What the Flip! – Six reasons why the benefits of flipped learning are flawed and overblown

Search the internet and you will find various articles and blogs advocating the idea of flipped learning. Although its adherents champion it as a revolutionary strategy that paves the way for ‘deeper learning‘ in class, I am somewhat uneasy with the concept as a whole. This is because the learning that normally takes place in the classroom takes place in the home and I am unsure whether pupils can properly benefit from high quality direct instruction, modelling and initial guided practice without the teacher present. 

What is flipped learning?

Advocates of flipped learning (and its variants, such as blended learning, peer learning or inverted classrooms), including Mazur (1997), Lage, Platt, and Treglia (2000), Bergmann and Sams (2012) and Mazur, Brown and Jacobsen (2015), emphasize the importance freeing up learning for a range of in-class activities and support that are limited in the ‘traditional classroom’. 

According to November and Mull (2012) flipped learning allows pupils to:

  • prepare for future lessons in the classroom by watching videos, listening to recordings/podcasts and/or reading texts at home; 
  • preemptively raise questions or identify issues that will potentially need addressing in the class; 
  • use online discussion tools, such as Google Classroom, to post questions for the teacher to review prior to the actual lesson.

November and Mull also suggest flipped learning helps the teacher by:

  • allowing them to better plan the lesson in response to the questions raised by pupils prior to the lesson;
  • facilitating the use the Socratic method of teaching (basically, questions and problems are posed and pupils discuss these before working in collaboration on problem-solving activities that arguably help them consolidate what was learnt at home before the lesson); 
  • allowing them to circulate the classroom helping pupils individually or in small groups (as they will not be explaining content or modelling answers to the class).

Recently, a number of enthusiastic bloggers have pointed to studies by the University of Utrecht, which have been published in the Journal Educational Research Review, that seemingly ‘confirm’ the slight impact on learning that previous analyses found for flipped classrooms in 2017,  2018 and 2019 (see van Alten et al., 2019).  Whilst there may be some merit in these studies, we should remember that the small benefit demonstrated in the results mostly comes from research on higher education – where learners’ independent study skills and motivation are better developed than secondary or primary level pupils. Any positive evidence in terms of the impact on schooling is arguably a red herring. 

Evidence against flipped learning

There are considerable question marks about flipped learning that any school teacher contemplating its use should be mindful of. 

Firstly, Lo and Hew point out that, ‘The major problems of using flipped classroom approach include teachers’ considerable workload of creating flipped learning materials, and students’ disengagement in the out-of-class learning’ (2017, p. 2). Teachers will not only need to prepare the content for flipped learning tasks, but also video or record themselves if offering pupils recorded instructions, which is arguably an additional period of teaching. 

Secondly, Li (2018) suggests that many teachers do not have the computer or information technology knowledge or skills to put together usable and effective flipped learning resources. Whilst it is possible to give out worksheets and readings to prepare pupils for future lessons, this is not really conducive to the core idea of instructing pupils in subject knowledge away from the classroom. It is also worth noting here that the equity of learning will be impacted on by pupils’ access to technology too – the ‘digital divide’ (Nielsen, 2011). 

Thirdly, Li, building on the research of Wang (2009) and Dai (2016), goes on to suggest that whilst technology, including smart phones, are an ideal way to facilitate collaboration away from the classroom, they are not always conducive to facilitating pupils’ attention to the tasks at hand. Not only will there be a temptation to get side tracked by social media, but pupils could end up plagiarising information from the internet or simply become lazy and less ‘business like’ in their approach to the flipped learning tasks. Li suggests that, ‘Without supervision, students use their smartphones more for fun than for study’s sake’ (2018, p. 9). 

Fourthly, it was also evident that in many studies, reviewed by Li, that flipped learning videos were often too long or too in-depth for pupils to remain focused at home or away from the classroom. Furthermore, some pupils even stated they preferred the ‘traditional’ approach to teaching in class. Similarly, in a US study, learners on the receiving end of flipped learning strategies were less satisfied with how the classroom structure oriented them towards the learning tasks used (Streyer, 2012). 

