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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Before We Flip Classrooms, Let's Rethink What We're Flipping To

Integrated into their regular math classes, Globaloria students access online video tutorials and receive expert advice on how to build original educational video games about math topics.

We're hearing a lot of talk about education in these back-to-school days, but a few conversations rise above the din. One such is the chatter about "flipped classrooms,"1 in which students listen to lectures at home and do homework at school. We also hear names like TED, Codecademy, Khan Academy and Knowmia bandied about, not to mention the term "MOOC"2 and such brands as Udacity, Coursera, MITx, edX . . . What's it all about?

No doubt about it, online learning at every level for every purpose is the flavor of the moment, and everyone is scrambling to offer a feast. Investors are salivating at the prospect of getting into an education market with an estimated global value of $54 billion; social and academic entrepreneurs want to provide free education opportunities for the poor; and at the same time, media organizations are falling all over themselves trying to come up with the right model to replace the textbook and other print materials.

Before we pick up too much speed to stop, we need to consider the educational future we are aiming for in higher education, technical education, and especially in the early years of K-12 education, when it really counts.

Instructionism vs. Constructionism

It seems to me that some recent MOOCs and start-up ideas -- which at the outset appear exciting and promising -- are basically indifferent to what we know about what constitutes good learning. All of a sudden, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Maria Montessori, Seymour Papert, Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner, Allan Collins, John Seely Brown -- more than 100 years of theory about cognition and learning-by-doing -- are being forgotten.

Branded instructional online channels playing speaker-centered videos and tutorials on a range of themes and topics, such as TED and Khan Academy, claim to break new ground with the ability to teach you anything, including physics and programming fundamentals.

But think about it: they are using rather traditional instructional methods. Instructional TV (ITV) is half a century old. While this medium is compelling when produced well, isn't it time to make use of new technology to move beyond streaming impersonal frontal teaching, instructional video tutorials or filmed lectures aimed at mass audiences?

I've seen it before -- specifically, about 25 years ago -- when publishers first got excited by the potential of Apple and IBM personal computers that now strike us as antediluvian in their clunkiness. Like ITV, Instructional Computer Technology (ICT) was going to constitute an alternative pedagogy that would transform early learning.

There was transformation, but it was mainly around the edges. It came from inventors and publishers who believed in programmable, customizable, learner-driven, socially constructed learning networks, tools and project-driven environments. As a result, there exist relevant working models that speak directly to the questions that education technology innovators and publishers are considering today. To help guide all of us who play in this new "bubble," let's consider the old education debate that was framed as Instructionism vs. Constructionism.3 It asks: Do we focus on using technology for perfecting the art of instruction (Instructionism) or rather for achieving active learning-by-doing in social contexts (Constructionism)? What makes for a more effective education -- regardless of whether it's being carried out in print, on TV, through PCs, online, or mobile apps on tablets and handheld devices -- an instructor teaching what he or she knows to large groups of pupils, or learners learning by working alone and in teams to solve a problem or create an object that simulates or explains a piece of knowledge?

Of course, we know the answer: BOTH. Instructionism and Constructionism are two sides of a single cognitive equation. Both are needed if learners, especially young learners, are to obtain basic knowledge and take ownership of what they learn. Both are necessary to learn how to learn.

Technology for Its Own Sake?

Years of research have proved that an individual's ownership of new knowledge comes through constructive, productive, creative activities, not through passive consumption of instructional tutorials or reading textbooks. By the same token, step-by-step instruction and instructional consumption are necessary for some subject matters at some stages of knowledge development.

Seeking to take full advantage of technology, many leading education entrepreneurs have been trying different ways of deploying this "equation," devising software, hardware or digital networks that allow both Constructionist and Instructionist learning to occur as needed by learners and educators.

I recently founded Globaloria, a social learning network where students develop digital literacies, STEM and computing knowledge and global citizenship skills through game design. In this project, we found that blending video tutorials about complex concepts into a high-quality project-based curriculum has its place in the learning process. Such via-the-network Instructionism is appropriate for on-demand presenting and explaining information not otherwise readily available to learners in low-income rural or urban communities, or for presenting a renowned expert “in person” to anyone who can access a digital device. It’s what makes the world flat.

