On flipping the theatre studies classroom… back again (part 1)

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A few weeks back I was in Calgary for the annual conference of my professional association, CATR (the Canadian Association for Theatre Research). I was one of the organisers, so sadly missed a good deal of the stimulating research presentations on offer across our four days together. I did, however, manage to make time to support my colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Jenn Stephenson in a workshop we put together on “flipped classroom” practice for theatre history teachers.

We had a terrific crop of graduate instructors, early, mid-career, and senior teachers in the large and diverse cohort of participants, and initially I imagined I’d do a blog post reporting our findings; what happened during the session, though, really got me thinking about the ways in which “flipped classroom” practice has been sold to instructors across disciplines in North America, and how our particular labour as humanities teachers – and specifically theatre and performance teachers – has been co-opted (and even elided) in that process. So, today’s post will include reportage from the workshop and some of the discoveries we made as we talked; then, tomorrow, I’ll paint the second half of the picture, which will include some provocations for those who curate our campus centres for teaching and learning. (Listen up, gang!)

***

Our workshop began with a brief discussion about the perceived neutrality of the classroom lecture model (the workshop was originally prompted by Natalie’s reading of this New York Times article on that very issue). According to information included in the NYT piece, normative in-class content delivery models (i.e., come to the lecture, take notes, revise before the essay or exam) tend to privilege expert learners – those who’ve gone to “good” schools, had “good” teachers, and enjoyed plenty of support from parents and siblings at home as they figure out how to take in and process lecture material efficiently. In short: this claim argues that lecturing can often been heavily classed and culturally biased, especially against some new immigrants and the children of the working poor.

Natalie asked us if we bought this argument: is lecturing indeed a privileged form of learning? When, and for whom? This question hovered over the entire workshop, and in our second half it became a spur for vigorous discussion about how the “flipped classroom” model is also not value-neutral. Certainly, the current critical mass of literature indicates that flipped classrooms get better results for more students than lecturing tends to do, but what about its impact on instructors? Who is being encouraged to “flip”, and who is posing as the flipping expert? What resources are being offered (or not!) to those from whom flipping is expected, and what kinds of academic practices are being exploited, or indeed undervalued, along the way? (More on this tomorrow!)

After Natalie’s introduction, individual participants reported on a wide range of flipped-classroom resources that we (actually, Jenn and Nat) had curated in advance. (You can see the list of readings, complete with links, on our workshop blog here.) Quickly it became apparent that a lot of this stuff says a lot of the same things:

  • flipping involves getting students to watch online materials in advance, do some advance reading (often also online), possibly complete some exercises or do some writing in relation to the viewing/reading, and then come to class prepared for a series of exploratory and problem-solving exercises based on that work. (This is often described as “pre-class”, “in-class”, and “post-class” labour);
  • flipping is broadly beneficial for most students and data suggests that grades improve overall under flipped models;
  • there are, within the pre-, in-, and post-class rubric, about a million ways actually to “flip” your classroom. (Indeed, you may already have flipped, and just don’t know it.)

Three compelling lines of inquiry emerged from our summaries:

  1. it was rapidly obvious to the majority of us that “flipping” the classroom is really just a particularly rigorous, thoroughly integrated version of old-fashioned active learning. The shiny new label makes this practice seem super innovative, of course – a bandwagon needing jumping-onto by all and sundry, rather than simply sound classroom practice – and encourages, for better but also for worse, senior university administrators to get very excited (and demanding).
  2. we talked about how heavily weighted toward the maths and sciences the literature on flipping tends to be. It’s often written by science-oriented teaching and learning scholars for (apparently often reluctant) maths and science teachers who (it is assumed) need schooling in the benefits of active learning. Everyone nodded at this trend: it’s one many of us have long perceived in our centres of teaching and learning on our various campuses. When was the last time you attended a teaching and learning event, one NOT organised by your faculty, that was delivered by an Arts instructor?
  3. we talked about student perceptions of the flipped classroom. Some of us reported a predictable, neoliberal response: “why should I pay the university so I can teach myself?” Many others, however, reported both improved student outcomes and genuine student enthusiasm for what we might call thoroughgoing flipping: active learning labour curated carefully across an entire term, with clear links to work backwards and forwards in the semester, clear goals and outcomes, and very clear assignment rubrics.

