Flippin’ Out – Does reverse instruction work?

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by Hani Amir

One of the latest trends in education is reverse instruction or the ‘flipped’ classroom. In short, it involves students learning some of the content at home and then doing the problems (or what is often considered homework) at school. So, for example, a mathematics assignment might be to watch a video on how to write numbers in scientific notation and then come to class and complete a set of questions to practice what was learned. Many of us have experienced this before when an English teacher asked us to read a few chapters of a novel and be prepared to discuss it in the next class. It is not necessarily new as a teaching methodology, but it is now being considered more thoughtfully in many subject areas.

The Positive

To some degree, the rationale of reverse instruction is quite sound. Why do we spend time in classrooms reading and reviewing content the students could do on their own instead of working and solving problems together? Often we ask students to do the difficult work, problem solving, with little guidance or opportunity to correct errors as they occur. The 2-minute video below of Aaron Sam’s classroom is quite convincing.

Aaron Sam and Jonathan Bergmann take it even further and have developed a program for mastery. The students need to master at least 75% of a topic in order to move on to the next part of the course. It becomes apparent that due to peer pressure and the design of the course, students are motivated to complete the work successfully. Both teachers have found that they are now freed up in class to work with students at all different levels because now it is the student who is responsible for their own learning, not the teacher.


No doubt, any teacher who tries the flipped classroom model must be both sceptical and thrilled with the possibilities. Jonathan Martin in his post Reverse Instruction: Dan Pink and Karl’s “Fisch Flip” states the following:

Increasingly,  education’s value-add is and will be in the coaching and troubleshooting when students are applying their learning, and in challenging students to apply their thinking to hands-on learning by doing and teaming:  so let’s have them do these things in class, not sit and listen.   We know that collaboration is a critical skill set which can’t be developed easily either on-line or at home alone– let’s have students learn it with us in our classrooms.   Let every classroom be a collaborative problem solving laboratory or studio.

My heart jumps at the possibility of changing the role of the teacher from lecturer to coach. How deflating it must be to think that many teachers are just explaining the text in a text book, year after year, and missing out on the excitement of witnessing learners really understand the material. In my mind, when the learner is driving their own understanding, then we have won as educators.

However, I am also a realist. Walk into many, if not most, classes today and you will see a teacher at the front explaining the material to 20 to 40 students. Although this may be an effective way of covering the material, I am not sure how effective it is in ensuring everyone has learned. How are we to reverse the trend? So much is invested in the way we do things. Can our methods for instruction be organized so that students want to seek us out to help solve their problems instead of us asking to solve the problems we assign them?

I also wonder if young people have the motivation, drive and maturity to direct their own learning? What do we do for those who don’t ‘do school’? Too often it is the educated and the ones who have gone through the system who fantasize about classes where they direct their own learning. Reflecting on the way I grew up I remember looking for guidance and direction when it came to courses and course work. Not really knowing what I wanted to do when I was in high school, would I have had the academic sense to complete the course work on my own? I think it is very rare for a teenager to focus on things outside their own set of circumstances let alone studying for the sake of learning, even if they are bright and have interests in other pursuits. Hormones and the other physiological factors like growth spurts, the timing of which are not uniform, surely play a part. (cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by opensourceway)

The comments on the Reverse Instruction: Dan Pink and Karl’s “Fisch Flip” post mentioned above are interesting. In particular, David Hamilton states:

