Commoditising learning through the #flippedclassroom (or, the difference between education and training)

Ever since April 2010 when Karl Fisch first suggested what has eventually become known as ‘the flipped classroom’ I’ve been both attracted and repelled by the idea. For those who haven’t come across the concept, it’s a very simple one: the ‘transmission’ part of schooling happens at home through pre-recorded media (videos, podcasts, etc.) with the discussion element, the groupwork happening in the classroom.

Described as such, and with the present realities of the education system (especially in the USA) it’s difficult, prima facie, to argue against this suggestion. On further reflection, however, I think that  the flipped classroom is only possible because we’ve commoditised learning to such an extent that it’s becoming indistinguishable from training.

Let’s just step back a moment and look at the western idea of an education system. There’s at least five unspoken assumptions common across most schools:

  1. Learning is primarily something that happens in, or under the auspices of, formal educational institutions.
  2. The time when schools should be open to educate young people is (roughly) between the hours of 9am and 3.30pm.
  3. High-stakes testing is a good (if not the best) way to demonstrate ‘talent’ to future employers.
  4. Learning can be done at scale, with up to (around) 35 young people in a classroom learning from one teacher.
  5. The answer to student disaffection is discipline.

I, along with most progressive educators I know around the world, disagree with these five unspoken assumptions. It is assumptions like these, I would argue, that lead to the flipped classroom looking like a good idea.

As far as I understand it, the flipped classroom concept is gaining traction (especially) in the USA because of a synergy with the Khan Academy, lauded by celebrity educational funders such as Bill Gates. Khan Academy, for those who don’t know, is a kind of YouTube for educational videos, but with exercises. It’s gamified drill-and-practice for the 21st century. Whilst I think Khan Academy does  have a place within the educational landscape it is, undeniably training. Training is a (very small) part of learning but to mistake one for the other is an error seasoned educators should not be making.

John Hattie’s table of effect sizes is the result of a meta-analysis of many, many learning interventions in educational institutions. Feedback, the student’s prior cognitive ability, and instructional quality take the top three positions in Hattie’s table;  in other words, the flipped classroom would look to have an evidence base. I think that such an approach would work very well in one school I used to work in, a high-achieving specialist school with a predominantly middle-class catchment. However, in the first and last schools I worked in, there would not only be huge digital divide issues, but the usual problems surrounding homework and classroom behaviour.

All of this reminds me of an important lesson from a Philosophy of Science module I took as an undergraduate. Until Copernicus came along and changed the way we understand our place in the universe, the Ptolemaic system was the dominant astronomical model. In order to explain the phenomena (i.e. the seeming speeding-up and slowing-down of planets in relation to the Earth), Ptolemy and his followers added ‘epicycles’. These were rotations around a particular point, over and above the (assumed) rotation of the planet around the Earth.The whole Ptolemaic system was, of course, spectacularly incorrect. Ptolemy had started with a faulty assumption that seemed ‘obvious’ (that the Sun goes around the Earth), modifying and refining his theory to fit the phenomena. It was an impressively-complicated system. But it was wrong.

I think we’ve gone about reforming the western education system in a Ptolemaic manner. I think we’re adding epicycles such as the ‘flipped classroom’ instead of challenging core assumptions about how we can and should be educating young people. I think there’s a debate to be had. I think we had better get on to having that debate in a grown-up way. Quickly.


27 thoughts on “Commoditising learning through the #flippedclassroom (or, the difference between education and training)

  1. Sorry we didn’t meet up at #altc2011. I missed a fair bit of it sadly. I think you are spot on with your invocation of Copernicus and that we are adding epicycles to our educational models rather than contributing to a Kuhnian revolution. This observation is supported by Naughton’s stories about how struggling to shore up old ways of doing things makes us blind to the new models and possibilities and prevents us from seeing the future that is, to some extent, already here. I think this is also a symptom of the sort of shallow reflectivity that I see everywhere in HE and at the ALT conference too. The critique focusses on a level above the given and often unrecognised assumptions of the current model which leaves it pretty well unchallenged. So innovation is subsumed by the existing contours of business as usual. However, there are some heretics thinking out side the dominant paradigm and one day their day will come!

    • Thanks Terry, sorry to have missed you at ALT-C and hope you’re feeling better. I know that Naughton’s a bit of a hero to many but, apart from being mildly entertaining, I was a bit disappointed with his re-hashing of Shirky (and seeming reticence to apply his three case studies to Higher Education).