Fifthly, despite optimistic arguments to the contrary, some pupils will inevitably struggle as they lack the independent study skills, routines and motivation needed to work at home. Worryingly, pupils who are not at the developmental stage required to focus on independent learning may fall rapidly behind their peers (Nielsen, 2011). This is particularly problematic in lineral acquisition subjects, such as foreign languages (Vitta & Al-Hoorie, 2020).

Lastly, it is also worth mentioning that some – not all – of the early proponents of flipped learning saw it as a way to focus on pupils’ learning styles (see Lage, Platt, and Treglia, 2000, for instance), which – as most teachers now know – is a discredited approach to teaching and learning.

Conclusion

I am sure that – contextually – flipped learning has a place somewhere, but a lot of this will depend on the age, ability and home environment of learners. It would be up to experienced teachers to determine whether to apply these strategies in their practice. Schools should not – under any circumstances – be advocating flipped learning as a replacement for traditional homework tasks or classroom teaching per se.

The emerging picture is that flipped learning – as a generic strategy – is flawed and a cautious approach should be taken towards it. The academic justification for ‘flipping the classroom’ seems to rest on studies centred on older learners. There is scant evidence for its use at secondary and primary level. I would argue that most of the advocates of flipped learning are basing their assessment of its benefits on assumptions rather than an evidence-informed approach.

It is probably best – as demonstrated by the emerging consensus on the effectiveness of homework – to set short, concise and manageable tasks that build on the retrieval of previously learnt content (or, perhaps, pre-reading or preparation activities on targeted vocabulary). Otherwise, we will be partaking in another educational fad that has a largely redundant impact on learning.

A recent book I wrote – Homework With Impact – explores this theme further and gives alternative preparation tasks that are arguably more effective than flipped learning. See chapter 6.

References (unless hyperlinked)

Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: reach every student in every class every day. Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education.

Dai, J. (2016). An empirical study on the influence of mobile media on college students’ autonomous learning in the “internet +” era. Heilongjiang Higher Education Research, (8), 132-136. 

Lage, M. & Platt, G. & Treglia, M. (2000). Inverting the classroom: A gateway to creating an inclusive learning environment. Journal of Economic Education. 31(1), 30-43.

Li, Y. (2018). Current problems with the prerequisites for flipped classroom teaching – a case study in a university in Northwest China. Smart Learn. Environ. 5(2). 

Lo, C.K., & Hew, K.F. (2017). A critical review of flipped classroom challenges in K-12 education: possible solutions and recommendations for future research. RPTEL 12(4).

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer instruction: A user’s manual series in educational innovation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mazur, A., Brown, B., & Jacobsen, M. (2015). Learning designs using flipped classroom instruction/Conception d’apprentissage à l’aide de l’instruction en classe inversée. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 41(2).

Nielsen, L. (2011). Five reasons I’m not flipping over the flipped classroom. Available at: https://www.techlearning.com/tl-advisor-blog/3360

November, A., Mull, B. (2012). Flipped learning: a response to five common criticisms. November Learning. Available at: http://novemberlearning.com/assets/flipped-learning-a-response-to-five-common-criticisms.pdf [retrieved 27.10.21].

Strayer, J.F. (2012). How learning in an inverted classroom influences cooperation, innovation and task orientation. Learning Environ Res 15, 171–193.

van Alten, D.C.D., Phielix, C., Janssen, J. & Kester, L. (2019) Effects of flipping the classroom on learning outcomes and satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review: n. Pag.

Vitta, J. P. & Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2020). The flipped classroom in second language learning: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research.

Wang, C. (2009). The impact of new media on the life, study and thinking of college students. Theoretical Front of Universities, (07), 40-41.

Picture credit: Pixabay (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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