Flipped Instruction – All or Nothing?

The longer I spend in the classroom, the more convinced I am that what has been termed the “Industrial Revolution Model” (or, alternatively, the “Factory Model”) of education is woefully inadequate, if our goal as a society is to produce students who exemplify 21st century skills.  In the past 5-6 years, I have been reading and learning about many alternatives to the Factory Model, including two that I am particularly excited about – reverse instruction, and gamification.  Although gamification is a keen interest of mine, I will explore this in a future post and discuss reverse instruction here.

I think that any reflective teacher working in classrooms these days cannot help but recognize that there must be a better way to organize our schools and how we structure learning experiences for students.  How do we foster a growth mindset in students, and ensure that they don’t simply get shuffled through a system based almost entirely on the day they were born? Rather, how can we provide each student with their own individualized path toward mastering skills that they are interested in learning?  I could write quite a lot about this, but I will leave it to Sal Khan to make the case better than I ever could:

The proliferation of the internet and digital communications technology made the possibility of reverse instruction a reality.  Videos, websites, articles, and other instructional materials are becoming easier and easier to either create or find. Educators can now easily create or curate instructional materials for students.  In the last decade we have witnessed YouTube channels like Crash Course and Khan Academy grow from a few dozen videos into massive channels with millions of viewers and hundreds of videos on a variety of subjects.  In my own niche teaching field (IB DP Chemistry), teachers such as Richard Thornley began creating their own videos and uploading them for the world to watch (and learn).  There is now no shortage of of resources available to learn most traditional subjects that are taught in high schools.  

A number of years ago I became familiar with the work of two science teachers in the United States, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, who were pioneering a new way to leverage emerging digital technology. I can’t now remember how I came across this video, but I remember that this was my first introduction to the “flipped” classroom model. The idea, novel at the time, was to “flip” instruction from a teacher-centered activity that happened at school, to an at-home activity in which students could interact with the material in a more flexible way.  I’m sure most anyone reading this is familiar with the concept, but in case you aren’t, here is a quick summary.


In his Edutopia article, AP Chemistry teacher Ramsey Musallam writes about the pros and cons of the flipped classroom.  To me, he succinctly summarizes the same conflict that I also feel as an IB Chemistry teacher whose students are going to receive a final mark based largely (80%) on their performance on externally assessed exams.  He writes: “The science teacher in me is deeply committed to the process of inquiry, and arming my students with the skills needed to construct and test their own ideas. The AP teacher in me fears sending my students off to their examination in May having covered only a portion of all the content required.”  I couldn’t have written this better, save for the fact I would have swapped “AP” for “IB”.

The flipped model is wonderful in the sense that it liberates a lot of classroom time for inquiry activities, which can provide opportunities for deep thinking and learning about course concepts.  Inquiry activities, which are usually more time-intensive, can be carried out. Students can take time to engage in projects that are more meaningful to them, and differentiation in the classroom can become easier.  Finally, the teacher is present in the classroom to help students and answer questions as they are working on applying their understanding.

(Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Flipped_Classroom.jpg   Shared under Creative Commons License)

However, in order to gain time for such activities, the flipped model pushes some of the instruction to online resources that are accessed outside the classroom – making it difficult for the teacher to gauge how much students have really understood, or even if students have indeed accessed them.  Additionally, in many schools, particularly private and international schools, there is a certain pressure (explicit and/or implicit, depending on the school and its culture) to have students get high scores on their external exams. And hence the conflict that I (and many others!) feel sometimes as an IB DP teacher, caught between wanting my students to both explore their own learning path in chemistry, and wanting their exam scores to be as high as possible.  

(Photo Credit: http://www.af.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2000142285/mediaid/12555/)

I should note that these two aims are not, of course, mutually exclusive in principle.  The conflict really arises when oe considers adopting the flipped classroom model as an “all or nothing” approach.  However, I believe that there is a middle path between the traditional and flipped models that could work. This is the same middle path that Ramsey Musallam sought when he also reflected on the flipped model.  In his blog post detailing his approach, he asked himself: “How could I harness the benefits of the inverted approach while not being a slave to it? In other words, how could the “flip” be used as a technique in the context of a student-centered pedagogy, rather than a pedagogy in and of itself?”  

Based on the work of physics instructor Robert Karplus, Musallam developed a pedagogical model that incorporates flipped instruction as part of a learning cycle, rather than a dominating feature.  His pedagogy has students move through an “Explore” phase, followed by a “Flipped” phase, culminating in an “Apply” phase. The cycle (which you can explore as an interactive document here) adds flipped instruction as a supplement to student inquiry/exploration, and application.  His model is “guided by student questions and facilitated by teacher content, rather than the reverse.”  

I like Musallam’s model, as it allows the incorporation of reverse instruction (“flipped learning”), but not to the exclusion of good in-classroom pedagogy when needed.  It eliminates the “all or nothing” way that the flipped classroom is usually described, and liberates the teacher to discern when and how flipped instruction can be utilized most effectively.  

I would be curious to learn your thoughts on flipped learning.  Have you tried it, and if so, have you found it effective? If not, what is the major obstacle keeping you from trying it out? Looking forward to reading your thoughts!


2 thoughts on “Flipped Instruction – All or Nothing?

  1. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for a great, well-thought-out post. I really enjoyed this one as I’ve developed a pretty big interest in flipped classrooms lately myself. First, off I’ll that I agree with your comments on the industrial revolution mode.
    question about fostering growth mindset Have you heard of the term “4th industrial revolution” or “industry 4.0”? I’ll leave a link to a wiki down below.

    “How do we foster a growth mindset in students, and ensure that they don’t simply get shuffled through a system based almost entirely on the day they were born?” This is a great question and also a spot on observation of what is wrong with dated model of traditional education.. I think that this is exactly why the shift needs to take place and we need to start teaching for mastery and personalize learning.

    Thanks for introducing me to Crash Course. I had never heard of it before. Did you know that you can also use TED-Ed to create your own Flipped learning lessons?


    They also have nearly 300,000 different lessons to choose from, which were already previously created by teachers like you and me.

    This line, how could the “flip” be used as a technique in the context of a student-centered pedagogy, rather than a pedagogy in and of itself?” is exactly what I was aiming to find out and attempt to do with my students (and also my final project). Some people have called it a “somersault classroom” in early years, but regardless it’s still the same as they both highlight student-centered pedagogy. Thanks for the interactive documents, I think they will help in my own attempts to “Flip Kindergarten.” As for your question about the major obstacle keeping me from trying it out, at first I worried that it would fail because of the fact that I thought my students might be too young. Now, after exploring Flipgrid and learning more about different strategies through this course, I’m confident that my students will benefit from it.


    In addition, I used to think that time was my biggest obstacle, however, I realize that it’s the opposite and that once I invest a bit of time in the beginning, having micro lessons preserved digitally will actually free up more classroom inquiry time in the long run. Perhaps that was a mental barrier that I just needed to break through. Thanks for sharing! I look forward to hearing about how it works out in your classroom as well.



  2. Hi Brian,

    I enjoyed reading your post as I am also very interested in the flipped model of instruction. I think you make a great case for why this would work so well in science instruction. Especially where you speak of the struggle to balance the desire to provide inquiry driven activities but also feel confident that you have prepared your students with all of the content knowledge needed for their exams. When I explored flipped instruction in my blog post I mostly spoke of the benefits in regards to differentiation and student driven instruction. Your blog makes a great case for using flipped instruction as a way to ensure that class is used for inquiry driven activities and home time is for content. I look forward to your future post on gamification.


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