and a HUGE list of blog posts on flipping the classroom, both those who endorse it and those who question it (under “learn more” on his blog site: Clearly this is something people are talking about and trying quite a bit these days. Perhaps the things I’m about to discuss below have been talked about by others, somewhere on those copious blog posts…sorry, but I just don’t have time to read them all.

What is class time for?

I was initially intrigued by the idea, seeing as how I’ve long wondered just how best to use class time (I’ve got a couple of posts on this issue, with the “use of class time” tag). I have not been happy with the model that formed my own education and that, by default, I used myself for much of my teaching career so far: class time is for the professor to stand and deliver content, while the students take notes. At it’s best, it’s a time for as much interaction between teacher and students during this process as possible, which becomes trickier as class sizes get larger.

Over the past few years I have tried to alter this model by consciously working to insert “active learning” activities into class time, at least one per 50-minute session, so that I don’t lecture more than about 20-25 minutes at a time. What I ask students to do varies according to the topic and readings at hand, but sometimes it will be individual, pair or small group work on things like: a particular question about the text (e.g., where they have to work out what they think is going on in a thorny passage or outline an argument), an activity like discussing the “trolley problem” or the “experience machine” in Ethics, small group presentations where one student prepares a short presentation and questions for discussion for their small group. I’m continually trying to think up new such activities to break up lecture time.

Problems with my lectures

But I still lecture in class, and have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I think it’s vital to have some time where the knowledge and expertise I have, which can be of use to the students, can be accessed by them. I do think lecturing, in some form, continues to have some important place in teaching in higher education. But I am still not thrilled with how I do it–I often just go over the texts assigned to explain difficult parts. That, I think, has some value because philosophy texts can be very hard for many students, especially those new to the discipline.

But I think me telling the students in lecture what the text says does a disservice in two ways:

  1. It suggests that they don’t have to really read the text b/c I’ll just go over it in class (how many philosophy teachers have found this occurring in their classes, especially when the students find the texts difficult to read? And really, I don’t blame them. I can hardly anymore imagine what it must be like to try to read Aristotle or Descartes’ Meditations or Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals for the first time, but since I struggle with these even today…).
  2. It suggests that my reading of the text is the right one: no matter how much I say I’m open to other interpretations, the fact that I’ve stood up there and delivered my interpretation as the expert, and provided notes that I post online, suggests that they should take my view as authoritative. Only a few students, and usually only in their later university years, take on the challenge I sincerely think is a good thing to do–to read the text differently than I have, and provide a good justification for doing so.

This is all just background to say I have struggled with what to do with class time. How much do I lecture and how much time should the students spend doing other things? And even when I do lecture, what should it be like?

I’ve also thought about the timing of the explanatory lectures. One possibility that I haven’t tried yet (I’m currently on sabbatical and thus not teaching until Sept. 2013) is to give a mini-lecture introducing a text and just some of the basic ideas in it, before the students read it. Then I would ask them to bring to class a draft outline of the main points, plus questions, criticisms, etc. to discuss with their small group (these draft outlines and questions would also be turned in to me, just for “completion” marks). Class time would be spent with them discussing in their small groups, then bringing questions to the whole class, or moving the small group members around and discussing questions in new groups before bringing them to the big class. There are a few permutations on this idea, but the point would be to put the onus on the students to try to understand the text and come up with potential concerns/criticisms/alternatives on their own,before I come into the conversation. We would work out a reading together, in other words.

Now, few of these concerns are really addressed with the flipped classroom model (and despite the title of the book noted above, I doubt anyone really thinks this is, by itself, going to solve all our problems and reach every student every time!). Taking the lectures outside of class time would provide more time for active learning in class, discussion and development of readings of texts in class, but if my lectures remain the same outside of class then I haven’t solved the two problems noted above.

It’s not just where/when/how lectures are delivered that is important (though I’m not denying those things are of importance), but what they’re like that is of most interest to me. That, and their place in a larger picture of the educational process. What is the role of lectures/content delivery in what we hope students will get out of our classes?

