BY CATHERINE JOHNSON | Flipped classrooms came to my New York district by stealth.
Months after teachers had begun “turning learning on its head,” as the newsletter would eventually put it, school-board members had not heard the term “flipped classroom” and did not know what a flipped classroom was. By the time they found out, high school-by-YouTube was a fait accompli.
Board members could still call halt, but while no one on the board appears to be wowed by the concept, a majority has bought the district’s rationale: all children learn differently.
For the “child-centered” administrators who head my district, flipped classrooms fulfill the ultimate promise of differentiated instruction. Outside class, students can watch their teachers’ PowerPoint movies at a time and place of their choosing; inside class, the teacher can work one-on-one with students who require extra “support.” With the teacher thus occupied, students who understood the video can explain it to students who didn’t, also one-on-one. Et voilà: twenty different students doing twenty different things, because all students learn differently.
There’s just one problem: we have no good evidence that all children learn differently, and no good reason to take it on faith that they do. How exactly would nature go about producing a species every member of which possessed a unique way of learning? And why? In reality, all people, including the cognitively challenged, possess the same basic architecture of the brain for learning: neurons, synapses, the hippocampus, the basal ganglia, and so on.
Important differences among students do exist, of course: differences in ability, interest, motivation, executive function, and—extremely important—prior knowledge. A student coming into algebra not having mastered fractions “learns differently” (much more slowly) from a student coming into algebra who has. A student coming into algebra who is mathematically gifted “learns differently” (much more rapidly) from a student coming into algebra who is not gifted.
Such are the real learning differences students possess, and flipped classrooms do not address them. In fact, flipped classrooms may make learning gaps more pronounced, if the experience of online courses can be taken as an indication. Researchers Shanna Smith Jaggars and Di Xu report that while all students in their comparison of online to bricks-and-mortar classes did worse online, males, younger students, Black students, and students with lower grade point averages were particularly affected.
Good teaching and the science of the sitcom
Why might younger, less motivated, or less capable students fare worse in flipped classrooms? Most likely, because amateur lesson videos posted on YouTube are bad teaching. They are bad teaching because virtually all lesson videos are boring, no matter how dynamic the teacher in person. I should know: I have acquired, over the years, an entire collection of professionally produced lectures from The Great Courses, not one of which I have ever managed to watch. The reason I can’t watch Great Courses DVDs is the same reason flipped-classroom “consultants” tell teachers to hold their PowerPoint lectures to seven minutes: a lecture that is interesting live is boring on tape.
Boredom is death to attention and, thus, to learning because we learn only what we attend to. While this may make common sense, cognitive science has elucidated some of the brain-based reasons for live instruction’s superiority to tape, among them “shared attention,” “mood contagion,” and “arousal,” all of which mean what their names imply. In the same way that listening to a band perform in concert is more intense than listening to the same band alone, listening to a lesson in class is more compelling than listening to the same lesson alone.
Arousal is key, and it has a sweet spot: psychologists have known for more than one hundred years that optimal performance requires neither too low nor too high a state of arousal. Interestingly, boredom appears to be a high-arousal state, possibly brought on by under-stimulation. Boredom may exist for the specific purpose of driving us to do something else (anything else – good, bad, or in between), thus ensuring a stream of experiences we would otherwise have missed. Boredom reduces our attention to whatever it is we are doing now.
Optimal performance requires optimal arousal, a state in which energy, interest, and attention are readily mustered for the task at hand. And evoking optimal arousal–capturing and then holding students’ attention–is a core part of a teacher’s job. Good teachers constantly monitor and respond to student arousal levels, keeping their charges awake and tuned in to the greatest degree possible, and against all odds.
For their part, students help teachers help them in the same way a laugh track helps a sitcom be funny. If you’ve never seen clips of The Big Bang Theory sans laugh track, it’s worth taking a look. Without the canned laughter, the show is a dud. People don’t laugh alone, and inside the classroom it’s the presence of peers that makes the teacher’s jokes funny and the lesson compelling, long after the 7-minute barrier has been breached.
Teacher jokes deserve special attention because humor is part and parcel of many teachers’ classroom style, and not solely because comic relief is as welcome in life as it is in fiction. Used well, humor is a memory aid. Humor helps students recall lessons because laughter reflects emotion, and emotion heightens memory. Even mild emotion increases recall of otherwise neutral material, a discovery made only in the last decade. The mild positive emotion evoked by “dorky teacher humor” (I suspect most teachers of middle school students know what that phrase means) can even reduce anxiety and improve student performance, as a handful of studies have recently found [see: https://mathedseminar.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/69312038/Effects%20of%20humor%20on%20math%20anxiety.pdf; http://www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v10n3/friedman.html]. Dorky teacher humor exists for a reason.
Unfortunately, when teachers record their lessons, humor goes missing. Instructional screencasts are an exceptionally earnest form, as a sampling of the Example Videos posted by the Flipped Learning Network reveals (http://www.flippedlearning.org/domain/36). It could hardly be otherwise. Teachers are not professional online content providers; few of us automatically know how to be spontaneously amusing in a pre-recorded PowerPoint movie with a voice-over.
Even if teachers tried to insert classroom humor into a taped lesson, it wouldn’t be funny because most classroom humor is situational (“you had to be there”). A historian I know once inadvertently set off a 40-minute, round-robin gag when he characterized two political groups as having undergone a “cleavage.” His 18-year-old students perked up when one of them said he’d never heard the word “cleavage” used in that sense. (haha!) A scholarly reference to political cleavage isn’t hilarious when you’re watching a PowerPoint lecture alone in your room, no matter what your age or gender. Even if it were, no instructor in his right mind would record a lecture laced with gratuitous references to cleavage and post it on the Internet. At least, let’s hope not.
It’s the presence of teacher and students inside a room together that makes the magic. Students smile at their teachers’ jokes not because the jokes are dazzling, but because their peers are smiling, too. In a well-run classroom, peers do help each other learn—but not because the advanced students can be required to teach the non-advanced, as flipped classrooms so often require.
Advanced Students need to advance
Which brings us to the reason why advanced students, not just those younger and less able, also suffer in flipped classrooms.
Flipped-classroom advocates often expect advanced students to help their less-advanced peers. But this approach assumes talented students can explain difficult concepts as well as the teacher. They can’t! Good teaching takes years to master, and good students are not intrinsically good teachers. They may be worse teachers, in fact, because they don’t see why a concept that is easy for them is difficult for others. They don’t know where the confusion lies; they don’t know how fast or how slowly to speak; they don’t know which examples or analogies work best; they don’t know how to “check for understanding,” and on and on. Why would they know these things?
Even if they did, they are not employees of the school district and should not be expected to reteach concepts the video failed to convey. They are students who need to progress in their own studies. Advanced students need to advance, too.
In the end, lessons and lectures are a performance art, and the performing arts are best experienced live. In person, a good teacher pumps energy and emotion into the room, and the students respond in kind. Their shared experience makes the lesson brighter, better, and far more memorable, in every sense of the word. Flipped classrooms simply cannot compare.
Catherine Johnson is a teacher, co-author of Animals in Translation (with Temple Grandin), founder of the blog kitchen table math, the sequel, and instructor in the English Department of Mercy College. She is currently creating, with linguist Katharine Beals, a series of discipline-based writing lessons to accompany a European history textbook for Oxford UniversityPress.
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