I am co-teaching a professional development session for teachers in my district on flipping their classrooms. We met last Wednesday in person, where my co-teachers handed out material, oriented participants to the course content and wiki, and explained expectations and methodology and where I lectured for a half hour or so about the Prussian paradigm. Since then, these 32 teachers have completed three chapters of reading, have watched 20 minutes of video of me explaining how I gained stakeholder buy-in, and have begun to consider how to build stakeholder buy-in for something as scary as flipping a paradigm. This is above and beyond their normal late-spring teacher duties which include contacting equally stressed out parents, cheerleading for struggling kids, prepping for the oncoming battery of state assessments, completing end-of-year record-keeping and collecting APPR documentation, and maintaining an atmosphere that encourages a love of learning in this high stress powder keg that is the American public school in May where no child can be left behind but where we race to the top. I respect their inquiry into flipped instruction immensely, and was shocked when the class I feared would be canceled due to lack of interest overloaded as 32 people registered.
My colleagues have mostly completed week one’s assignments, and they have begun to raise some very interesting questions about the possible cons of a flipped class that I cannot answer satisfactorily. These two questions are:
1. “What do we do when students choose not to complete the out-of-class direct instruction?”
2. “What do we do when students don’t have access to technology outside of class?”
There are a range of ways to answer these questions, none of which are as interesting as deconstructing the assumptions behind these questions. The first question can be answered in myriad of practical ways. For instance…
Whatever you do when they don’t do the homework now.
Whatever you do when they disengage from your lectures now.
Make class so engaging that they regret having not been prepared, and learn from their mistake, choosing to be prepared in the future. (Employ negative consequences.)
Provide a bank of computers and headphones: students can opt out of the group participation to practice skills in class, but if they choose to show up, you will ensure they at least get the direct instruction by doing in class what they should have done for homework.
Upon some reflection, I think it’s clear that this question is based on an assumption that in the current paradigm, students cannot and do not opt out of an education by sleeping, texting, or gaming through lectures and that students complete – to the best of their ability and on their own – the out-of-class work teachers assign. If we dig even deeper, I think this question reveals an assumption that it is someone other than the learner’s job to do the heavy lifting of learning. I am not denying that teachers have a professional and moral obligation to not waste students’ time and to prepare engaging and meaningful lectures, to act as coaches and spotters during this mental workout, but it is not reasonable to expect anyone other than the learner to choose to work to the best of his or her ability, to solve technological problems (or advocate for help) on their own, to seek additional resources or methods to assist in learning and then share them with the learning community. If a student doesn’t value a free and compulsory public education – and to be clear I think the current system gives them a multitude of reasons to not find value in the product we are selling them – I believe they have the right to “wallow in [their] own crapulence,” as Springfield’s own Mr. Burns once famously said. Sure, we adults are obligated to confront these reluctant learners, pointing out what teachers and parents who love young people always have – that they’re wasting their talents, that they can do better, that someday they’ll wish they’d yadda yadda yaddaed – but in the end, that decision to engage or not to is up to them, just as it was and is up to us. Our current educational paradigm doesn’t support this idea, tying, for instance my teacher performance rating, potential pay scale, and – not entirely hyperbolically – my entire career to the growth of oft reluctant students. Regardless, I am comfortable with providing a high quality learning opportunity that is engaging and respectful of my various learners’ needs, and allowing a student to feast or choose to starve while present at such a bountiful buffet.
The second question, recognizing a potential for have-nots to miss out on flipped content due to lack of technology is also fruitful to deconstruct. First, while what has been referred to the “digital divide” definitely used to be true, even 56% of 18-24 year olds who live in poverty have smart phones, according to a Nielsen survey from February 2012. American University analyzed government data at an Investigative Reporting Workshop in March 2012 and found that in the urban center with the lowest subscription to broadband rate in the nation – McAllen, Texas at 37% – the demand is so high for public library computers with internet access that they are putting in an additional 50 desktops. While it is certainly possible that several of anyone’s students will not have access to the Internet or to a computer, if an individual wants to solve that problem, which is a very real and crippling problem in 2013, there are ways to do that.
With careful examination, I think it’s clear that this question is related to and might be a subset of the first question, and therefore it can be answered in the same way. As more and more individuals in developing nations gain access to technology and free college educations, individuals in America are going to have to do more than simply go through the motions – what Khan calls “playing school” – to be true competitors in the global marketplace. If you live in a provincial suburb in Western New York and decide not to use the school district’s loaner laptops, bank of computers in the library or two computer labs after school, or walk, bike, or ride a bus the half mile to the public library and use their computers, you are choosing not to use the resources provided to you and are, again, simply wallowing in that crapulence.
Our future needs problem solvers, and flipped instruction doesn’t attempt to solve all of the problems inherent in public education, but rather is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary change within the existing paradigm. The bell will still ring in 60 arbitrary minutes, suggesting that reading and writing, which is clearly only English class stuff, is now over. In 3 arbitrary weeks, I will be submitting an arbitrary number that was arrived at through arbitrary means based on an arbitrary test given on an arbitrary day.
Flipped instruction, in my mind, seeks to make the best of a broken situation while actively and purposefully pushing at the edges of what learning is, who does it, and when and where it occurs. When institutions, such as schools and libraries, recognize possible impediments to learning outside of the traditional school day and schoolhouse walls and offer up solutions, as even the poorest communities in America have done, I think educators need to direct student and parents to these resources, and then expect their appropriate use. It’s valuable to our young people, even when they and their parents offer up these criticisms of the paradigm change you are insisting on, to insist that learners seek to access appropriate resources to solve problems, just as those individuals in developing nations or the poor people in McAllen, Texas are doing: they are the very real competition for our children while they seek scarce jobs or access to college. Choosing not to access plentiful and free resources to better oneself is a choice to wallow in one’s own crapulence that I disagree with, but respect the right of the learner to make.
In the end, I cannot answer these two most common questions other than to say they are not indicative of a problem with the flipped paradigm but rather with the traditional one we are trying to eschew. By insisting that your students access the plentiful resources that our communities provide for those in need, you are imbedding an important life skill into your content that is necessary for success in the 21st century. Conflict, if strategic and managed carefully, leads to change. If you are confident that flipping your instruction is the best way to teach, as I am, then be fearless in the flip and practice insisting that your learners “turn and face the strange” and change too.