Flipping Hell

Dunno about you but I spent Shrove Tuesday proving, as if it were necessary, that I can be a tosser sans pareil. Eschewing the standard advice to flip each pancake just the once, I did so repeatedly, matching each turn with its opposite and becoming increasingly giddy on the power of an accurate aim. And though the results were crepes, they tasted just fine.

Flipping has been much on my mind of late, not least because many of the teenagers I teach privately attend schools where ‘flipped learning’ is the new non-negotiable. Students (attempt to) master new material in their own time using resources such as online films – no more than twenty minutes long (so that’ll develop the attention span, nest-ce pas?) and, often, created and uploaded by their teachers. In theory, removing the mundane business of knowledge delivery from the classroom allows lesson time to be spent more productively, revising areas of difficulty and probing key concepts to a greater depth than hitherto possible. With the latter often addressed through tasks that, until now, would have been set as homework assignments, the nomenclature becomes clear: acquisition at home and application at school.

The cheerleaders for flipped learning are many, if not especially varied: its proponents emerged from American schools, where many of its most ardent advocates are currently located. And, as we’ve seen with academies, high-stakes testing and penalties, where America has led, education policy has, for the last two English governments, followed. As, indeed, it has with what Professor Yong Zhao of Oregon University’s College of Education calls “America’s Faustian bargain”: the “disrespect of teachers as professional colleagues” that has accompanied the prioritising of test results over all else by authoritarian leaders. Oh, and the concomitant institutionalisation of cheating.

If flipped learning’s pedigree doesn’t settle your stomach, perhaps the practice’s many alleged benefits will: a greater degree of personalised learning; more profound subject engagement; the encouragement of independence. Most compelling, if you like bingeing on metrics, are the claims of improved grades – which, presumably, explain the fact that flipped learning is spreading across UK schools like jam over a waffle. As with so many pedagogic fads, its introduction is often at the behest of leaders regurgitating half-digested ideas – a method of dissemination that, almost unerringly, yields two results: 1) the bowdlerisation, and consequent misapplication, of a potentially interesting theory; 2) communal eye-rolling, as experienced teachers realise, yet again, that the wine they’ve been serving occasionally must now be decanted daily from a bottle bearing a different label.

Flipped learning is not without merit: I’ve used it myself, albeit – and this is crucial – as part of a range of methods, in which context it can provide a valuable counterpoint to other ways of learning. See undercooked culinary analogy in paragraph one. That doesn’t, however, necessitate uncritically ingesting all claims made in its promotion, nor swallowing the almost Manichean opposition of flipped and traditional classrooms, upon which the former’s elevation often depends. It’s hardly the first time that students have been given preliminary material to study in advance of a lesson. And setting the same short film as homework for an entire class isn’t dramatically more personal or less teacher-led than a lecture – even if it does permit more repetition than a struggling student may be able or willing to request in a classroom.

Indeed, when it comes to the struggling student, what if the problem is not the frequency with, or pace at, which material is reviewed but, rather, the nature of the explication itself? In that case, the number of (re)viewings is immaterial. Where does a film afford the opportunity, as a classroom full of, you know, real people does, to pose a point in a different, clearer way? I once, on the spot, added two hand gestures to an explanation (steady, now). The result was pennies dropping with the kind of clang that accompanies a win on the fruit machines.

One undiscussed consequence of flipped learning is that many students on its receiving end are inverting the practice by seeking out teachers, often in private capacities, to help smooth the ‘WTF?’ expressions from their scrambled faces. If my charges had been catatonically lazy, or raised on coffee spoons of learning delivered with aeroplane and choo-choo noises, the expectation that they’d teach themselves sizeable chunks of a curriculum would be as optimistic as the hope of finding the image of Mary Berry seared onto a tortilla. These are not the students I teach. On the contrary, they are conscientious, diligent and willing to give most ‘its’ a go. They are also genuinely lost, having been sent to navigate unfamiliar terrain with too infrequent a guiding hand. Which brings me to the point at which, hoping that I’m even more wrong, if no less conspiratorial, than usual, lemon juice starts to overpower any sugar…

I’ve yet to be convinced that the advancement of flipped learning, in some quarters, is driven primarily by the desire for a more challenging and richer learning experience. For, concealed within the folds of this pedagogic practice are, potentially, an ‘efficiency’ measure and a business opportunity. Pre-2010, when New Labour was still at the helm and the Khan Academy had set the flipping thing in motion, the reliably impressionable Jim Knight endorsed laptops as the means of personalised learning outside the classroom. He then advocated classes of seventy, which would be overseen by small numbers of teachers or teaching assistants who were, ominously, spoken of as if interchangeable. At the point where Knight’s lines of thinking converge, there is an enormous classroom, populated to maximum capacity by students learning personally on laptops, while assistants paid in chocolate coins supervise.

Consider, too, that Joel Klein, erstwhile schools commissioner for New York City, has only just been removed from the shortlist of contenders to succeed Sir Michael Wilshaw as Ofsted’s Chief Inspector. That he was considered seriously up to such an advanced stage in the appointment process may be related to his more recent position in News Corp’s education division. Alongside championing charter schools (the US equivalents of free schools in whose establishment Murdoch has expressed a rapacious philanthropic interest) he has also helped to drive News Corp’s acquisition of Wireless Generation (now Amplify), which is dedicated to turning the school classroom into a digital learning environment. One in which all that archived News Corp content is recyclable as curricular material for a tidy profit. And in which that outmoded specimen, the fully qualified subject expert, is no longer required, having been replaced by a set of pre-loaded laptops. And thus is enrichment transformed from an intellectual goal benefiting the student to a pecuniary one that fattens the provider’s wallet.

A final instance of the, ahem, currency of flipped learning is Britain’s shortlisted candidate for this year’s Global Teacher Prize – an example whose inclusion, I’m well aware, may seem churlish at first glance. Colin Hegarty created and uploaded hundreds of videos covering the maths syllabus that one of his students would have missed because of an unavoidable and lengthy period of absence. Hegarty’s actions were, without a doubt, driven by the most honourable and altruistic intentions. But, commendable as they are, his continued provision of flipped learning resources is, albeit inadvertently, entrenching a new orthodoxy that deems delivery in the classroom and on the spreadsheet insufficient to prove one’s teacherly chops: one must also deliver online.

So, just like all those minutely detailed lesson plans, electronically archived and ready to be implemented by the nearest casual support worker, the banks of filmed resources, to which so many staff are encouraged to add, further the impoverishment of education by justifying the supposed obsolescence of the teacher.

Enjoy the Mardi Gras: Lent’s on the way.


About Joe Allardyce

Joe Allardyce has been a teacher for more than fifteen years. State and private; secondary and primary; man and woman: Joe has been there. Perhaps not the last one. View all posts by Joe Allardyce

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