ON THE FLIP SIDE Educational innovators debate reversed roles for class work and homework

The flipped classroom is a teaching model that reverses the traditional roles of classroom time and homework. Students watch short video lectures at home in place of traditional homework, while class time is devoted to hands-on experiences and projects. Adoption so far has been fruitful, but success doesn’t come without a challenge.

Back in 2007, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, two Colorado (USA) high school science teachers, discovered a piece of software that could record a PowerPoint slideshow, including voice and annotations, and then convert the recording into a video file that could be easily distributed online. The tool forever changed the way they approach teaching.

“Being able to pre-record lectures was a revelation,” Bergmann said. “It meant that students who had missed classes would be able to catch up quickly and easily. What’s more, it meant that we could free up time in the classroom to spend face-to-face with students.”

Within a few months, the two teachers were recording all of their live lessons using the software. “We started recording short videos and posting them on YouTube for students to watch at home in place of more traditional homework,” Bergmann said. “We’d then dedicate class time to more practical experiments and to help students who needed one-on-one support.”

The experiment gave birth to the flipped classroom concept. “It’s all about spending more valuable time with students,” Bergmann said. “Standing up and lecturing is not the best use of time; there are deeper and more meaningful things you can do. We’ve had school wrong for too long; we’ve been sending students home with the hard stuff. By flipping the classroom you send them home with the easy part and we do the harder, more creative learning in class.”


Since Bergmann and Sams made their first foray into flipped learning, the concept has sparked global interest. In Iceland, Keilir (a school which prepares students, who have a vocational training and/or sufficient practical experience in industry, with the knowledge and competency necessary for further studies at university level) was the first educational establishment to adopt a flipped approach. Since doing so, its students have achieved their highest scores on the country’s state test. “We established the school in 2007, and from the outset we wanted to be innovative,” said Hjalmar Arnason, Keilir’s principal. “Since flipping classes we’ve seen less disruption in class because students are actively involved in something. They also have much more support from teachers and they’re achieving better results. There’s simply no way we could go back to traditional teaching now.”

In 2012, the Indian School of Business (ISB) with its main campus in Hyderabad, India, introduced the flipped classroom to teach students in its flagship post-graduate management program a course on entrepreneurial decision-making. Arun Pereira, executive director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Case Development at ISB, used the methodology to teach a class of 70 students from the postgraduate program and won the school’s Best Professor award. The experiment was such a success that Economic Times reports ISB plans to expand the use of this active learning methodology.

In the US, a 2012 study by the Flipped Learning Network, a not-for-profit organization designed to promote flipped learning, found that 67% of the 453 teachers who flipped their classrooms reported increased test scores, with particular benefits for students in advanced-placement classes and those with special needs. The study also found that 80% of teachers reported improved student attitudes and 99% said they would flip their classrooms again the following year. Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, Michigan (USA), saw the failure rate of its ninth-grade math students drop from 44% to 13% after adopting flipped classrooms. And at Byron High School in Byron, Minnesota (USA), the number of seniors completing four or more credits in math rose from 29.9% in 2006 to 86.6% in 2012 after flipping the classroom.

In Canada, Graham Johnson, the head of mathematics at Okanagan Mission Secondary in Kelowna, British Columbia, said that the flipped approach has transformed the way he teaches. “Before, many of my students seemed disengaged; some appeared to sleep through class, others texted under their desks and a few were not even bothering to come in the first place,” he said. “Using the flipped classroom, I now have an opportunity to provide my students with a rich learning environment in a way I could not do before. I can now spend 10 to 15 minutes working with one student who is struggling on a concept. Or I can challenge one of my stronger learners to extend their thinking. These are things that just never could have happened in my classroom prior to flipping.”

Johnson’s students seem convinced by the changes too. “I don’t have to sit through long lessons,” one student commented. “The teacher has more time for me as an individual student and creativity is more involved.” Another noted that “before in math I barely ever did homework; now I haven’t missed any.”



And it’s not just the students that appreciate the approach. As a parent of two high school students currently enrolled in Johnson’s math classes, Brenda Kirsch believes that the flipped approach has fostered very positive learning experiences. “Both of my daughters learn differently,” she said. “My 12th grade daughter needs more time to think, manipulate and process math concepts, whereas my 10th grade daughter excels with math material. They both love the flipped class approach for different reasons. The flipped classroom truly differentiates the learning for students and provides step-by-step instruction that is clear to follow. I think the flipped classroom is an innovative approach to engaging students.”



Parents of students attending flipped classes at Byron High School also have high praise for the concept. “Having the chance to spend more time in class with the teacher to ask questions and work through the homework has given my son a much better understanding for the material and a more positive outlook on getting things done,” said the parent of a 12th grade calculus student. “He is far less frustrated than before as there is more time to work with the teacher to ensure he understands the material fully.”

