Flipping the Classroom Facilitates Active Learning Methods

No study can deny this – freeing up class time enables teachers and students to pursue Active Learning.

In a recent exchange in the media, the USA Today news site sensationalized a study under way at Harvey Mudd College, using the headline “‘Flipped classrooms’ may not have any impact on learning1. As the debate rolled out in the media over this, it became apparent that USA Today had taken the study and published information out of context (I know, shocking). In this commentary published the next day by Harvey Mudd teacher and study participant Darryl Yong we learn that, “the article greatly oversimplifies things by portraying our study as an attempt to answer whether flipped classrooms work or not.  That kind of research question is too blunt to be useful.”2

I am a firm believer that a key benefit of flipped instruction is that it frees up some time to enable Active Learning in the classroom. Yong explains in the aforementioned commentary that many faculty at Harvey Mudd are already engaging in active learning methods, and that, “there are lots of studies that show that active learning, formative assessment, group work, project-based learning, just-in-time learning are all measurably good things for students.” Researchers in this particular study are considering questions like, “are flipped classrooms good for students because they create more time for these demonstrably good things, or are there other benefits that we haven’t yet characterized?” Well, those “demonstrably good things” are precisely some of the key deliverables of flipped instruction, so even if these were the only benefits (and I don’t believe they are), we would be ahead of the game.

Facilitating Active Learning via ‘the Flip’

Wikipedia defines Active Learning as, “an umbrella term that refers to several models of instruction that focus the responsibility of learning on learners”3. When teachers flip the classroom and deliver learning content outside of the classroom, not only are they putting students in a position where they can consume the content at a more leisurely pace, with “rewind, replay, review” capabilities, they are also freeing up class time to be used differently. With this free class time, teachers have the opportunity to review materials, identify learning gaps, and pursue them. This allows for a level of differentiation and personalized learning that is hard to pursue in a traditional lecture-oriented classroom. It also provides time for Active Learning.

Of course, going down this path doesn’t happen without learning, planning, and effort, so I strongly advocate easing into flipped instruction. Learn about it and flip a little bit of content (a chapter, a lesson, a week of material), learning more as you go, so it’s not overwhelming. As you get more comfortable with the process, you can expand on it as time and resources permit, and soon you will find you have more class time for these types of Active Learning (and/or others – Active Learning comes in many forms and has many labels):

Experiential Learning: Dr. Jackie Gerstein has written a great deal on the flip, and has developed an excellent visual model4 supporting the benefits of experiential learning as part of a well designed flipped teaching model. In this article, “Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture for Higher Education5, she focuses on how this construct can work within the higher education setting. A well-planned flipped teaching approach will start with the introduction of a topic prior to the external consumption of learning content, and complete the cycle with constructivist learning activities.

Inquiry Based Learning: In the article, “The Flip: Why I Love It, How I Use It” teacher Shelley Wright explains, “For me, inquiry learning is where it’s at. I don’t believe in assigning videos every night as a substitute for my own lecturing. To me, that’s simply the traditional classroom rearranged, not flipped. I use the flip when my students need to absorb a few chunks of new information to continue learning. I don’t use it to front-load information at the beginning of a unit. I think that can rob students of the experience of authentically building knowledge and skills as they encounter new concepts.”6 Again we see that good flipped instruction should include a full cycle in which new ideas are discussed in the classroom before students are asked to consume related digital content. Failing to do so is a frequent reason cited in publications that speak to the potential failings of some flipped instruction implementations.

Project Based LearningIn this video7, Sal Khan discusses how the flip moves the lecture out of the classroom, freeing up class time for PBL. To learn more about Project Based Learning, check out Edutopia’s Project Based Learning page8. Project-based and problem-based learning are two of several methods that emphasize hands-on application of academic content, to reinforce the material and bring the student through the full cycle of learning.

Problem Based Learning: In this article on the Weebly site “The Digital Sandbox”, Teacher and Principal Mike King explains how, “Problem Based Learning in the flipped classroom is centered around the presentation of a problem, not lectures or assignments or exercises. Since “content obtainment” is not at the center of learning, the classroom becomes an active center for discovery using content as a support to solve a problem.”9 Learn more about Problem Based Learning here.10

Constructivism: The University of Oregon hosts a web page with this definition, “Constructivist learning is based on students’ active participation in problem-solving and critical thinking regarding a learning activity which they find relevant and engaging. They are “constructing” their own knowledge …”.11 This article from teacher Mark Isero briefly discusses the relationship between Constructivism and Flipped Teaching. “The idea … is simple: Construct knowledge together in the classroom, rather than having students do so at home.”12

An added bonus – enabling Mastery Learning

While not an Active Learning methodology per se, Mastery Learning can go hand in hand with Active Learning, and it is another powerful learning theory that is supported by flipped instruction. Sams and Bergmann have a devoted a whole chapter to this in the seminal book, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Students, in Every Class, Every Day13. The NY Times recently published this article about Mastery Learning in the Flipped Classroom on their Opinion Page blog. Blogger Tina Rosenberg explains, “In a traditional classroom, the teacher must aim the lecture at the middle, leaving the faster learners bored and the slower ones lost. Differentiation and personalization are big challenges. But the mastery system allows each student to learn at her own pace.” 14 There are lots of articles published discussing how flipped instruction enables mastery learning – give it a Google if you are interested in learning more.

The Right Tools in the Right Package

Getting back to that controversial article mentioned at the start of this post – frankly, it’s good news when a concept starts to gain detractors (this isn’t the first such article, and it won’t be the last) because you know it’s really getting some steam behind it and being taken seriously. Flipped teaching is no panacea, it requires learning, planning, and adaptation, and that’s not easy work, but it can deliver many benefits when it is understood and appropriately applied.

I’m also the first to admit that much about flipped teaching isn’t really new – in many ways it’s an idea that brings together various existing instructional constructs with new a label. But often, many ‘new’ ideas are just enhancements of existing, long standing concepts, with a little tweaking and polish. Consider the iPad – computer manufacturers had spent a decade trying to make tablet computing a meaningful niche, but it didn’t happen until Apple put together the right set of tools in the right package. I believe that flipped instruction tools and techniques are the right set of tools in the right package for many educators and classrooms, and more importantly for our students.

Flipping the Classroom Facilitates Active Learning Methods.


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