Think before you flip

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Flipping the classroom seems to be all the rage these days. In essence, "flipping" means making what is normally assigned as homework -- advanced problem solving and projects --  the center of classroom activity while assigning students online lectures and lessons to view at home. The advocates of classroom flipping argue that a teacher adds real value in individualized guidance for students as they grapple with challenges, not in serving as "the sage on the stage."

Flipping the classroom is still too nascent a practice for any conclusions to be drawn about whether it will help students learn more. Nonetheless, given all the attention (and money) it's getting, flipping does indeed appear to be "here to stay." One can bet that at some point soon a district will attempt to flip a whole school. What would it take for teachers to be effective in these new learning arrangements?

For starters, districts will have to do a better job in choosing online materials for flipped classrooms than they have historically done in choosing textbooks. Good teachers can make up for the shortcomings of bad printed curricular materials through their lectures. But if teachers are asked to focus exclusively on helping students solve problems, they won't have the same opportunity to get all their students on the same -- and right -- page.

It's also going to mean that teachers are going to need more training in assessing their students' learning. It's been shown time and time again that unless students have a firm grasp of the conceptual framework underlying a given topic, they will flounder when given tricky problems or sophisticated projects.

In a flipped classroom, teachers will have to know just how much progress each of their students has made before assigning them the tasks that will, in theory, help them move toward higher-order thinking. True, some products that could work in flipped classrooms offer online quizzes to help teachers find out what students have mastered. But the real challenge for teachers would be to analyze the data generated by these products and come up with the right next steps for each of their students.

Unfortunately, given the very limited training that most teacher preparation programs provide teachers in the use of assessment data, it's hard to imagine that most teachers have been equipped for success in what may become the classrooms of the future. So districts interested in flipping classrooms may need to make an investment in building teacher skill at least as large as they put into the technology needed to turn classrooms upside down.

--Arthur McKee