Tag Archives: Teacher

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

Understanding “understanding”

This past Saturday, I was grading a batch of tests that weren’t looking so great at the time, and I tweeted:

I do ask these two questions a lot in my classes, and despite what I tweeted, I will probably continue to do so. Sometimes when I do this, I get questions, and sometimes only silence. When it’s silence, I am often skeptical, but I am willing to let students have their end of the responsibility of seeking help when they need it and handling the consequences if they don’t.

But in many cases, such as with this particular test, the absence of questions leads to unresolved issues with learning, which compound themselves when a new topic is connected to the old one, compounded further when the next topic is reached, and so on. Unresolved questions are like an invasive species entering an ecosystem. Pretty soon, it becomes impossible even to ask or answer questions about the material in any meaningful way because the entire “ecosystem” of a student’s conceptual framework for a subject is infected with unresolved questions.

Asking if students understand something or if they have questions is, I am realizing, a poor way to combat this invasion. It’s not the students’ fault — though persistence in asking questions is a virtue more students could benefit from. The problem is that students, and teachers too, don’t really know what it means to “understand” something. We tend to base it on emotions — “I understand the Chain Rule” comes to mean “I have a feeling of understanding when I look at the Chain Rule” — rather than on objective measures. This explains the common student refrain of “It made sense when you did it in class, but when I tried it I didn’t know where to start“. Of course not! When you see an expert do a calculation, it feels good, but that feeling does not impart any kind of neural pathway towards your being able to do the same thing.

So what I mean by my tweet is that instead of asking “Do you understand?” or “Do you have any questions?” I am going to try in the future to give students something to do that will let me gauge their real understanding of a topic in an objective way. This could be a clicker question that hits at a main concept, or a quick and simple problem asking them to perform a calculation (or both). If a student can do the task correctly, they’re good for now on the material. If not, then they aren’t, and there is a question. Don’t leave it up to students to self-identify, and don’t leave it up to me to read students’ minds. Let the students do something simple, something appropriate for the moment, and see what the data say instead.

This may have the wonderful side effect of teaching some metacognition as well — to train students how to tell when they do or do not know something.

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Salman Khan on the inverted classroom

Salman Khan, of the Khan Academy, sounds off on the potential of pre-recorded video lectures to change education in the video below. He calls it “flipping” the classroom, but around here we call it the inverted classroom.

I like especially that Salman made the point that the main effect of inverting the classroom is to humanize it. Rather than delivering a one-size-fits-all lecture, the lecture is put where it will be of the most use to the greatest number of students — namely, online and outside of class — leaving the teacher free to focus on individual students during class. This was the point I made in this article — that the purpose of technology ought to be to enhance rather than replace human relationships.

I hope somewhere that he, or somebody, spends a bit more time discussing exactly how the teachers in the one school district he mentions in the talk actually implemented the inverted classroom, and what kinds of issues they ran up against. Ironically, the greatest resistance I get with the inverted classroom is from students themselves, namely a small but vocal group who believe that this sort of thing isn’t “real teaching”. I wonder if the K-12 teachers who use this model encounter that, or if it’s just a phenomenon among college-aged students.

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Filed under Camtasia, Education, Educational technology, Inverted classroom, Peer instruction, Screencasts, Teaching, Technology, Textbook-free

Student failure and student humanity

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...

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Alice Fenton (a pseudonym) set off a minor firestorm recently with this post to the Chronicle of Higher Education website, titled “The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail”. The title explains the content; the article is about different kinds of students who bring failure upon themselves in some way or another, and the pleasure the instructor can take in failing them.

Today, “Alice” has published a sequel, called “How to Inspire a Backlash”, to serve as a counterpoint to the negative reactions to her first article. At the close, she says:

Anger, dislike, weariness, schadenfreude: Those are all, for me, parts of human experience. That does not mean those emotions rule people, but it does mean they are there sometimes. Acknowledging those feelings may improve the chances that they won’t affect how I behave, since acknowledgment leads to awareness, which, in turn, can lead to clarity and caution (if not the kind of caution that keeps one from writing an article for The Chronicle).