The flipped classroom as part of a bigger picture

This is why I found Jackie Gerstein’s post (already linked above, but here too since this post is long!: “The Flipped Classroom: A Full Picture”) so interesting (even though, as discussed below, it doesn’t yet solve my two problems above). She notes that just changing the place of lecture vs. “homework” isn’t enough;  b

In order to minimize the flavor of the month syndrome (recall character education, phonics movements, multicultural education, Reading First, powerpoints in the classroom), the use of video lectures needs to fall within a larger framework of learning activities – within more establish models of learning, providing a larger context for educator implementation.

Gerstein then explains what she calls in that post a “Flipped Classroom Model,” that provides educators a sense of “what to do” with the time in class once the lectures are moved outside of class. It is in the form of a cycle of learning that draws on previous models, and has four stages:

  • Experience: the cycle begins with some kind of experiential learning activity that engages students and piques their interest. This takes place in class.

They become hooked through personal connection to the experience and desire to create meaning for and about that experience (ala constructivist learning). Students become interested in the topic because of the experience.  They have a desire to learn more.  This is in line with John Dewey’s thinking regarding experience and education.

  • Concept exploration: this is where the lectures and other learning materials outside of class come in. Students are hooked by the experiential activity into wanting to learn more, and the materials provide a first step in that direction. This takes place outside of class.
  • Meaning making: it’s not enough, of course, just to hear lectures, see and read websites and texts; students must somehow engage with that material. One way is through reflection, such as can be done in journals or blog posts (or audio or video). It is also the phase where testing could occur, though Gerstein suggests such testing should be at higher levels in Bloom’s taxonomy, such as “evaluation, applying, synthesizing.” This takes place outside of class, I think.
  • Demonstration and application: Gerstein’s own words describe this best (below). This should take place inside the classroom, she argues, as teacher and peer feedback can be essential (e.g., students give presentations and others provide feedback):

During this phase, learners get to demonstrate what they learned and apply the material in a way that makes sense to them. This goes beyond reflection and personal understanding in that learners have to create something that is individualized and extends beyond the lesson with applicability to the learners’ everyday lives.

At the end of her post, Gerstein provides an example of the four stages in a particular course, which is quite helpful.

I find it very important to think about lectures, discussions, assignments, etc. in a more holistic fashion, as part of a larger process that is justified by more than my own sense of, well, this is just how it’s been done before so I’ll continue doing it. I do strongly agree that beginning with an “experiential exercise” of some kind makes sense, and I’ve tried to incorporate some of that in my philosophy classes, trying to find some way to help students engage with the problems at hand to be energized to pursue them further. Thought experiments, discussions of current events, and eliciting personal experiences in journals are ways I’ve tried so far. I’ve also used journals as reflection tools, and small group discussion and presentations for the same purpose. I suppose the last phase, demonstration and application, would correspond to an essay in philosophy, and I’ve even at times tried to incorporate their own everyday lives into essays, by scaffolding essay assignments that begin with their own views, then use the texts read to support or criticize or encourage change in their own views. Of course, that doesn’t take place inside the classroom, and I’m not sure it always has to.

Perhaps this model resonated with me b/c I’m already doing these things, sometimes, in some classes, without really thinking about the whole picture.

Summary of my thoughts on flipping the classroom in Philosophy

  • The flipped classroom idea as a bare bones notion of taking lectures outside the classroom and doing other things inside it is not enough to address the concerns I’ve been having with my class time. I need to think more about just what those lectures would look like, whether inside or outside.
  • If done at all, I agree with Gerstein that it would be best consciously done as part of a larger model, where one has a good sense of what one is doing inside the classroom and why.
  • I still, at the moment, want to hold on to doing the lecture in the classroom, because it allows for interactivity during the lecture, which energizes both me and the students if done well. I try to only rarely just talk myself for much more than about 10 minutes, and then ask probing questions to get a mini-discussion going, before going back to the lecture. If the lecture is short overall, I can still have time to do the other things during class.

In a later post (“Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture for Higher Education”), Gerstein sums up nicely how I feel at the moment about the flipped classroom:

If video lectures drive the instruction, it is just a repackaging of a more traditional model of didactic learning.  It is not a new paradigm nor pedagogy of learning.