Over a cup of tea and a biscuit one day in 2012, I had a pedagogical epiphany. Aaron Sams’ book, Flip Your Classroom, changed he way I teach – and everyone is better off for it.
In what has become known as the “Flipped Classroom” methodology, Sams advocated abandoning our Victorian model of educating students – lecturing them in class, demanding that they write notes and carry out further work at home for assessment.
In a flipped classroom, teachers would ditch this “chalk ‘n’ talk” method by asking students, instead, to do the homework first. Learning begins when children read or watch available online materials and videos in short bursts, with subsequent class time used to discuss and cement the knowledge acquired.
“Flipped” is undoubtedly an excellent theory. It means teachers get to spend more meaningful time with students, evaluating based on comprehension that occurs actually in lessons, rather than based on prior sessions. Furthermore, while current homework counts so much toward vital assessment, brief at-home sessions that function, instead, to acquire knowledge are much less threatening.
Not to mention “flipped” parents are incentivised to help their children genuinely learn and comprehend, rather than to help complete their homework for them.
But flipped learning is more than just a theory. While serving as assistant head and physics teacher at Duke Of Kent School in Surrey for five years, I introduced the concept to key stage 3 and GCSE pupils. We used homework as the starting point for learning, with students consuming prescribed online learning materials using their own mobile or at-home devices before the relevant class.
I was astounded by the outcomes. Not only did I find I had more time to work with students in the classroom, as I hoped for when I entered the profession. I also saw that students were more confident during our face-time – after all, they had already acquainted themselves with the concepts we were discussing. Pupils were more engaged, happier, and I was able to further challenge the more able – plus, I loved my job more than ever. Flipping my classroom gave me the best GCSE results I ever achieved, and I am convinced “flipping” could help schools around the country achieve the same.
But, unfortunately, that day is a long way off. While the concept as a whole is still young, it has been adopted in the US, where it originated, with far more gusto than here in the UK. We are starting to see more individual schools dip their toes in the water, but, as yet, there is no groundswell and certainly no mandate for change from our political leaders. UK schools and their students risk being left behind.
It is easy to comprehend the barriers to greater “flipped” learning. For one, there is understandable inertia among teachers to introducing new methods. Teachers resist change because they fear losing control. To some, a world in which teachers are no longer the sole orators commanding a classroom’s attention sounds like a demotion. But a learning process that starts with self-directed student initiative gives teachers more time to be the star that helps solidify student learning on an individual basis – a holy grail that often seems far too distant.
Right now, our country’s education system doesn’t necessarily promote this model. Elsewhere, schooling is concerned less about end results and more about the journey, creating more time and less pressure for learning to occur ahead of examination. A system where assessment is so prevalent, however, is unlikely to let go of the current order.
We are starting to see some innovative teachers and schools introduce this new paradigm. For instance, the Stephen Perse School in Cambridge has made strides to place all of its learning resources online. But inculcating larger-scale adoption is going to require a five-point plan.
1. Publicise beyond the profession
Today, teachers and interested parties may be familiar with the potential, but most students and parents are not. You would be amazed how influential they can be as catalysts for change within schools. Parents who advocate a move to the flipped classroom could encourage schools toward roll-out.
2. Reboot how we view homework
Homework that simply reviews and tests student comprehension of previous lessons is as out-dated as yesterday’s newspaper. Systemic improvement starts with viewing at-home time as primary knowledge discovery but, to match the way pupils think today, requires moving from just a couple of hour-long sessions per-week to shorter, targeted homework timetabled so as to support the next day’s lessons.
3. Embrace change at all times
It is no surprise that flipped learning, which depends on student and teacher access to mobile and cloud information services, started in the US, where technology enthusiasm is greatest. By contrast, UK classrooms often look positively Victorian, and teachers are often far too reticent to embrace new devices in their own lives, never mind the classroom. Our new generation of digital-native teachers must push their colleagues to experiment with new technologies if we are to become braver users of the options available.
4. Give people the tools
It would be hard for schools to turn learning on its head without knowing that stakeholders have necessary access to the technology required for consuming learning materials at home. Fortunately, this is true for most students nowadays – even if the best screen they have available is a SmartPhone, they already have the key to a world of online information. For the rest, schools should make use of Pupil Premium grants to guarantee families have devices on-hand.
5. Governments should set out the case
It is too soon in the evolution of the “flipped” approach for our political leaders to be legislating a wholesale change in its favour. Instead, it is individual teachers, schools and parents who are driving isolated demand. But that doesn’t mean the UK’s governments shouldn’t take a position on it. Doing so, perhaps by providing guidelines through a proxy organisation, like the Institute of Education for example, would awaken many in the profession still unaware of the potential.
It would take a brave headteacher to say “let’s rip up homework as we know it”. But adopting the flip can be done on an evolutionary, not revolutionary, basis. For instance, teachers can begin by choosing, for some assignments, to issue prescribed reading or viewing that is later discussed and extended in the class.
Imagine if, in 10 years’ time, we had pulled our education system out of its centuries-old heritage. What if we had empowered students to drive their own curiosity and discovery? What if we could create more time for teachers to truly engage with pupils, to identify individual student strengths and weaknesses, to make a better-equipped and better-skilled workforce for the 21st century? I believe all that and more is possible, if we just flip our mindset.
Rob Eastment has been training teachers in ICT since 2000, with a particular focus on its application as a classroom tool. He taught in a range of different schools before joining Firefly in 2014.