Of course it also makes sense to have students read a book at home and then have the students discuss it in class, but increasingly teachers are facing the problem of students not wanting to “learn” outside of class and being incapable of reading any substantial amount of literature. I think that there is an extra motivational force that is required for students to initiate a learning task outside the class in the evening. I suspect that if a student has been introduced to a concept already, they have an easier time “completing” it or putting the finishing touches on it. I even find this myself. It takes a great deal of concentration for me to learn a new piece for the classical guitar, but I can easily pick up the guitar and practice pieces to which I have already been introduced.
The strength of the social medium presented by a class situation, is that a student experiences social pressures to perform in the class – there is the fear of not doing what others are doing, the authority of the teacher – and there is the stimulating and satisfying prospect of direct and immediate interaction.
I think that the premise behind so many of these articles that argue for having students learn concepts at home and have them apply and discuss them in class, is that classes consist of one-way lectures. I would be horrified to think that that is all that is being offered in the schools of our nation.
I think the real problem faced by the world of education is the one set out in the recent NY Times article on multi-tasking students. I find that the home-life of students is a far cry from the image of a scholar’s cell, where the mind contemplates the text. In a student’s life there is no haven where the student can focus entirely on one thing. I still remember how difficult that was for me as a student at university pre-internet. On one occasion I took over a whole seminar room to myself so I could pace back and forth and write notes on the blackboard as ideas came to me. Where will today’s students find that kind of thinking space?

Linked to Mr. Hamilton’s concern about learning at home, I worry about another possible downfall of reverse instruction – getting rid of the lecture during the day allows for adding even more content to be ‘covered’ at home. With many programs adding more content there is a drive to get a great deal done outside of school. Shouldn’t the school day be contained at school? Can’t ALL of school be done at school? We have 6 to 8 hours with the students, shouldn’t that be enough?

Have I flipped?

Essentially I am sold on the idea of having students attempt to learn or understand a concept on their own and then applying that understanding in the classroom. A number of things, I think, need to change before this can really happen. First, I think the whole idea of content needs to be changed to a model not unlike those in the NETS. That is, the content is the vehicle for learning a concept and not just the material to be memorized and forgotten. Learners would demonstrate their understanding of a concept through any of a number of examples provided in the content. The key is that they are able to perform at a developmentally appropriate level. (cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by de²)

Second, I think many of the hurdles to overcome are from outside the classroom. Are communities ready to accept reverse instruction? Parents, administrators, teachers and even students would need time to adjust. Even aspects of scheduling should be considered to allow for most of these activities to happen at school. I would suggest that part of the day be set aside for students to review the material before entering the classroom, thus containing all academic activities within the school day. (cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Tim Ebbs)

Third, I don’t think that the reverse instruction model should be used as the only instruction model. It is quite possible that this method might not work for everyone. Like so many tools and methods, it is not one alone that is successful, but a variety that makes things interesting.

Ideally I would love to enter a school where students are self-motivated and driven to learn what they need to know to do well. If reverse instruction plays a part in this activity, then I am all for it. I am watching a number of people (Neil Commons and Brian Bennett) and am hoping their experimenting will provide some useful insight into a disruptive change in how we teach and learn.

What are your thoughts about the flipped classroom? Genius or another fad? Will this become a standard way of learning in a world where content is nearly free and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection? Is this the beginning of the end for the typical lecture style classroom? Would you learn better in a flipped classroom or a traditional one?

Avatar of Ivan Beeckmans

About Ivan Beeckmans

Currently a Digital Learning Coach at the NIST International School (formerly the New International School of Thailand) in Bangkok, Thailand
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2 Responses to Flippin’ Out – Does reverse instruction work?

  1. Neil Commons says:

    Hi Ivan,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog post and understand your concerns about elements of the flipped classroom. As you know I have flipped one of my classes and have been documenting the journey – thanks for the mention. I have presently drawn the following conclusions:
    The flipped class technique can increase the pace of the class as it asks the teacher to really reflect on what they are teaching and it allows students to better manage their learning time.
    The flipped classroom due to the previous mentioned time release allows for higher quality teaching and learning
    For it to work successfully it requires a complete cultural shift – brief experiments do not allow the students to develop the skills required to succeed in this format.
    It is not suitable for all classes – motivation is a key underlying factor here, as is maturity and sequential knowledge content

    For a more formally researched consideration check out the links here – link to flipteaching.com


    • Neil,

      Thanks for the feedback and for the link. At some point I would like to witness the flipped classroom in action with your class. I am definitely intrigued and believe this could play a large part in our transition to individualized learning. Cheers, Ivan

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