Before it's sudden closure, the Fundamentals of Online Education reintroduced me to two terms I'd previously encountered in passing, but never really thought too much about (I probably wasn't actively teaching at the time, so didn't really have much of a framework of reference to evaluate them against): the flipped classroom and backwards design.
The flipped classroom is a fairly simple idea, and its theoretical merits should be immediately obvious. I believe it arose in higher education, so let's look at it in that context. Every year, a lecturer delivers the same lectures (more or less) to a room of students. Lectures are not generally highly participatory, particularly early on in degree schemes (during my 1st and 2nd year in Edinburgh University, we were well into the 3 figures even in my smallest lecture group). But teaching time is a precious resource, and very limited. Why are we wasting the time of some of the most intelligent people in the world by having them say the same thing year in, year out, rather than freeing them up to get extra time with the students, dealing with problems? And why do we, as students, end up doing most of our practice exercises at home, where there's no-one to help us when we go wrong or get confused?
So the goal of the flipped classroom is to overturn the orthodoxy. Let's make the lectures available as video for study beforehand, and then when students come into class, the teacher's dedicated to what they individually need.
There are several reasons that this might not be such a good thing in practice for many subjects, but that's not what I'm interested in today. No, today, I just want to show that this is not a new idea.
What I've read about the flipped classroom seems to be coming more out of science faculties than arts, which is not surprising to anyone who had friends that studied literature at uni. Us science students used to mock the arts students for their light workload, because they had fewer classes on their timetable than us, but we saw that backbreaking pile of books they were carrying and thought “there but for the grace of God go I.” A literature student may have to read a long, heavy novel every week, and they have to read it before class. Their timetable is as empty as it is because they have very few lectures, and instead have more seminars where they discuss what they've read.
The same is true for a lot of arts degrees. You may be expected to read a major treatise by one of the great thinkers before going to a Philosophy class, and if you're studying classics, you might even be expected to read it in the original! So it is wrong to suggest it's a new idea, simply because we now attempt to apply it to science classes.
Does it matter that it's not a new idea? In and of itself, no. However, in practical terms, if you don't acknowledge that someone is already doing it, you deny yourself the opportunity to go and ask the experts how it should be done!
Anyone who wants to “flip” their classroom should instead by asking how science can be made more like the arts. They should be asking arts lecturers what works and what doesn't; what can be passed to the student to do beforehand, and what has to be kept for the classroom. They should be auditing arts courses and experiencing for themselves the phenomenon they wish to replicate.
The other idea was backwards design.
Backwards design is the idea of starting by setting out what you want the students to know at the end of the course; then by deciding how you will verify how they have learned it; and finally you work out how to teach it.
For this to be presented as new or in anyway unusual is pretty hard to swallow, because people do this all the time, it's the absolute norm in schooling. A national committee writes a national curriculum. The exam board plans an exam format to test the criteria set out in the curriculum. Finally, the teachers and textbook writers are given the curriculum and sample exams and write their lessons.
Now, the traditional line is that teachers should be teaching to the syllabus, not the exam, but in reality, most teachers know that the exam is the primary goal for the students and they do indeed “teach to test”.
I said presenting it as something new was hard to swallow, but in fact I actually found it more frightening than anything. Were there people who weren't actually doing this?!?
...and then I realised: there are, and as a language teacher, I'm one of them.
It's been a source of frustration to me ever since I got into languages almost a decade ago that language teaching seems to have institutionally rejected the notion of a “syllabus”. There is no list of what a student should know at any level. We're asked to “learn/teach the language” rather than “learning/teaching the test”.
It's a laudable goal, but it leaves the learner or teacher, and particularly the self-teacher, in a rather bewildering forest of choices. Where to start? What next? Can I afford the time to cover this language point properly, or do I need to make do with an incomplete understanding and move on to something else?
For a long time I was convinced, though, that Cambridge (for example) had to have some kind of syllabus internally; a list of words, expressions and language points that examiners are allowed to include at every level, but now I'm beginning to wonder. Do they give their examiners the same advice they give us, the mere teachers that only have to prepare the students to sit and pass an exam based on unpredictable language: to use their “judgement” to pick something “appropriate to their level”?
Because to be blunt, institutions like Cambridge are completely failing in their goals. A responsible teacher will always “teach the test”, and if you don't give us the language we need to teach, then we have no choice but to devote more of our time to exam techniques, and we end up spending less time teaching language.
So I'm very much in favour of the goals of backwards design, but I'm worried that by naming it and treating it as something new and different, it will come up against resistance to “change”, even though it is not, in fact, real “change” – it's a defence of the longest standing traditions in education against a combination of flawed teaching ideologies and sloppy practice.
So these philosophies have created two obstacles for themselves by pretending to be new: they discount all the existing evidence, and they turn off people who might otherwise be convinced by the past experience of their colleagues.