      • Exactly. It felt like he was giving us a rather long introduction to a talk he didn’t in the end give. Disappointing. However, the sort of analysis of HE he implied is being done by some individuals already so he may not have said anything new anyway.

  2. as ever I do not agree with you …
    With respect to what goes round what ..  “wrong” (in a canny way echoing your point 3) to me and millions of others is a matter of not just religious perpective.  As you stand at Easter Aquhorties and other stone circles truly the universe revolves about you.  An alternative model may be helpful to “boffins” (Eric S ex-CEO Google) but, to continue your historic analogy, the Leicestershire ploughman half a mile and out of sight of the Battle of Bosworth might be forgiven for not understanding or caring about such matters as to who was King this week, such details then as now (eg Higgs Boson)  are unimportant.
    Now maybe (in these few scribbled words) I do not make myself clear so let me have a go at your basic premise of the flipped classroom.  I imagine this as a alternative marketing take on the facilitator/guide on the side/teacher debate that you maintain (fair doos for a debate) has morphed into teachers must provide e-stuff so kids can work at home then be corrected when they come to school, as though this is a new model for education.  Leaving aside the fairness/inclusiveness part of the issue (rural broadband etc) in my day (ie approx midway through the last century) homework was the key issue that hard-working parents asked about at parents nights.   On re-reading the above I see you have touched on this issue and probably are with me  on the point I am going to make which (sic) is  clearly one from my perspective.  I feel very strongly that (like rowdy parents at a football match) calling for revolution from the sidelines a la Sir Ken Robinson and now Seth Godin and perennial radio chat show politicians who come up with even more stuff that should be core at schools etc  we are doing the majority of the Teaching profession a grave dis-service.  The norm is now to challenge authority at every level –  such (now regular pupil voiced)noise drowns the precious words of wisdom that our worthy well trained dedicated hard working soon to be pensionless Teachers carry out day in etc etc
    PS  keep up the good work

    • Hi Paul, I’m afraid I’ve either not explained myself very well or you’ve read the above too quickly! I’m arguing *against* the ‘flipped classroom’ as adding epicycles to a system based on the wrong assumptions.

  3. Hi Doug,

    as a slight tangent (but genuine question)… if we accept your assumptions and say mainstream education system is focused on creating Ptolemaic epicycles to fix its model rather than looking for/ exploring more Copernican approaches to the whole question – why do you think there is so much interest in ‘Badges’?

  4. An interesting take on the “flipped classroom” model. Admittedly, I’m a fan of this approach– it proved successful in my own experience with special education students (which I blogged about here: I guess the key here is balance. Don’t rely solely on this method! And certainly, do not overuse it.

  5. As you probably know Doug I am about to embark on Action Research using a flipped approach to teaching an   A Level Computing class and so I am glad of some opinion and insight which as ever from yourself provides lots of thought provoking insight. I have little doubt I will be quoting you but I have points to debate here. I do wonder if you are generalizing about ‘flipping’.

    I consider myself also as attempting to be “progressive” but I will continue with my intentions to use this model because I believe my take on it, the way I will morph it, will allow for not so much a drill and practice approach a la some of the flipped models out there, but free up lesson time for hands-on, thinking, problem solving activities that if I were to not use this model then I would not have time to do. If from your post you are suggesting that this is the cause of the problem i.e. the fact that A Level courses such as this have so much content to cover that they do not allow for such time in lessons or schools do not give enough timetabled lessons to cover the work then they are real valid arguments. Yet, as a teacher and Head of Dept, I am stuck with this model and I see flipping the content I have to teach will allow my students the chance the embark on hands-on, engaging activities from experience I would not have the chance to immerse them in. Obviously, this is Action research I am doing and I could be proved wrong.

    Your comments re the socioeconomics of the students are also interesting and to some extent I agree. I doubt whether such a model would have fitted tough schools I have worked in. However, I am faced with upper-middle class students expecting good grades and I intend for them to get these but they will learn a lot along the way much of which wont be assessed in their A Level qualification. In fact, they have already begun the process by blogging and collaborating on G+. However, am I not bespoking my teaching practice to fit the learners and the course? Am I not attempting to give my learners engaging lessons where I have already had students try to analyse their learning style and then will attempt to personalize learning to fit that? All in all, is this not progressive? 

