Thoughts on the Flipped Classroom

We talk a lot about the future of education. Especially how technology will change education and in what ways can technology improve education. Much of this discussion always seems to gravitate toward ‘flipping the classroom’. The idea that students can get instruction outside of the class and then do their ‘homework’ in class where the teacher can then provide direct assistance.

I don’t know the specific history of the concept of flipping the classroom, but I do know my experience of the idea. For much of the 90’s and early 2000’s many of us talked about using games for education. The concept that a game that adapted to the player to provide increasing challenge as the players skills improved seemed to fit with an education that was personalized. The player motivation that came from immersion in a game would drive learners to progress through a curriculum at their maximum pace. The idea that the games both motivated and instructed learners seemed to provide an avenue outside of the classroom where students would willingly work at their education. If the game outside the classroom was providing education then all of us (that were promoting games) saw the time with teacher as best used for the real high value of a teacher’s time – direct tutoring. If the teacher was freed from presenting the material they could concentrate on ‘teaching’ each student specifically to most benefit that particular individual. When the term ‘flipping the classroom’ came along it made perfect sense – games for homework and classroom time for tutoring.

Obviously, in my gaming bubble, I wasn’t seeing the other broad changes in education. Since what most people thought of as flipping the classroom was actually watching an instructional video (or simply a video of the teacher lecturing) at home. Today, as it probably always was, the majority of times flipping is talked about or actually used it involves those videos.  This doesn’t really make much sense to me. How is watching a video of a teacher lecturing that different than reading the textbook? Some learner styles may achieve better results with video rather than reading, but that is a function of their learning style rather than the process of learning. If that flipping makes such a big difference why didn’t we do it years before with books? Or did we? I certainly had plenty of time in school where the homework assignment was to read the chapter. I don’t think video would have changed my experience of education that much (technology aside because we didn’t have much home video when I was in school).

I appreciate what people are doing with technology to improve education. Using videos and other new technologies moves the teachers into a more central role within education. Teachers can use flipped classrooms to enable more active learning; they can focus on the students rather than the content. But, that major benefit aside, I still think games bring something bigger to the table.

The reason that flipping the classroom with games made sense to me was because games provided elements that neither video nor books (or lecture for that matter) bring. Intrinsic motivation. Engagement. Interactivity. Dynamic level setting and the leveling process as you move through the material. The ability to make the player experience a different reality (ok, maybe you can do that with books and videos, but it is different when it comes from your own motivation and actions). All of these elements and more made games an appealing addition to education. The flipping part of it was simply the game doing a better job educating and that allowed the other components – the classroom and the teacher – to do what they already do, which is vastly important, but do it more efficiently.

Of course all this is purely conceptual. We don’t have that full game that teaches a course. We may have some smaller games that do a small part, but even there we don’t have many games that try to teach a significant swath of a part of the curriculum. There are a few math games that do a good job, but even they aren’t mapped to a curriculum that I know of. There are games that teach civics concepts and some that could fit with history and social studies. There is broad belief that many elements of the common core would be best incorporated using gaming. But, the fact remains that the idea of flipping the classroom with gaming is still mostly a dream. In my opinion it is a very persuasive dream, but never the less still a dream.

My fear is that realizing that dream will be difficult because it is easy to say we are changing education by using video to flip the classroom. That way is easier, cheaper, and doesn’t present the problems of validity that new games would require. I just don’t see that easier way actually changing education for the better.