But, we also found that when the aim is to make children the designers and builders of their own learning -- and therefore the owners of the knowledge they achieve -- Constructionism is necessary. And if investors and innovators want the new flipped classrooms to have a significant and scalable impact on students, we must use technology to integrate and promote Constructionist learning spaces across the country -- faster. This integration is both our greatest challenge and our biggest opportunity for realizing the potential benefits -- educational, societal or financial -- of flipping classrooms. It puts both sides of the learning equation, Instructionism and Constructionism, to work in class and at home, and it can only happen by using the newest, most effective models of learning with technology.

Notes

1 See Edutopia's piece on pros and cons of the flipped classroom approach and an online film festival on flipped classroom practices more generally.

2 See, as examples, a few recent articles in Wired Academic explaining what MOOCs are and what they will do, won't do and might do.

3 Constructionist learning theory was conceived by Seymour Papert and his team at the MIT Media Lab in the '80s and is based on Constructivist theories of psychology that view learning as active construction and reconstruction rather than transmission of knowledge. Then, the ideas of learning-by-doing with manipulatives, especially digital materials and programming tools, were extended to the idea that learning is most effective when part of an activity is constructing a meaningful digital product that involves representation, explanation, and sharing (see Harel & Papert 1991, Constructionism; www.Papert.org; as well as the Edutopia articles Project-Based Learning: An Overview and A Computer for Every Lap: The Maine Learning Technology Initiative).

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jessica's picture
Jessica
I am a mother of 4 and a college student learning teacher education.

The topic of flipped classrooms just came up in my Instructional Technology class. Ms. Faith introduced the subject and we have been going over the positive and negatives of the subject. Your article interested me and was engaging in that you did not argu the point of what the teacher does in a flipped classroom but rather what our nation has to understand in order to have a successful flipped classroom. I had not thought about the market, a $54 billion market!, and how it is highly competitive with companies who produce alternatives to text books. But you mentioned that these alternatives are the same instructional videos used for the past 50 years. Thank you for your insight. Technology in the classroom is a whole new world to me now that I am back in college having graduated in 2004 with my first degree; and even in 8 years the technology that is prevalent in our educational system is above my head! Thank you for your insightful article! Very educational.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

Coaching teacher teams, I often find myself in the middle of heated discussions about "Method A vs Method B". It's natural that caring and ambitious teachers have strong opinions about the methods they want to use, and it's natural that there shall be a difference of opinions, and that those opinions shall change over time.

When called upon to guide teachers in the discussion about "A vs B" I have found that asking a few overarching questions really helps a lot better than telling them my opinion.

I ask:

What are we working together to create here?
What does the final result look like when it's working perfectly?

What is our current perceived reality?
What do we include in what we are able to influence?

What are the advantages of "A"?
Make a list

What are the advantages of "B"?
Make a list

Which seems to offer the most?
Compare the lists

Usually the first two questions reveal that there are greater differences in perceptions about what the teachers are aiming to create in their school and community; and their perceptions of what's possible to influence.

The "Method A vs Method B" discussion is an invitation to go to a deeper place, where mutual understanding may happen. Resolving the "A vs B" discussion without going to this deeper place may result in another heated "A vs B" discussion sooner rather than later.

Sarah Dean's picture
Sarah Dean
5th grade teacher from Issaquah, WA

I'm a fifth grade teacher who is pondering implementing the concept of a flipped classroom in some aspects of my classroom, and am getting more and more excited about the possibilities of using this delivery model, particularly in math. My school district's math curriculum uses a variety of unique algorithms for addition, subtraction, and multiplication, and these algorithms can be very difficult to teach, especially because parents can't help their students do the homework because they have never seen these methods. I am considering making short videos where I model how to solve problems with these unique algorithms and assigning students to watch them with their parents. This is a very small example of a flipped classroom, but I think it is one example where a "flipped" model could be very effective.