    To go back to my point re generalization, I am intended a flipped approach and there are elements of the flipped model that are scary but if adapted as I have talked about here then surely there is more good to be had form it’s use than bad.

    • Hi Nick, thanks for the comment. I’m certainly looking forward to the results of your action research. I should imagine that, within the context you describe, you will see an improvement in engagement and results.
      But let’s look at the bigger picture. You may be iterating a system to better ‘fit the phenomena’ (i.e. allow your students to gain better grades) but are those grades and, indeed, the whole system they reflect, predicated on faulty assumptions about learning?

  6. There is no such thing as a learning intervention. I think you mean, “teaching.”

    Learning is not something done unto someone else.

    Unless folks can differentiate between teaching and learning, almost no progress is possible.

    • Well, OK, but you can intervene in their path of learning. I think the point about the ‘flipped classroom’ is that it foregrounds (and glorifies) content delivery, despite rhetoric to the opposite.

  7. Doug
    making a choice is funny thing it always brings a strong reaction from those who for whatever reason have chosen another path. Strangely the same people always feel the need to demonstrate that your choice is fundamentally wrong. With endless energy they will same people make a fuss about Apple vs Windows, iPhone vs Android even Diesel vs Petrol.The ‘flipped classroom’ in the hands of a professional teacher is not such a fundamental choice rather it’s just an addition to the pedagogical tool bag. Perhaps there are teachers and educationalists who resent Khan’s intrusion into their world but really they need a sense of perspective. Despite claims to the contrary the ‘flipped classroom’ can be traced back beyond the Khan Academy, Karl Fisch or the Colorado Group in the USA. I was reminded by a colleague recently that this used to be called ‘Prep’ and was standard practice for schools. Your point about the digital divide is significant if we believe that the ‘flipped classroom’ depends on having an internet connection to something like YouTube. It is even more significant if the student has no hardware to access the digital media. However such limitations disappear when we take a more flexible view of the ‘flip’ technique, after all there are teachers who have been ‘flipping’ their classroom with textbooks for years.I’m more than convinced that there is a case for questioning the validity of the ‘assumptions’ that you quote. I doubt however that taking on the ‘flipped classroom’ (an epicycle)’ is nothing more than a minor skirmish when your Copernican  revolution deserves a bigger field to have its day. regardsJohn

      • Doug

        of course not, and it was remiss of me not to say that I think the questions you raise are troubling all teacher currently engaged in the debate. 

        Just read James post below. Is it not dangerous for those who seek radical reform in education to assume that their own proposals will be successful. As James seeks to change the colour of the ‘undercoat’ who should  we appoint as the painter? Do we have the right to assume such risk on behalf of the current and future generation of students. 

        With the best will in the World I cannot see teachers reforming education through a paradigm shift but rather I suggest by stealth through the accumulation of small but significant changes in our pedagogy. I think James will be frustrated by my response but which is more likely to work, stealth or revolution?

        great blog, much appreciated


      • Well, indeed. Having sat on both sides of the fence, and without wanting to be overly-provocative, I can’t help but think that those in the classroom are likely to be too close to have critical distance, and those outside the classroom too far away from the action. We need partnership for change. :-)

  8. Fantastic post Doug… as such, I think your argument sits well in the face of any and all new approach to teaching and learning. If educators continue to frame new learning experiences and approaches against the assumptions you have outlined then actual ‘change’ is not going to occur. 

    Educators need to be braver and throw the assumptions (the unspoken rule book) out of the window once in a while; considering what they ‘really’ want young people to learn. Even better, they need to start to listen to young people about what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. 

    I know that what I suggest is viewed by many as idealistic, too unrealistic, after all we are told to focus on grades and league tables but I’m tired of having these arguments thrown back automatically. They’re not good enough. Every educator has the power to change what happens inside and beyond their classroom if they try. They may meet with failure but that is part of life. Like you would expect your students to do, pick yourself up and try again. We have to strive for more than putting a 21st century gloss on a 19th century undercoat. Over time the gloss becomes chipped and the undercoat is revealed. I think it’s time to change the colour of the undercoat.

