Inverting the classroom

Several different threads have recently been coming together under the heading of “inverting the classroom.” The basic idea is that modern technology has let some of us come to the conclusion that the traditional model of the classroom has it all backwards:

  • Students currently spend a lot of class time in a group of 25 (or 35, or even more, depending on the school) listening to a teacher lecture to them. They could just as well watch a lecture at home — on YouTube, say — where they could pause whenever necessary and watch difficult material many times.
  • Students currently get most of their practicing done at home — it’s called homework, after all — where there is no teacher there to help them.

My department head has been fighting this model for several years now, mostly by devoting 90% of his class time to helping kids as they work individually or in groups. Homework becomes classwork.

But that won’t work for most teachers and most classes. I have no idea what percent of class time is typically devoted to lecturing; in my case I would guess 30%, but I fear that the national average is more like 80%. In any case, all of that time could be better spent. The most well-known example of the getting-the-lectures-at-home-through-technology point-of-view is Khan Academy, which offers over 2000 free videos giving short lectures on topics ranging from simple arithmetic to quantum mechanics. I’ve only watched four or five of these, but the ones I’ve seen look pretty good. I think I’ll recommend some of them to my classes this fall. They have their use.

So what’s the downside? The first issue is that “lecture” is usually a misnomer. When I lecture in class, I try to pause to let students ask questions, I constantly look at them to see whether they seem to be understanding, I give them quick exercises to work on, I vary my pace according to my audience. Sometimes we even have a discussion as part of a lecture, or as a follow-up to it. None of that is possible with a pre-recorded video. That worries me.

The second issue is that the public in the current political climate will use this model as an excuse to fire teachers, decrease class time, and increase class size. If that happens, it will be exactly backwards in a different way: after all, if class time is to be used primarily for getting individual help from the teacher, then we’ll need smaller classes and more teachers.

The third issue is that inverting the classroom will make it more difficult for a teacher to create discovery learning opportunities. If I have a carefully staged series of questions that are all designed to let my geometry students figure out a certain theorem, I don’t want them to be watching a video on that theorem ahead of time. This difficulty can be overcome by using a significant portion of classtime for such a purpose, but teachers who think that homework is primarily for practice will have trouble implementing that idea.

Finally, the fourth issue is that the whole approach atomizes a course into bite-size chunks of facts, all taught in a way that can’t possibly integrate into the story-line of a course. If I’m teaching trigonometry, for example, I may want a particular lecture to use radians rather than degrees, arcsin rather than sin-1, and so forth. I may want a linear equation to be y = a + bx, not y = mx + b. Sometimes I even make words up, for well-thought-out pedagogical purposes. How do I control all this if my students are watching Salman Khan give his pre-recorded lecture? The philosophy behind this sort of lecture seems to be that teachers are fungible, but we aren’t.

So…I have many doubts. It’s not that these issues can’t be resolved, but they won’t be unless we put a lot of thought into finding solutions. Inverting the classroom is a great idea, with wonderful potential, and it’s definitely worth pursuing — but only if it’s done right.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Technology, Weston