So I did not write my original article because I was burned out, or filled with rage, or even—delightful as it might be—a harpy. I wrote it, in part, out of a sense of ironic fun that I assumed (naïvely I now see) would be shared, and, in part, as a description of occasional and ephemeral angers that I saw no harm in sharing.

But equally I wrote it because I feel it is part of my job, as a teacher as well as a person, to acknowledge my negatives as well as my positives—not because that makes me superior, or inferior, but because it makes me human.

I used to think, and teach, this way. In fact, if you go back far enough in the archives of this blog, you will find numerous posts that have a kindred spirit with Alice’s two articles. I called out torpid students and took pleasure in their mistakes and failures out of a sense of “ironic fun”, a sense of needing to vent “ephemeral angers”, a sense that doing so affirms my humanity. I would celebrate the successes of my students and vilify their failures with equal relish. And whatever I restrained myself from blogging about, I would keep active in my thoughts and gab about with colleagues in the hallway. After all, those emotions are there, and acknowledging them makes me more human, and therefore failing to do so would be dehumanizing.

Then I realized something: Professors aren’t the only people around here who are human. Students are human beings, too.

My students are human beings with all the accoutrements other human beings possess. They have intelligence, prior knowledge, nonempty cognitive frameworks, morals, creativity, and nontrivial accomplishments in life. They have people in their lives who love them dearly, whose hearts would break at my schadenfreude at their expense, no matter how much “ironic fun” it is. They are capable of doing amazing things, and they have their own successful K-12 education to prove it. There is no reason to believe they cannot go on to even more amazing things, and any educator who doesn’t feel this possibility when teaching is not paying attention.

Yes: On the flip side of this, students can also be astoundingly lazy, rude, ill-mannered, slow, foolish, and downright unpleasant to be around. Many of them think they are still children. Many of them do not have the first idea how to manage themselves; some of them willfully mismanage themselves because they figure this is what college is all about. For us faculty, students through their behaviors can drive us to insanity, to rage, to tears of frustration.

And yes: Many students deserve to fail as the logical outcome of a litany of irresponsible behaviors and bad choices. In a just, well-constructed academic environment where learning and academic rigor matter, these students will fail — they must fail. It is not wrong to find a kind of satisfaction in a system that works in this way. There is pleasure, in a way, to be found here as well: a pleasure one gets from first dividing the educational world in to two parts — us and them — and then lumping the students who frustrate us the most into the them category and watching them get what they deserve.

So I don’t deny that there is pleasure to be had in student failure when they “deserve” it. But it’s one thing to apprehend the pleasure and quite another to take it. Anybody who is serious about becoming more human will begin by acknowledging the humanity in other people. And I defy any educator worthy of the title to take pleasure in student failure, “deserved” or otherwise, without ignoring one or more key elements of student humanity. You cannot take pleasure in student failure without dehumanizing the student — and yourself. If you do, you are not an educator, no matter what your title may say. You may not even be as human as you think.

The way forward to humanity — and sanity — as an educator, as I was somehow blessed to find out, is to treat students as human beings with complex sets of values and assumptions. These values and assumptions all play into their behaviors, and it is way too easy to dismiss the student based on behavior without considering the cause. That guy in the second row preferred Facebook to your lectures all year. Why? That young lady in your 9:00 AM class has missed five class meetings and falls asleep when she shows up. Why? That fraternity dude in your 12:20 class would rather party than study. Why? All of these behaviors are linked to student’s values and assumptions — that is, to their humanity — as well as to our own values and assumptions about student learning. We make progress when we start answering these Why? questions seriously, taking student values and assumptions — that is, their humanity — into account as well as our own assumptions about student learning and how it takes place.

Just as we faculty — and entire institutions — can and should find happiness, satisfaction, and joy in student successes, let us be frustrated, perplexed, and saddened by student failures. There’s no point in denying those feelings. But indulging them? Finding pleasure in student failure? Never, under any circumstance.

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching