Whatever your teaching context, it is becoming more and more important for teachers to integrate online elements into what they do. With the Covid-affected reality bringing reduced class sizes, staggered timetables and online-only provision in different regions, we need to think about how and why we are delivering online content to support our students’ learning. One way of doing this is to ‘flip’ your classroom, setting online tasks for your students to perform in preparation for their live or online classes. This article will present some strategies for implementing the flipped classroom, and look at some teaching ideas which can make the face-to-face time which you spend with your students more impactful.
What is the flipped classroom?
In the traditional model of learning, learning is initiated by the teacher presenting the content of the lesson, setting up tasks and getting the learners working in a controlled and monitored setting, eventually leading to a final stage where students show what they know by using the language or content they have learnt independently. In this model, the knowledge-based aspect of learning is mediated (and therefore controlled) by the teacher, acting as guide, facilitator and monitor as the students become more comfortable with what they are learning. The teacher’s role is more present early in the learning cycle, and becomes less intrusive as learners become more independent with what they are studying.
The drawback of this model is that a lot of the teacher’s time is spent monitoring students as they work, checking that they are doing what they are told, and being ready to step in if necessary. For teaching settings where face-to-face lesson time is limited, and where students have limited contact with the teacher, or reduced time in the classroom (such as the current situation in many schools), this can mean that there is little time to respond to student questions, or really get into the students’ usage of the language in later stages of a class.
The main purpose of the flipped classroom is to spend this valuable teacher-student time more productively, by passing the ‘input’ stages of the lesson cycle over to the students to perform independently online, in preparation for the live lesson, where they bring the results of their preparatory work to class for discussion and consolidation. The ‘flipped’ element is the amount of independence that learners have to work on new content, which is brought forward to the beginning of the learning cycle, leaving more time for consolidation, questions and answers, discussion and student production based on what they have learnt during the live class.
Flipped learning, if properly scaffolded, can work to develop a whole range of skills in learners. Flipped tasks are performed outside of class time, so require a degree of time and resource management, self-monitoring, strategic thinking, organisational skills and autonomy, not to mention the collaborative teamwork and communicative skills required for group tasks and activities. Flipped learning also develops digital literacy and different ways of accessing, evaluating and preparing information for use in class, so it can open up learning to become a diverse and engaging activity without the need for you to be the motivator in the classroom, standing over students to make sure that they get the work done.
The flipped classroom is applicable to any teaching setting, from primary school to Higher Education, with the same principles being applied to different levels of language and content, so presents a flexible solution for the situation which many teachers (and therefore their students) find themselves in today.
Potential problems with flipped learning
Flipping your classroom is not always easy, either for you or your learners. Any online work that you set assumes some level of digital literacy, which you may have to check and develop as necessary in class, or through guided tasks delivered synchronously, in real-time to give your students the skills they need to work independently online in appropriate ways for the tasks that you set. Finding a set of apps or online platforms which work for your purposes, and teaching your learners how to work with them, perhaps by setting them up yourself and working as an administrator for each group at first, can ease learners into this new way of working, and help them to develop an awareness of how content can be gathered, shared or edited according to the tasks you set.
Don’t keep introducing new online resources - a few good platforms or apps which do the jobs you need them to do is more effective than a bewildering choice of systems which all work differently. Find out which systems your learners are familiar with ( Whatsapp, Skype or Zoom have functions which can be used effectively in students’ independent learning if tasks are designed to fit).
Another problem which accompanies any autonomous student work is the risk that students may simply not do the work they are set. This can be avoided by careful grouping of students - having less motivated or proactive individuals teamed up with more diligent students can help groups to peer-monitor and self-discipline. Assigning clear roles to learners based on the tasks you set also helps to increase levels of responsibility, empowerment and engagement. Perhaps the most effective motivator for students to do the work they are set before class is to create an expectation that anything they do will be the subject of some sort of reward in the following class. If they don’t do the work, they won’t be able to participate in the presentation, play the game, achieve in the quiz or ‘win’ the time to spend on more engaging activity after the class. Designing reward (or the awkward feeling of not being able to add anything to the group performance) into your live classes creates motivation to work.
So how can we implement the flipped model in our physical and online classrooms?
How to flip your physical classroom
With school curricula already often groaning with the strain of the amount of content students are supposed to learn, there is often not enough time to cover everything you need to teach in depth and to a good level of detail. Student problems get overlooked, weaker students may not get the help that they need, and details can get skipped by the teacher in favour of the main concepts which need to be learnt for assessments and exams.
A flipped physical classroom can resemble a project-based approach, where learners are given specific research tasks to do, videos to watch or listening material to engage with before the next lesson, or by a specific date, and are instructed to bring their responses to class and present them, either individually or in a group, for discussion and extension work. The fact that the research phase of the project is done online provides a lot of opportunity for different ways of working which would not be available in a traditional project-based activity.
Flipped tasks can be as simple as watching a video on youtube and preparing a written response, or can involve locating and evaluating information from different sources (say, news in different online newspapers) in preparation for a more formal presentation of what they found. Content can be gathered and curated on resource-sharing platforms such as Slack or Padlet, or turned into quizzes using apps such as Kahoot. Then, in the live class, the results of the research are presented to the group for discussion, either by sharing to students’ phones, on a screen in the classroom, or through a traditional in-person presentation.
Whatever your final, in-class task is, it is the students and their work which are the stimulus for discussion, evaluation and therefore learning. This empowers the learners to take more ownership of their own learning, becoming more independent, proactive and resourceful with what they do. It also gives you a lot more time to go deeper into the information the learners present and extend what they do in line with the curriculum you teach.
Not all content can be flipped successfully in this way, but it lends itself well to topic-based instruction and content-driven classes, perhaps in subject areas taught through CLIL approaches, or for specific disciplines taught in English.
How to flip your online classroom
The procedure for the online classroom is very similar, with research and preparatory tasks performed asynchronously (away from the live class and the teacher), and presented online in the face-to-face time. However, the way that the students’ research is presented will have to be deliverable in an online mode. This provides a lot of opportunities to get creative: rather than preparing individual or group presentations, which might feel strange delivered online, why not prepare more visual montages or slides with powerpoint and have students narrate over the top? Rather than performing live in the class, could groups prepare podcasts, webinars, youtube videos or other types of media presentation which we expect to see online? These can be prepared independently and played as the stimulus for discussion and language or content work, as with live presentations in the physical classroom. An added bonus is that they can be recorded and kept for posterity (if that’s what your students want…)
However you plan to reverse the way that students work with new content in your flipped classroom, it is essential to remember that the result of the process is more than a simple presentation and a ‘yay, well done - that was awesome’. The real purpose of the live class is to engage further with the material that has been brought to class, to consolidate everyone’s understanding of the topic, and to raise further questions that the learners may have after they have finished their tasks - after all, the whole initial task-based process is preparatory for learning, not the outcome itself. Be ready with follow-up work, questions for discussion and extension content to develop student understanding and application of what they are learning, and you might find that they go deeper and further with what you teach than they would have done in the traditional classroom.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.