Last week I had the chance to observe one of my colleagues, the applied theatre practitioner Ali Campbell, guiding a senior-year studio class. Normally, when I visit another teacher’s classroom, I expect to: sit quietly at the back of the room; watch him or her lead a discussion or provide lecture material; listen to student commentary and observe group dynamics; and then head up to the front of the room at the end of the class to tell my colleague what a good session it was and what I noticed about it.
With Ali, things always go differently.
What happened when I arrived in the rehearsal room where his class meets? First, I was handed a cup of tea. Indeed, the class was preparing for a tea party, during which they would be hosting a posse of seniors, retired NHS nurses originally from Jamaica, in order to conduct a performative, community-driven knowledge-sharing exercise; I arrived as things were getting started. The guests hadn’t arrived yet, so the students were all pitching in to make tea, find milk, lay out biscuits, and prepare name tags (special ones, on which we were each invited to draw an object representative of who we felt ourselves to be on that day). The guests were late, so this went on for quite a while, but Ali was not fazed; the room was absolutely jolly and, although the students were doing a bunch of different things, clearly not all of them “work”, the class also felt fully under control.
If the description above makes you roll your eyes and wonder if Ali and his gang weren’t just wasting precious time, I understand. All the stuff we tend to assume about what makes a productive classroom (eyes forward, people!) suggests they were. But what if our assumptions are misguided? What I noticed as a guest in the room was that the room housed an exceptional learning community; the students were working seamlessly together as a team, knew what they needed to do, and, once we got down to proper “work”, they quickly and organically generated exceptional insights together, all from the smallest prompts from Ali. By the time I left almost two hours later (the class meets for four hours at a time, once a week), I’d had two cups of tea, two cookies, made a rather nice little name tag, helped a group of four female students make a series of nuanced observations about the experience of crossing international borders, and created and performed with them a brief, Boal-inspired image exercise reflecting on those observations. In other words: we got rather a lot of stuff done.
I thought again about Ali’s classroom a couple of days ago, when I read a Tomorrow’s Professor post about “flipping the lecture” – a teaching mode designed to give students the freedom to listen to lecture material online, at their leisure, and then come to class prepared to work a series of problems in groups with the professor as roving guide rather than sage-on-the-stage. Flipping the lecture is just one of a number of alternative, active-classroom oriented pedagogical models that have become increasingly vogue in Anglo-American higher education over the last twenty years, but the thing I like about it is exactly what I liked so much about visiting Ali’s classroom: it implicitly puts pressure on the assumptions we hold about what constitutes a “productive” classroom – and it pushes directly back against the notion that a bunch of students talking together, in small groups, all at once in a classroom space necessarily means bad rather than valuable stuff is going on. Are those students probably also talking about Facebook, or about what happened at the party on the weekend, in addition to working on the problem assigned for the session? Of course! But: does the freedom to talk about a wide range of topics (even “time-wasting” ones) while also doing the work of the class help to energise them, to give them a kind of counter-intuitive incentive to get down to business?
“Flipping” (or Inverting) the classroom is a fairly new practice in and of itself, and there’s not a lot of “hard” data on its effects yet. But, as Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller argue in a March, 2013 paper in Educational Leadership, the anecdotal evidence from instructors is encouraging:
To date, there’s no scientific research base to indicate exactly how well flipped classrooms work. But some preliminary nonscientific data suggest that flipping the classroom may produce benefits. In one survey of 453 teachers who flipped their classrooms, 67 percent reported increased test scores, with particular benefits for students in advanced placement classes and students with special needs; 80 percent reported improved student attitudes; and 99 percent said they would flip their classrooms again next year (Flipped Learning Network, 2012). Clintondale High School in Michigan saw the failure rate of its 9th grade math students drop from 44 to 13 percent after adopting flipped classrooms (Finkel, 2012).
At its core, the notion of “flipping” is really just this: handing the work of the classroom’s “doing” over to students, trusting them with class time. That’s what seems frightening, I think, to those of us (like me) who learned primarily in conventional lecture-style classrooms, and who flourished in those spaces (and thereby earned classrooms of our own). Students are supposed to be more Welcome Back Kotter than Head of the Class, we reason; they aren’t supposed to be trusted with their own education. But these days we also spend a lot of time telling them they need to take charge of their own learning; why don’t we try showing them how to do that, too? As Goodwin and Miller conclude,
What inverted classrooms may really be flipping is not just the classroom, but the entire paradigm of teaching—away from a traditional model of teachers as imparters of knowledge and toward a model of teachers as coaches who carefully observe students, identify their learning needs, and guide them to higher levels of learning. (My emphasis)
I use a lot of delegated discussion and problem-solving exercises in my theatre studies classrooms, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes (OK: plenty of times) get frustrated, worrying that the students aren’t taking things seriously enough, or taking enough “content” away from the day. And, some days, I bet they aren’t. But plenty of days they are, and on those occasions I do exactly what I’m supposed to do: I play the coach, the guide, the cheerleader, the community leader. I encourage them to figure stuff out for themselves, I celebrate great ideas and make gentle fun of underwhelming ones – and, if they don’t take it all seriously enough, I try to remind them why (and how) they should. If they leave uninspired, it’s their fault, not mine – and that’s liberating for me, too, I must say.