Flip a Lesson, but Don’t Flip Your Classroom

Some ideas flourish simply because the time is right. In the past several years, across the globe, people independently started making simple instructional videos and posted them online for their students. Many years ago, before I knew anything of Khan Academy or any other education video service, I started making simple videos for my own adult learning program, unaware of the trend.  It’s a simple idea that just makes sense. A student can get a one-on-one explanation of a concept or idea without the teacher needing to be present for that student. Now, rather than just a cool little idea that so many people just naturally started doing, it’s touted by some as being the future of education.

To be sure, instructional videos are awesome. If a student has a hard time on one particular issue, the teacher doesn’t need to use up instructional minutes on that one student while others wait; the student can be directed to a video. They can pause, and back the video up, and watch until they understand it. No one has to be left behind when the class needs to move on through the curriculum. Instruction can be targeted towards students individual needs and can fill gaps in learning. There’s amazing potential here.

But what is a Flipped Classroom? The common definition is that the ‘lecture – homework’ order is reversed, or ‘flipped.’ Classroom lectures are watched at home and the homework is worked on during class time. A neat idea.

However, before anyone gets too crazy about Flipped Classrooms, I think we need to be careful about a couple things:

  1. Lectures, even if they are on a screen, are still a direct-instruction based, passive learning model, which isn’t the best way to learn.

  2. Homework, that is the independent repetition of solving problems or answering questions in order to gain mastery, also isn’t the best way to learn.

Any teacher understands that though these two learning methods are not ideal, they both have their place. However, the concept of just flipping the order of two mediocre teaching methods will not revolutionize education. Though the idea of a flipped lesson is compelling, I am concerned about the “Flipped Classroom” model.

We need a variety of rich teaching models.

I suggest that modelling a classroom around any one teaching model isn’t a great idea. We know that a mix of learning methods is the best for students and their brains. Concepts of Universal Design and Differentiated Instruction have been long proven to help students be successful. We know that we need to mix it up to meet their needs, and to even keep their attention. “A Flipped Classroom” emphasizing one learning method is no different than a “Literature Circle” classroom, where all that is done is literature circles. The teacher’s tool bag needs to contain more tricks than this. Sure flip some lessons, or unflip them and watch the videos in the classroom, use paper, group work, presentations, projects etc. A good teacher needs a variety of tools.

Social cognitive learning still matters.

We also need to make sure that students are learning along with other students in a learning community. Proponents of the Flipped Classroom boast that students can progress through the material at different rates. This means that the students are not learning the material together as a classroom community. At its most base level, the idea that education should consist of students watching screencast videos at home, and then coming to school to answer repetitive questions on their own in an attempt to gain some concept of “mastery,” is one of the worst ideas in education in a long time (and there are plenty). It profoundly ignores 100 years of the best in social cognitive science. Students grow knowledge and skills through social interactions with other students. We know the science on this. We have reason to be concerned if our learning model is restricted to sitting alone inside at home, watching a screen.

Flipped Learning, by it’s nature, really only works with knowledge and some skill development. Some of the most important things in a student’s education cannot be simply taught in a video and then demonstrated in a homework assignment. Creativity, empathy, critical thinking, curiosity all need more robust classrooms than ones that focus on one particular learning model, and function as a mini-community.

Nevertheless, the use of instructional videos or even Flipped Lessons is still a great tool to have in your kit. It can have a positive impact on student success when used in combination with all our other great learning methods that we have developed throughout the past decades. Sure, flip some lessons, but keep that tool bag of great lesson activities. And don’t feel bad that you’re not on the cutting edge of ed-tech. Sometimes that edge wounds learning a little bit.  



  1. bgrasley · January 23, 2014

    Hey Tim,

    Glad to see your blog live! Good URL.

    I think it’s good to be cautious about a dramatic change in instructional approaches, and you’re right that a variety of strategies are needed for any classroom.

    But I don’t think the idea of “flipping” is necessarily sending lectures home so students do their mastery questions when they’re supported (although that’s one approach).

    Consider the teacher who instructs her students to watch/listen to 10 minutes of world news during the evening so that they can discuss the issues during their class time. That’s flipping the consumption to the non-instructional time, while allowing the community of learners to engage with each other. The “non-flipped” approach would be silly: the teacher would record a news broadcast, play it during class, then ask the students to write a reflection for homework. That’s much less useful, I think, because it prevents students from interacting with each other. It also makes for a ton of “marking” or something when students return with their reflections.

    So flipping is more about taking the “easy” part, presentation and consumption, and pushing it outside the instructional day as much as possible, so that the “hard” part, guiding the learning and encouraging collaboration between learners, is allotted more time in the year. I agree that it’s not something you should do all the time, and your last paragraph sums that up well.

    Thanks for the post!

    • timothyjrobin · January 23, 2014

      That does sound like one of the great uses of video, and a broader definition of flipping. Though I wouldn’t really call that flipping myself, since that’s not something that was traditionally done and is now being reversed.

      The definition of flipping that I’m working with comes from the Khan Academy model of actual lessons consumed via video followed by homework-like work done in class. Doing rich collaborative things in the classroom after watching a video at home isn’t exactly a flip in this sense, since that wouldn’t/couldn’t have been done in the reverse order.

      Pushing more content consumption outside of the class can be a great thing, with the right class (unimaginable in my current context). But “guiding the learning and encouraging collaboration between learners” isn’t something that was done at home that’s now flipped to the classroom. I guess it’s half a flip. The nature of the homework has changed. And I’m good with that. 🙂

      Semantics, for sure. I’m in complete support for dumping the term entirely.

      • timothyjrobin · January 24, 2014

        I just came across this description of a book about the Flipped Classroom: (yeah, a book).

        “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day
        Learn what a flipped classroom is and why it works and get the information you need to flip your classroom. You’ll also learn the flipped mastery model, where students learn at their own pace, furthering opportunities for personalized education. This simple concept is easily replicable in any classroom, at any grade level, doesn’t cost much to implement, and helps foster self-directed learning.

        Once you flip, you’ll never go back!

        Flip Your Classroom, by Jonathan Bergmann & Aaron Sams (ISTE/ASCD, 2012)”

        That, to me, sounds like a terrible idea, tossing out social cognitive learning altogether. Tagline, “You’ll never go back!”? Never go back to any other form of learning? That’s scary.

        That’s the kind of thing I’m concerned about. Using it a lesson idea is cool and I’ve done it myself.

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