My mani concern whenever I use technology is to make sure that I am using it as a tool, not a toy. It is so tempting to use the various pieces of technology available as something "flashy" to capture student attention, but I have found that students are far more captivated in the long run by genuine learning about things they are passionate about. I generally find that students can see through me any time I try to use technology just for the sake of having something flashy.

Another modification to a flipped classroom that I have seen is posting the videos online after a lesson, so that students who need review at home can just watch the video again, or to help review for a test. I have tried this in my classroom and have heard very positive comments about how students are taking increased responsibility for their own learning.

I am excited for the future of flipped classrooms, but I absolutely agree that they need to center on solid instruction and pedagogy, or else they run the risk of being just another fad that takes attention away from the true learning we are attempting to guide students through.

Leslie's picture
Leslie
10th grade Chemistry teacher from Donna, Texas

The current trend in the clasroom is based on the use of technology. Almost every science conference that I have attended this past year I have heard the use of the flipped classroom. I really liked that you mentioned that instructionism and constructiviam must go hand in hand in order for it to be effective.

Leslie's picture
Leslie
10th grade Chemistry teacher from Donna, Texas

The current trend in the clasroom is based on the use of technology. Almost every science conference that I have attended this past year I have heard the use of the flipped classroom. I really liked that you mentioned that instructionism and constructiviam must go hand in hand in order for it to be effective.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

Hi Idit Harel Caperton

Thanks for the balancing metaphor

I find that I don't have enough hands when I demonstrate "holding the choice between Method A and Method B". It's easy to demonstrate the balancing act though.

Often I switch to a metaphoric "Rainbow of Choices" to show that there are many different ways in between A and B that could be chosen. What I aim to bring out in the discussion is HOW people can feel the balance, and continuously make choices between moving towards the two extremes, and discovering the temporary balance point somewhere on the rainbow.

Ah, that got a bit poetic.

Rudy Rodriguez's picture
Rudy Rodriguez
High school math teacher

I have been interested in this teaching technique for quite some time and I plan to use this technique this upcoming school year. I agree, this has the potential to become a fad, and it will truly depend on how the teacher utilizes this delivery approach. I feel that flipping the classroom is simply a different approach to delivering the concepts, just another tool in the toolbox. What it does do is open up class time to practice the material, which is especially beneficial in the math classroom. It also creates an online notebook that the students can refer to throughout the year. The balance between instructionism and constructionism is very important. The videos will scratch the surface, it is up to the educator to implement teaching strategies in the classroom that will make the learning meaningful.

Rudy Rodriguez's picture
Rudy Rodriguez
High school math teacher

I have been interested in this teaching technique for quite some time and I plan to use this technique this upcoming school year. I agree, this has the potential to become a fad, and it will truly depend on how the teacher utilizes this delivery approach. I feel that flipping the classroom is simply a different approach to delivering the concepts, just another tool in the toolbox. What it does do is open up class time to practice the material, which is especially beneficial in the math classroom. It also creates an online notebook that the students can refer to throughout the year. The balance between instructionism and constructionism is very important. The videos will scratch the surface, it is up to the educator to implement teaching strategies in the classroom that will make the learning meaningful.

Idit Harel Caperton's picture
Idit Harel Caperton
Edu-Tech Innovator and Founder of the World Wide Workshop
Blogger

Dear Rudy - Thank you for recognizing that "the balance between instructionism and constructionism is very important" and educators can drive the teaching strategies with digital technology to make learning most meaningful.
Here is an example of a Globaloria teacher who is implementing what you're talking about in her middle school math class: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YRtI73iBtEY#at=35 and another example of a teacher who is flipping her chemistry classroom in high school: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmiM4QONvBI&feature=player_embedded ...Thanks for your insight!

Dan Adiletta's picture

I loved the component of your article discussing the most effective models of classroom technology use, particularly with a focus on developing a sense of ownership of learning. I've found one of the most powerful ways to achieve that is through the use of ExitTicket. The gradebook students see can be organized by concepts and skills which allow students to see the learning targets throughout the year and how they are doing on each subtopic. Students gain a new sense of ownership of the curriculum.

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