The take-away from this last point was, for me, a truly useful one: many of us already teach using active learning models (small group discussions, in-class debates, video assignments, etc), but there’s a step beyond that worth taking: linking active learning tasks week-to-week, and developing a series of activity models that can become predictable for students, even as they are varied and fun. Participant and Queen’s University instructor Grahame Renyk talked about the challenges for both students and teachers of increased “cognitive load”: flipped learning is based on smaller, more numerous tasks for students rather than the “one big essay at term’s end”; that can often mean lowering the stakes for students assignment-to-assignment, which is a great thing, but it also risks overwhelming students as they find themselves unable to time-manage many smaller tasks. (And, of course, those can be more onerous to mark as well.) Predictability in this case is really important for students, as it crystal clarity on the course outline about what students should expect from class time; for teachers, consistency across the term’s labour can make prep and marking more streamline-able as well.

In other words: “flipping” your classroom, vs engaging in what we might call normative active learning, is mostly about effective pre-planning for both you and your students, alongside managing student expectations of how active learning works and what they can get from it. That means it’s also dependent on a few other, entirely practical things that teachers need to be thinking about, and that universities need to provide proper support for. 

For example:

SPACE MATTERS. Grahame and Jenn (who are colleagues and often team-teach at Queen’s) shared information about how classroom spaces impact their flipped-classroom work. Grahame has moved all uni-directional content delivery online in order to free up in-class space for other work, but still struggles with the proscenium arch-style classroom he is given for his large course (and which is not conducive to group work, to say the least). Jenn, meanwhile, has benefited from a pod-based classroom that is ideal for group work, but that doesn’t facilitate lecturing as there is no “front” (and thus some students need to strain physically to see her when she speaks to the whole class).

All of us had similar space stories to share. Increasingly universities are doing a better job of planning active learning classroom spaces as new buildings are built and others renovated, but what’s often lost in this process is the recognition that flipped classroom-style active learning embeds numerous teaching practices within a single course, and each of those practices will have different physical needs. For such teaching to work well, classroom spaces need to be flexible above all.

COMMUNITY MATTERS. Flipping the theatre studies classroom has long been, for me, about carefully curating student groups and giving students the opportunity to stay with the same peer group all year. Several of our participants reported using the same strategy. Students sometimes complain about this (BORING!!), but consistent groups not only help with cognitive load; they also mean students get to know one another as a team, learn about one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and form community bonds as they strategize around problems that emerge from clashing work styles. Lots of flipped classroom work happens in teams; getting the team right, and then letting its ethos evolve longer-term, is key.

ONLINE: ESSENTIAL OR NOT? In the second half of our discussion we talked a lot about the growing expectation that the flipped classroom also be “blended”: delivered at least in part online. We developed a healthy skepticism by workshop’s end about the perceived requirement for online components. Lots of students work from mobile; are our university’s virtual learning environments mobile-friendly (if they are even any good to start!)? The consensus in our room: rarely. Lots of students are similarly not that media-savvy; the digital-native generation knows how to check Instagram and torrent TV shows, but not necessarily how to post to a course blog without making all kinds of time-consuming errors that instructors or TAs must then tidy up. And then there’s the biggest question of them all: is more online labour really more efficient and effective, or is it just another make-work component of neoliberal university labour, in which administration is downloaded onto both instructors and students even as the university’s admin cohort bloats with overpaid VPs and deputy Provosts?

More on that, and much more on the politics of flipping the classroom, tomorrow.

Kim

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