One of the most memorable classes I took in college was a history course for which we read fifteen book-length histories of the French Revolution. What stuck with me from that course was the incredible range of interpretations and explanations the authors put forward, based on quite different data drawn from the same set of events. Clearly, there was no such thing as “the facts” or the true story of the French Revolution. That class has been much on my mind lately as I decide whether and to what extent to engage with my university’s recent push to “flip” classrooms.
Indiana University is blessed with a core of superb staff members at the Center for Innovative Teaching & Learning (CITL). As the Director of Undergraduate Studies in my department and a committed teacher, I work with CITL staff regularly, and am continually impressed by their intelligence, dedication, and patience. So when CITL begins promoting something, I give it careful consideration; very often I put it to work in my classes.
Lately, CITL staff have begun advocating a sweeping overhaul of teaching approaches on campus. The basic premise of “flipping a class” is that time in the classroom is precious and should not be “wasted” on content delivery. Instead, students should be responsible for mastering course material on their own. Class time should be spent on group work and problem solving, on learning to think like a scholar.
I find some parts of this model compelling. In particular, the focus on teaching students to think like a historian, a mathematician, or a geographer is deeply appealing as it seems likely to produce both a more respectful classroom, premised on students’ competence, and a more engaging one. Where I take issue is with the deeply conservative, positivist treatment of “content.” Advocates of flipped classrooms typically argue that there is no content professors can deliver in a classroom that students cannot find on their own via a brief google search. Perhaps this is true for the second law of thermodynamics, or for a definition of irony. But even a basic familiarity with historiography (or with epistemology more broadly) will tell you that there are many ways to cut through the same material, and that that interpretation matters. The claim that students can find all the content they need is premised on the assumption that content is fixed, not importantly conditioned by processes of selection and interpretation. This strikes me as at best naïve, and at worst as actively anti-intellectual.
I also question the claim that students can unproblematically master course content on their own if we “hold them responsible” for doing so (I leave a critique of this form of neoliberal responsibilizing to you). In my experience as a teacher, and from observing a flipped classroom, only the strongest students “master” course content on their own. The students with less background in the field and/or less preparation for college invariably need additional help with the basics. And without a rudimentary grasp on course materials, these students are left bewildered and frustrated as they are plunged into group exercises whose basic premises they do not understand. The small group I observed within a flipped classroom, for example, very politely explained to me that they had no idea what they were supposed to be doing either in that day’s group work or on their larger project, that they hated the course, and that signing up for it was the worst mistake they had made in college. Many of my colleagues found a similar combination of bewilderment and resentment in the small groups they observed. Some of the small groups were clearly swimming purposefully and confidently towards their goal, but just as many were treading water, and others were sinking fast. Clearly this is not the outcome for which advocates of classroom flipping hoped.
The challenge, then, is to rescue the progressive aspects of flipped classrooms from the politically retrograde consequences of its positivist view of knowledge and its abandonment of all but the strongest students. Teaching students to think like scholars is a lovely goal; leaving most of them to flail is not.