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John Tomlinson

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Learning and Development Consultant

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Flipping classrooms: silly name for a good idea?


Traditional training is based on the model where an expert trainer stands at the front and tells people stuff.

This is known as “the sage on the stage” model, or, as Brazilian Philosopher and educator Paulo Freire calls it: the Banking Concept:

"Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat."

(Source: The Banking Concept of Education by Paulo Freire)

To put it another way, an active all-knowing speaker educates groups of passive ignorant listeners.

Freire’s conclusion is that this approach doesn’t work because ...

"Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other."

This conclusion is kind of what the “flipped classroom” idea is about: moving away from the “sage on the stage” approach of shoving facts into passive students' memories, to a model where the trainer becomes “the guide on the side”, helping active learners to engage socially to enquire, discuss and discover in order to build genuine understanding and deep knowledge.

Here’s one definition of “flipped classroom”:

"The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of the course are reversed"

(Source: 7 things you should know about a flipped classroom by Educause Learning Initiative)

When we dig a little deeper into the same article, we discover that what they mean is:

"almost any class structure that provides prerecorded lectures followed by in-class exercise"

So not just pedagogical, it can also apply to adults (“any class structure”), and it’s about having prerecorded knowledge transfer followed by in-class collaboration.

"... an instructor “flips” by replacing lectures with more active forms of student engagement in the classroom"

(Source: Can flipped classrooms help students learn by Nancy Lape, Rachel Levy and Darryl Yong)

That's not what "flips" means, but I'll let that go.

What is a flipped classroom?

It’s about two things (neither of which have anything to do with the word “flip”):

- The knowledge-transfer bit is taken out the classroom and given separately beforehand (ideally via a video or similar)

- The classroom is used to reinforce the learning through exercises and social interaction (what Salman Khan calls "discovery camp")

Haven't we heard all this before?

This was how my first degree course was constructed:

- Attend a lecture

- Read the source material

- Attend a seminar to discuss it all

Same principle.

It didn’t work so well because the two methods used to transfer the knowledge were boring and hard work, and step three was often misinterpreted to mean “attend a pub” rather than “attend a seminar”, but the structure was basically the same.

But let’s not be cynical.

Whatever else happens to human civilization and the world and stuff, one thing I know for sure: we cannot let the cynics win!

So whilst I'm not convinced this is anything new, it has been shown to drive up standards in schools and has good applicability for workplace learning (beyond turgid pre-course reading and PowerPointy e-learning modules).

To work properly it has to be good, and this depends on two things:

1. The pre-course content must be accessible, engaging and of high quality

2. The classroom element must be about making the most of reflection and the social experience

This makes sense.

I have acquired more knowledge from self-directed use of YouTube and Wikipedia than I did in over twenty years of formal study at school and university.

To paraphrase(ish) the great Mark Twain:

"My learning is rarely driven by my schooling"

I don’t like the term “flipped classroom”, but I reckon it’s about trying to make sure the "schooling" bit (i.e. stuff I’ve been taught) is more effective at driving the "learning" bit (i.e. stuff I've actually learnt) by making the most of classroom's social and collaborative opportunities and moving knowledge transfer to a much more effective medium like video.

Silly name for a simple concept.

2 Responses

  1. Traditional?

    Not sure why this is still called "Traditional"

    Training has been based on "doing" for at least 15 years. 

    Anyone doing anything else probably isn't even employed or in business in 2016.

    SMEs excluded, that's a different issue. 

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John Tomlinson

Learning and Development Consultant

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