Thoughts on the culture of an inverted classroom

I’ve just finished up the spring semester, and with it the second iteration of the inverted classroom MATLAB course. With my upcoming move, it may be a while before I teach another course like this (although my experiments with targeted “flipping” went pretty well), so I am taking special care to unwind and document how things went both this year and last.

I asked the students in this year’s class about their impressions of the inverted classroom — how it’s worked for them, what could be improved, and so on.  The responses fell into one of two camps: Students who were unsure of, or resistant to, the inverted classroom approach at first but eventually came to appreciate its use and get a lot out of the approach (that was about 3/4 of the class), and students who maybe still learned a lot in the class but never bought in to the inverted method. No matter what the group, one thing was a common experience for the students: an initial struggle with the method. This was definitely the case last year as well, although I didn’t document it. Most students found closure to that struggle and began to see the point, and even thrived as a result, while some struggled for the whole semester. (Which, again, is not to say they struggled academically; most of the second group of students had A’s and B’s as final grades.)

So I am asking, What is the nature of that struggle? Why does it happen? How can I best lead students through it if I adopt the inverted classroom method? And, maybe most importantly, does this struggle matter? That is, are students better off as problem solvers and lifelong learners for having come to terms with the flipped classroom approach, or is adopting this approach just making students have to jump yet another unnecessary hurdle, and they’d be just as well off with a traditional approach and therefore no struggle?

I think that the nature of the struggle with the inverted classroom is mainly cultural. I am using the anthropologists’ definition of “culture” when I say that — a culture being a system whereby a group of people assign meaning and value to things.

In particular, the way culture places value on the teacher is radically different between the traditional academic culture experienced by students and the culture that is espoused by the inverted classroom. In the traditional classroom, what makes a “good teacher” is typically that teacher’s ability to lecture in a clear way and give assessments that gauge basic knowledge of the lecture. In other words, the teacher’s value hinges on his or her ability to talk.

In the inverted classroom, by contrast, what makes a “good teacher” is his or her ability to create good materials and then coach the students on the fly as they breeze through some things and get inexplicably hung up on others. In other words, the teacher’s value hinges on his or her ability to listen.

Many students who are in that other 25% who never buy into the inverted classroom think that teachers using this approach are not “real” teachers at all. As one student put it, when they pay a teacher their salary, they expect the teacher to actually teach. What is meant by “teaching” here is an all-important question. Well, on the reverse side, if there were such a thing as a group of students who had only experienced the inverted classroom their entire lives and then entered into a traditional classroom, those students would think they are experiencing the worst teacher in the history of academia. The guy never shuts up! He only talks, talks, talks! We have to fight to get a word in edgewise, we get only brief chances to work on things when he is there, and we’re always booted unceremoniously out of the lecture hall (we used to call them “classrooms”) and left to fend for ourselves on all this difficult homework!

I’m convinced that bridging this cultural gap is what takes up most of the time and effort in an inverted classroom — forget about screencasts!

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Filed under Education, Educational technology, Inverted classroom, Teaching

6 responses to “Thoughts on the culture of an inverted classroom

  1. Robert,
    I am looking forward to seeing how you apply this approach at GVSU. When I started using the workshop method in my classes, I also found resistance. I, too, was treading on a cultural norm of what it meant to be in a math class. What has worked for me is being explicit about the approach, modeling what it looks like, and providing the rationale behind my choices. Because I am mostly teaching preservice teachers, they are usually more open to this new experience than learners in a foundations class. I wonder if you will find the same thing at Grand Valley.

    • David,

      We’ll see. I’m planning on using the targeted approach (see the link to earlier blog post above) in MTH 202 and MTH 210 in different sorts of ways, primarily for computer training on Maple and \LaTeX but also for some of the math content. As I’ve blogged before, you are right, the key thing is to make the workshops very distinct, modeling the process, and giving lots of rationale for its use. Being the new guy, I don’t want to go totally overboard with flipping my classes, but you can count on me doing this in small and increasing ways in the fall.

      • I already have the videos for my online class, and I want to invert, but I plan to do that very gradually. The more technology I use, the more resistant my face-to-face nontraditional students are. Plus, I would imagine that the best classroom is some combination of in-class lecture and activity, involving only a partial flip.

  2. Thanks, Robert, it’s always great to have you document your thought process for us! I’ve experienced very similar things in my flipped physics classrooms. I would say my most recent version (for which I have evals, ie fall of 2010) had a breakdown very similar to yours.

    One interesting thing that happened this semester is that a few students asked for a little more interactivity in my colleague’s lecture after having me in the fall. I took that as a good sign that the culture is changing a little.

    I do think that the culture depends on the subject, at least a little. Having been on my institution’s tenure and promotion committee, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting lots of classrooms for subjects all throughout the college. It’s interesting to note that I’ve never visited a straight-up lecture except in the sciences.

    Good luck with packing and the move, by the way. I’m sad to see you’re leaving only because my brother lives in Greenwood and I thought I’d stop in and meet you the next time I was in town.

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