The parent of a 10th grade geometry student concurs. “Since my math skills are a little rusty, I appreciate that any homework questions can be asked in the classroom rather than at home,” the parent said. “That approach is much more helpful to students. There’s less frustration for all of us!”


Despite these successes, many other educators are skeptical. Frank Noschese, a physics teacher at John Jay High School in Cross River, New York (USA), argues that the concept isn’t really a step forward. “Flipped learning is still about passive instruction,” he said. “Although it’s via a video, it’s still a lecture. And, although students can pause and re-wind the video so they can listen again, they can’t actually ask a question midway through like they can in class. It’s a flawed concept.” Lisa Neilsen, a seasoned US public-school educator, self-professed ‘innovative educator’ and author of the book Teaching Generation Text, also is unconvinced. “I have a real problem with the idea that students are being sent home to watch videos,” she said. “Home life should be fun; children should be out exploring and running around. They are sitting for hours a day in school and now are being told to go home and watch a screen!”

Neilsen argues that flipping doesn’t change anything – except location. “These videos are simply a 21st century workbook. It’s just another way of doing the same old thing. The flipped classroom is built on a traditional model of teaching and learning. I lecture, you intake. While this method of teaching works for some learners, many others thrive with a model that takes a more constructive approach.”

But Bergmann is quick to defend his cause. “I encourage teachers to keep videos short,” he said. “Ideally one to one-and-a-half minutes per grade level. So a grade-four student, for example, will be watching a six-minute video. This is far less time than students would spend on traditional homework. As for the argument about screen time, kids are going to get screen time whether we like it or not. We’re not adding to it; we’re replacing it with something far more valuable.”


Access to technology is also a widely cited issue with the flipped learning model. Not all students will have access to a computer or the Internet. “This is a challenge, yes, but it can be easily overcome,” Bergmann said. “At our school in Colorado, 25% of kids have no Internet at home. We simply downloaded the videos onto flash drives for them. For those without a computer, we burnt the videos onto a DVD.”

Aaron Sams, Bergmann’s colleague, agrees that technology access is a challenge easily resolved. “A little creative thinking and innovation can help overcome the issues of access,” he said. “Problems are meant to be solved. Don’t let access be a deal-breaker.”

While many argue that a flipped approach allows students to learn at their own pace, Neilsen insists that isn’t the case in practice. “True flipping should include a careful redesign of the learning environment, but this is often overlooked,” she said. “If we really want transformation in education, one thing we must do is stop grouping students by date of manufacture, which the flipped classroom is ideally suited for. But have schools put the structures in place? Are they ready to let students move at a pace that meets their developmental readiness and come to the realization that not everyone at the same age needs to be at the same place at the same time? I’ve certainly not seen this.”

But Sams said he believes that flipped learning better addresses individual needs. “One of the biggest challenges of traditional education is trying to provide an individualized education to a class of 30 students,” he said. “Flipped learning allows direct instruction, which traditionally takes place in a large group, to be delivered to the individual and frees up the teacher to meet the individual learning needs of each student.”


A further challenge highlighted by many detractors is the time it takes to make the videos. “Teachers adopting the flipped approach will need to learn new software, make the videos and, in some cases, spend time burning the videos to flash drives or DVDs,” Noschese said. “Is that really a good use of a teacher’s time?” Teachers at the Keilir School found a solution to this stumbling block, Arnason said. “While many teachers are quite happy to invest time in creating videos, others have chosen to leverage the many existing videos that can be found online,” he said. “For example, a number of instructors turn to the Khan Academy and other similar organizations for assistance. This is highly effective.”

The Khan Academy, a US-based provider of free online educational content, has partnered with a number of schools and colleges around the world to deliver flipped content, including the Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, California (USA). Since flipping its applied biochemistry course, Stanford has seen class attendance rise from 20% to more than 90%. Tina Cowan, who teaches the course, said that student evaluations for the class when it featured traditional lectures were so low, they had nowhere to go but up. “Flipping is hard,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s more work to flip than to pull the lecture that you used last year out of the drawer.”

It’s a message that Okanagan Mission Secondary’s Johnson is eager to bring home. “Flipping classes is far from easy,” he said. “I have to spend a lot more time prepping practical class sessions to make sure they are interesting and that they promote deep learning. But it’s a challenge worth meeting. Flipped learning has such huge potential to transform lives.”


In the years to come, flipped-classroom proponents are convinced that the approach will have a significant impact on teaching. “We need to move from the ‘lecturing from textbook mode,’ which so many traditional teachers are still caught up in, toward learner-centered education,” Bergmann said. “Flipped classrooms are central to this transition.”


Since flipping its applied  biochemistry course, class  attendance has risen from  20% to more than 90%.

“I hope teachers use the flipped classroom approach as a transition to greater things,” Sams added. “I want teachers to try a flipped classroom, but I don’t want them to stop there. I hope teachers use a flipped approach to take some of the attention away from themselves and direct the attention to the learners. Once they have done that, some amazing things can happen.” 

by Lindsay James Back to top