    Listening to Guy Claxton yesterday, he used a similar analogy. He referred to academic matters, the content, the exams, the grades as the carpet. He then described the underlay: teamwork, respect, resilience, thinking, questioning etc… a long list of the skills we all value and know are integral to helping young people become lifelong learners. If we really value the underlay we need to do a better job of looking after it. The assumptions outlined above have little to do with the underlay, they are only really concerned with the carpet; with the gloss.

  9. The debate you asked for seems to be growing with muscles here Doug and I am enjoying some of the posted replies. John’s stuff rings really true with what I was trying to say in my post yet I do ‘feel’ your beliefs in the underlying issues of flawed assumptions of learning determined by our education system. Further, James’ analogies put into my language. 

    I would like to throw into the mixing bowl the point that both I and James are paid wages by this system we work under in the same way as a professional footballer is by the club he plays for. We can change schools, they can change clubs but, ultimately we are governed by the rules/systems of our professions and whether we like it or not, we have to accept these if we are to be paid. Some football players really do not like the rules/systems of the game and want to change them as is the case with some educators and indeed calling for change, to my mind, must be encouraged. In the meantime though, should we not be doing our damnedest to flex the rules? push the system boundaries to allow for more of what we consider to be ‘good’ models of learning even though we are still sitting on weak chairs with woodworm and only a gloss coat?

    Perhaps by having more teachers pushing and flexing as I have described then we can produce a body of evidence, models of good practice that will bring about the changes that progressive educators desire. I suppose in my opinion, that comes down to the question of whether typically, historically, does change really come about through a rather dramatic shift or through growing activities putting pressurization on a flawed system, leading to it’s eventual change.

  10. Hi Doug, 

    interesting post however if I have read it properly, I disagree with one of the earlier points re the 5 assumptions ‘that lead to the flipped classroom looking like a good idea.’ 
    Perhaps this is just the way I view things, but I would suggest the group work/discussion/etc that can take place within the class is only the start – that in itself recognises the importance of informal learning and if anything, provides the foundations for the anytime/anyplace nature of the way people actually learn and want to learn. 
    If we introduce and integrate social media into the formal settings in which we teach, can we not provide a means to support and broaden inclusion for informal learning? I certainly recognise the importance of students learning outside of the formal classroom and between the hours of 9-5….

  11. Hi Peter, thanks for the comment. I don’t know which assumption you’re disagreeing with (I’m guessing 2?) but let me explain the difference. If the work done inside and outside school was equal, then what goes on in the classroom would be influenced by what young people do at home. In most cases it’s not.

    However, it’s certainly *possible* to have home and school learning on an equal footing. I’ll cite two examples:

    a) The Reception teachers at my wife’s school don’t plan what they’re going to do until they’ve met the children and draw upon their interests.

    b) Pete Bell is working on a project-based homework that gives students choice both in terms of when to do it and how to fulfil the criteria. This means they can focus on things they’re interested in. More here:

    Does that answer your concerns? :-)

  12. There’s something about change in education that has worried me for some time. What starts
    out as a creative innovation that solves one school’s or one person’s
    problem is picked up by a few others. They tell 2 friends and they tell 2
    more and so on and so on until  teachers everywhere are trying to
    reproduce this innovation in their classrooms.  ‘Same-old, same-old’ is replaced by ‘same-new,
    same-new’. It’s not that the innovation (in this case — the flipped classroom) was a bad one. It’s that  giving it the tag of ‘cure-all’, mass producing it, and professionally developing everyone in its how to go about it (sort of), means the original vision becomes so diluted, the very thing that made it innovative in the first place is lost. It’s no longer a creative response but has morphed into an expected norm. When one teacher’s innovation turns into an educational movement, once again some students’ needs will be met, but others will lose out. 

  13. The difference you make between education and training reminded me instantly of a commentary by Richard Farson I once stumbled upon. In this commentary titled ‘Decissions, Dilemmas and Dangers’, he states the following, stressing the uniqueness of individual students that can and should be fostered by education:
    “The obsession with standards shared by politicians, legislators, school boards, and some administrators, is based on their inability to distinguish between training and education. Training involves learning skills and techniques, and all who receive such training become similar in that respect. But education is completely different. Education involves the continuing effort to marry a student’s individual experience with history, ideas, and new frontiers. The result is that each student then becomes a unique product. Training makes people alike, while education makes them different from each other. We need both, but it is important that they not be confused. Test standards apply in one case, and not the other.”

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