Tuesday, March 13, 2012

To flip or not to flip

I've been hearing a lot about Khan Academy for several years, but until recently I would only get blank stares from colleagues when I mentioned it. But this past Sunday it was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment, and I have a feeling that soon the blank stares are going to be replaced by vigorous nodding.

Part of me loves the idea of the flipped classroom: swap the passive part of a lesson--listening to a lecture in class and taking notes--for the active part, usually individual practice as homework. Students learn the concept outside of school, and apply their knowledge in school, rather than the other way around. There's a lot that's attractive about this. First of all, you don't have to worry about boring your students to tears with a lecture; secondly, you have more time in class to help struggling students; and finally, maybe, you can sidestep the homework controversy by only assigning a 10-15 minute video tutorial for homework instead of 30-45 minutes or more of textbook or worksheet practice. A flipped classroom also has the potential to allow for differentiation, since students who struggle with a concept can watch the tutorial as many times as they need to in order to meet a standard, while students who comprehend more quickly can focus on other concepts.

But there's another part of me that's skeptical. Khan Academy focuses on math and science instruction, and I teach Spanish. Best practice in foreign language pedagogy emphasizes learning language in a cultural context; it's generally frowned upon to teach grammar divorced from meaning. So, for example, in a few of my classes students are learning how to use language to influence people and situations (with verbs of influence and the subjunctive mood), and the cultural context is Spain's royal family, who of course use language to tell people what to do all the time. While forming the subjunctive mood always follows the same rules in Spanish, the context for using the subjunctive can vary a lot by course level and curricular requirements, so I almost never teach this linguistic concept the same way twice. I tailor almost all of the unit materials to the course, the students, and the driving curricular themes. There's no textbook series or YouTube channel that does what I do for my classes and my students. My hunch about Khan Academy is that instruction in science and math is fundamentally different from language instruction. Scientific laws and mathematical formulas are always the same, no matter the context. (Is that right?) Language, however, is fluid and dependent on context, and vice versa. I suppose students could learn how to conjugate verbs via a video tutorial outside of class, without a context, and in class we could restore the context. But I suspect that such a work-around revisits the days of isolated grammar instruction, which makes me and my whole-language background recoil.

I want to emphasize that the flipped classroom model intrigues me, and I want to figure out how it can work in my classroom. I also think that Khan Academy's mission is noble, innovative, and game-changing. But it's by no means a panacea for an educational system in crisis (even with the financial backing of an intellectual and philanthropic giant like Bill Gates), and one-sided reporting like the 60 Minutes segment (shame on you, CBS) will do nothing to lead educational stakeholders in a reasoned and nuanced debate about how to fix it.


  1. Maybe with the plethora of videos that come on line each day, some entity will slide them into appropriate categories, such as the current You Tube and Teacher Tube. It will, however, take a bit of time to find the video, be it the exact one for your unit of study or something that will suffice, that you feel will meet the criteria for your students. I do like the idea of students hearing different people speak the language and though all the video content may not be exactly what you desire, it might work on several levels of instruction. That is, unless you want to get into filmmaking!

  2. I have also been thinking of how the Flipped Classroom works in a foreign language classroom. I am trying it out by having students learn the conjugations of the verbs (or vocabulary) and then in class we work on the usage of those verbs. I'm hoping by having students learn how to conjugate the verbs at home, it'll free up more time for actual communicative activities using those verbs in context for class time. Have you tried this? Any success? Also, I LOVE your idea of teaching the verbs of influence with the Royal Family. I do a subjunctive unit on verbs of desire with "querer", "esperar", "desear", and "pedir" with El Ratón Pérez y los Tres Reyes Magos (I also throw in a little Conejito de Pascua and Papá Noel to make cultural comparisons).

    1. Hi Cristin,
      Thank you so much for reading! I have tried the flip you describe with some mixed results. It seemed to work well with my (super-motivated) AP students, but I found I could not verify that my middle-of-the-road students were watching the videos. Plus, the videos available on YouTube vary wildly in quality, and I haven't made my own yet (because it seems like so much WORK). There's a great summary of the #langchat discussion of the flipped classroom model here: http://blog.calicospanish.com/2012/08/17/flipping-the-world-language-classroom.html. Good luck to you!