The flipped classroom is just not appropriate for all subjects, all of the time. This educational fad has gone way too far, and is being used for the wrong reasons. Most importantly, it runs into problems when teachers attempt to use it as a time-saving device in order to cover more material, because only a small percentage of students’ reading levels are actually up to grade level.
While the flipped classroom sounds like a new idea, it is actually an old idea. Several decades ago, it was called preparation–a good name–in Britain, although I am not aware of any specific name for it in America. It often consisted of reading a selection in a text book before arriving in class, for example, so that one could better benefit from a lecture.
The flipped model works extremely well for math classes. As an elementary teacher, I would look each day at the following day’s homework section. I would give about fifteen minutes of instruction and guided practice specifically on what my third graders needed to complete that day’s homework. We did not waste time in class doing homework.
I expected all children arrive in class with their homework complete, in order to be ready for the most important part of the lesson, learning from mistakes. Right or wrong, they all got nice, big A‘s on the homework for completing it in pencil (including showing all work and carry numbers or cross-outs). If they did not show their work, or if the work was either undone, or incomplete, they got a large, red F. Within a short time EVERY child arrived daily with homework done. We then put pencils away, and got out ink pens which we called “marking pens.” Each child corrected their own paper. There was no incentive to erase wrong answers, because the child already had an A, just for completing the homework. We spent the following 30 minutes going over the problems missed by the largest numbers of students, working them on the board. Students learned so much when they could see where they went wrong. In most cases, we found errors such as subtracting the ones place, while adding the ten’s place, in the same problem–or, in forgetting to add in carry numbers, things like that. In math class, the flipped classroom works fantastically.
Using the flipped classroom as a time-saving device runs into trouble in subjects which require a lot of reading for two reasons. One reason is that in many good schools, students are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of homework, leading them to take ineffective shortcuts. Using Spark Notes, and similar services, just do not engage student interest, and students miss the benefit of the literature.
The most important reason the flipped classroom runs into trouble is that students’ reading levels are just not up to grade-level standard in terms of being able to read either text books, or literature, on their own.
This problem is not new. It was widespread in the 1970s and 1980s. Secondary teachers in Colorado at that time were required to take Reading in the Content Area. It was a course designed to help secondary teachers help students who were unable to read their textbooks adequately. Because of the decline in book reading and adequate reading instruction, together with the rise in technology, in 2013, more than two-thirds of students in the United States were now below reading level for their grade.
Unfortunately, today, most students, even some of the best students are not even attempting to read literature (or their history, or science, text books). Most are attempting to find the film online. Poor readers who attempt to read Spark Notes have trouble understanding even that, and certainly no one finds Spark Notes inspiring.
Many secondary English teachers (including elementary reading teachers, and secondary science and history teachers) are now assigning reading for homework, in order to cover more material and just have discussion in class. The problem with this is that two-thirds of students are either not able to read effectively, and do not even attempt to read because of feeling overwhelmed.
So what do teachers need to do in order to combat these problems effectively?
First, they need to read the book (or text book section) themselves, in the mindset of a student, thinking about vocabulary which many students may not know, and noting it down. They need to think about the major ideas and how those ideas relate to life today.
Next, they need to introduce the book or reading selection with a short, inspirational talk, that will make students feel like they can’t wait to read more! They need to talk about and explain vocabulary (whether it is old-fashioned language or science terms) before students start to read. History teachers need to think about the problems they are teaching about in a historical context and how those problems relate to life in the world somewhere today. Introduce the similar problems and questions of today and how they are being dealt with in the modern world, then look at the same questions in how they are being dealt with in the novel, or in history, or in the science text book. Discuss what could happen in the future with the same issues.
Rather than starting a unit with reading the text book or novel, start the unit with a discussion of the students’ life questions about the issues which will arise in the reading selection Here are three examples:
History: While studying various political decisions of Roman Emperors, first discuss similar problems in the modern world. Open with a question, “What do you think about when you hear of an apartment building collapse that kills people because of shoddy building practices? What should be done?” Or, “What’s it like to be stuck in rush-hour traffic? What would it be like if the highway were also clogged with pedestrians, donkey carts, and horse-drawn carriages all at the same time, and it happened four times a day instead of two times a day?” Then, “Now let’s see how they dealt with these same problems in ancient Rome.”
Literature: “How many of you have ever had the experience of being in love with someone, only to have that person be in love with a different, third person?” Then, “The problem of love triangles is universal throughout human history, and that’s what this novel is about.”
Science (Astronomy): “Does alien life exist on other planets, or in other galaxies? What do various current scientists think about this, and why? Which planets and stars are most likely for this? What kinds of planetary conditions are thought to be necessary? Could we actually travel to other stars or planets, and how long might it take?” Then, “Now let’s turn to the text book and begin reading together about the planets.”
Lastly, MUCH more time needs to be devoted to in-class reading (even in high school). If teachers are concerned about embarrassing some students reading aloud, or if there are poor oral readers, students benefit greatly (even in high school) from the teacher reading aloud well (and adding in inflections and pauses), while they follow along. It also gives everyone a chance to stop and discuss various points, such as how they feel about actions characters take, or what situations they find themselves in.
Teachers need to inspire and motivate students, and help students to see connections that they would not see on their own. If the teacher is excited about the material, he cannot help but communicate that love and excitement to the students.