On Campus

Why I won't flip my classroom

Prof. Pettigrew says proper lectures work just fine

Brennan Moore/Flickr

One can hardly check out an education website these day without hearing something about the flipped classroom (sometimes called flipped learning or inverted learning). If you don’t believe me, click here, and here, and here.

The basic idea is that the supposed old way of teaching—providing all the information to the class via lectures is tedious and ineffective. After all, there are plenty of ways of getting information to students outside of class—say, via online talks. In the so-called “flipped” model, students get the basic information outside of class and teachers use the class time to create activities and and projects that help students understand that information more deeply.

This model, proponents say, will end the “tyranny of the lecture” and enhance learning. What will compel students to watch all these lectures on their own time is rarely spelled out — but let’s not split hairs.

Like most education fads, flipped learning has just enough sense in it to make it appealing and to give its advocates a sense of superiority that sometimes convinces people they must be right. But like most fads, it ignores a lot of the reality. It is possible to innovate in education, but most of the time, smart, dedicated people are already doing what you want them to do—or there are good reasons why they aren’t.

The grain of truth in the flipped learning model is that – obviously – dry boring lectures in which a professor drones uncontextualized facts for hours is not a good way to teach. But good teachers have known that for millennia.

In fact, among humanities professors, the classroom has been flipped, to a large extent for a long time. In a typical university literature course, for instance, students are expected to get the information (reading a novel, let’s say) on their own, and then come to class ready to analyze and discuss that material. No wonder that so many who are excited about flipped learning are scientists. Science profs are finally cluing in to what humanities profs have long known.

Am I saying we in the humanities don’t lecture? Of course we do – but, when we’re doing our jobs well, we’re not lecturing the way flippers say we do—talking at students for an hour or so . What the scientists largely still haven’t figured out though is that good lecturing does more than simply transfer information. Good lecturing provides information but also context and perspective. Good lecturing allows for asking questions and considering answers—thing that are best done live and in person — and the very things that flipped learning advocates are looking for.

The lecture is not a tyrant. It’s a tool – and its virtue, as with all tools, lies in how skillfully it is used.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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