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


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.


Looking back to 2015, getting ahead in 2016 (part 1)

Holy crap, that went fast! I feel like it was just yesterday that I was ending my term’s teaching, giving my lone mid-year final exam, and falling exhausted onto the living room floor. But here we are: New Years Day, and on Tuesday I head back into the classroom until early April.


Truth be told, I did manage to take a proper break this holiday season, somewhat against the odds (though in keeping with my New Years resolutions about working less and living more). As a result, I found myself late last week recharged enough to reflect on what went well last semester, and on what needs work as we head into Winter 2016.

First, the best parts.

1. Peer evaluations are improving!

Back in May, in a series of linked posts, I reflected on things that went poorly, things that went well, and things I’d like to try in future, all based on my 2014-15 teaching year-that-was. Of all of the stuff I wrote about in those posts, the bits that were most important to me had to do with peer evaluation processes. I needed to figure out how to set them up better so that students could feel more at ease with actually critiquing one another, because I really half-assed them in 2014-15 and it showed. Students were frustrated, unsure how to “grade” each other, and they struggled to speak honestly about challenges they had faced with one another. Not good.

This past semester, in my 20th Century Theatre class, I worked to rectify some of these issues, and so far, so good. The key: lots of forward planning on my part. Not just for the actual peer-evaluation exercises, mind, but ALSO for the bumps we’d inevitably hit along the way.

I made a mental list of the things students had found hardest last year, and tried to build in a variety of ways to work through those challenges. So:

  • We spent time at the beginning of this past semester, as we normally do, getting to know our group members and working to build a sense of classroom community. This go round, though, I asked the students to use some of this time to reflect directly on their past group experiences and then to create a tentative “group profile”. (For example: “the leaders”; “the introverts”; “the apathetics”; etc. We tried to keep it fun and light – it was week two, after all! No stakes yet.) My excellent TA, Meghan O’Hara, and I asked the students to come up with one-line descriptions of their group, and we added those to our course blog so we could use them in group reflection exercises later.
  • At mid-term, we did a mock peer evaluation; the goal for this task was for students to learn to say something nice, AS WELL AS something constructively critical, about each of their fellow group members. Needless to say, most students did really well at the first task, and rather less well at the second. EVERYONE realised that grading one another is hard! (Score one for the teachers!) Meghan and I collected the reflections we had each group create via email, and put them on file for the end of term evaluation process.
  • When the last day of term rolled around we did our first “formal” peer evaluation exercise, worth 5% of each student’s mark. First, I posed a series of group work-related prompts on our blog and asked each student to reflect at the start of class, in writing, on those prompts. (The prompts asked the students to measure their group’s success in five categories: attendance and punctuality; communication; attention to detail; equitable sharing of group tasks; commitment to shared work.) Second, the students got together with their group mates and shared their writing; based on the majority feeling, AND on a clear rubric I’d created to go with the prompts the students had written about, they had to suggest a group grade for themselves for the semester. Finally, I asked them to fill out a form – for my and Meghan’s eyes only – indicating if any of their peers deserved extra marks, or marks off, for extraordinary or problem group behaviour. (There are a large number of sample peer evaluation tools on the web; I did a google search and skimmed until I found one that met our class’s needs best. I’ve attached my edited version of it here, for anyone who wants to use/improve it. [If you improve it, please let me know!])
  • On the day after term ended, and before exams began, each group met with me and Meghan individually in my office. We talked about their peer evaluation writing, compared their mid-term goals as a group with their final reflections, and invited discussion around any hard-to-confront issues that might be easier to talk about in a semi-private setting.

Although I don’t have data to evaluate how the students found this process, my anecdotal sense is that it largely worked and resulted in generally fair grades for all. It also, in one case, resulted in a group realising that, although on the surface they seemed totally in sync, in fact they needed to have a heart-to-heart about leadership and expectations. They have a whole semester to work on this, and Meghan and I have offered assistance as needed. Feels like a result so far!

2. Field trips – so worth it.

In autumn 2014 I took my performance studies class to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche all-night art festival, and I wrote about how that experience awakened me to the incredible learning benefits that come from leaving campus (and sometimes traveling hundreds of kilometres) with students. This past autumn I ran three field trips with students – all proved a terrific way to help the gang bond and build community one among another, in addition to giving us the chance to see some world-class live performance in Stratford, Ontario, in Toronto, and in London, England.


(Right and below: Lucia Cervoni and Stephen Ouimette in promotional photos for Julie and The Alchemist)



My performance theory class attended two shows off campus: The Alchemist at the Stratford Festival of Canada, and Julie, a contemporary opera adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, by Philippe Boesmans, at Canadian Stage in Toronto. 20th Century Theatre came along for the latter – it was a cost savings for everyone to double this trip up, and thankfully Strindberg’s Miss Julie is important to modern theatre history for a host of reasons so, pedagogically, it also made sense.

I will say that The Alchemist ended up being an awkward fit for the performance theory crew, but in some ways it couldn’t be helped: it was one of the few shows continuing into late September at Stratford, which is principally a summer festival. (Next year I’ll plan to spend time in spring figuring out which shows from Stratford best fit our class needs, and I’ll see what magic I can spin over the summer in order to make the class-show match stronger.) Julie, on the other hand, turned out to be one of those rare shows that felt like a total failure… until we dug into it deeply in class and discovered its critical power. Love when that happens – the students taught me why it was important to their learning!

My performance theory and 20th Century classes comprised my full course load for the term, but I also supervised a one-student “dry-run” version of our planned study-abroad course, Destination Theatre, which will first be offered in January 2017. As part of that dry run, Caitlin Austin, a fourth-year Theatre Studies major, accompanied me and my colleague M.J. Kidnie to London for theatre-going, planning, and discovery, all in service of making the “real” course as pleasurable and effective as possible for our first full cohort. I reflected on that journey here, and Caity (for marks!) did so here.


(Kim with Hamlet, and Caity with Falstaff, in Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K.)

I have to say that this journey abroad with a smart and committed student ranks as one of the top-5 teaching experiences I have ever had. (Thanks again, Caity!) I’m so excited to teach DT next academic year!

3. Why not just be honest?

I don’t lecture a lot. Why not? Rather than keeping my reasons a secret, and then getting a slow trickle of blow-back from lecture-loving students, this past term I decided to explain, in person and online, to my 20th Century Theatre class what a “flipped classroom” is and why I believe in it. I talked to them about the quiet class biases that live inside the popular college lecture format, as it caters to students already “good” at learning in traditional ways and familiar with the form. I explained that each week we’d balance class discussion with “pocket” lectures (max 15 minutes) from me and Meghan, because class discussion is when we learn from one another, and that learning is immensely valuable. In other words: I turned my choice not to lecture too much into a teachable moment, a chance to talk to the students about the process of learning itself.

Did it work? Again, I have no data (clearly I need a social scientist to spend time in class with me!) to correlate that talk directly to my students’ experiences of different learning formats in class last semester, but Meghan has just analysed our mid-term (anonymous) student surveys and more students have asked to see more group work, team exercises, and similar kinds of labour in class than have asked to see more lecturing – by a not insignificant margin. And, those who asked for more lectures specifically asked for more pocket lectures – as opposed to class-long talks. Again: feels like a win to me for mixed, active learning.

Happy new year’s day to you all! On Monday, look forward to part two of this post – I’ll look toward spring from a snowy Southwestern Ontario, and talk about what I’m aiming to improve this coming term.


On wasting time

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.

Thanks, Ali!