‘Flipping’ the classroom: easier than we think?

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In the last couple of years, I’ve occasionally come across articles and conference presentations on the topic of ‘the flipped classroom’. It’s a concept that’s not new, but when I brought it up in conversations with a number of colleagues (I was talking about an upcoming presentation for IATEFL), I realised that few of us EFL and EAP practitioners seemed to have really engaged with it. So that’s why I decided to write this blog: both to find out why we’re not all ‘flipping’ (I couldn’t resist) and to share a bit more information about what it means.

In many eras and locations, the teacher has been seen as the focus in the classroom and the source of most of the information. The flipped classroom approach is more learner-centered. It acknowledges that it is increasingly easy for students to access content online before coming to class,  which means that the lesson time can be used to share that knowledge and implement it in more practical, personalised and exciting ways.

One reason why English teachers might not know too much about this strategy it is that it is easily dismissed as something we are doing anyway: isn’t it generally good classroom practice to get students to come prepared and to maximise the resource that students are by getting them to interact rather than to fill in exercises? To that I’d say that yes, EFL teachers are definitely doing it already, but by naming and examining it we can reflect on ways to do it more efficiently and systematically.

Another reason for the lack of engagement is that it is a blended learning method and therefore involves technology, and not all teachers and students are in a position to rely on this: it very much depends on their location in the world. Where online access is available, teachers may be reluctant to use technology to the extent that they believe is required. It is certainly true that a lot of teachers who use the flipped classroom approach have done this in a rather enthusiastic way, e.g. they have done a complete swap from their conventional teaching to this approach and have dedicated their time to making their own instructional videos using the latest clever software.

Well, you can probably tell I am not one of those people… I applaud them but I am never going to be like them. I lack the know-how and the time to do something about it. I do believe though that it is worth seeking out new materials that use this approach or to look for existing online open source videos while adapting our course books and ways of working so that we maximise classroom time.

So why am I so passionate about giving the flipped classroom a go? It’s simple: it is better for our students. Here are just a few of the reasons:

  • it makes them more autonomous learners (lessons won’t ‘work’ unless students come prepared)
  • with ‘content’ being accessed elsewhere, classroom time can be dedicated to checking understanding and building on it in through group interaction
  • it energizes them during lessons and brings the unknown into the classroom (they rely on each other for dissemination and to put theory into practice)
  • it builds on their interest in technology and allows them to learn in the same way that they access much other information (i.e. online)
  • weaker students can access and repeat the information they need as often as they like in the privacy of their homes. This levels the playing field in the classroom and stops them having to catch up later, which does wonders for their confidence.

It clearly is an approach that is definitely worth taking, both for its modernity and efficiency. And the good news is that publishers and authors agree with this and are making our lives easier by incorporating it into their materials, which takes out the hard work for the teachers – here’s one we made earlier. So, there really is no excuse left not to flip.

by Els Van Geyte

Els Van Geyte works at the Birmingham International Academy at the University of Birmingham and is the author of IELTS exam skills and Academic English text books.