Patrice Apodaca: Backlash arises over ‘flipped’ classrooms

There’s a lot of flak about flipped classrooms lately.

“Flipping,” as it’s often called, is a concept that started drawing intense publicity a few years ago. Lauded by many as a means to revolutionize teaching, the idea calls for reversing the traditional model of teachers lecturing during class time, then assigning students problems, questions and other tasks to be tackled as homework.

In the flipped model, homework assignments require students to watch taped lectures and other recorded materials on computers, tablets or televisions during non-school hours. Classroom time is then freed up, the thinking goes, for hands-on projects, problem-solving, questions and discussion.

Proponents of flipping say the switch allows teachers to spend more time catering to students’ individual needs, while giving students more flexibility in how they absorb new material. The method is also seen by many as an inevitable step that capitalizes on young people’s native comfort with technology.

It hasn’t taken long, however, for a predictable backlash to develop. Critics have assailed flipping as little more than a gimmick that sounds clever in theory but doesn’t really solve any substantial issues. Some educators have reported mixed results, based on a variety of factors, including low-income students lack of access to technology and the question of whether recorded lectures are engaging and effective.

There’s precious little research yet to pass any kind of authoritative judgment on flipping, although some data is beginning to surface. A federally funded study ongoing at Harvey Mudd College comparing flipped classrooms with their traditional counterparts has so far found no discernible difference in outcomes.

Another study last year by the arguably self-interested Flipped Learning Network found that the share of teachers surveyed who reported having flipped a lesson increased from 48% in 2012 to 96% in 2014. Of those who do flip, 96% said they would recommend the technique to a colleague.

Many remain unconvinced, however, and the blogosphere catering to educational issues has been alight with flaming rhetoric claiming that flipped classrooms are much hype about nothing, promoted largely by those who are looking to make a dime selling related materials.

Part of the problem might stem from the term itself. A “flipped classroom” is a nifty-sounding, simple-to-understand concept, but it does carry a strong scent of prepackaged marketing.

But rather than give flipping a failing grade so soon, as some are suggesting, the new information teachers are collecting as they continue to experiment with flipped techniques should be used to develop a more detailed, complex and nuanced understanding of the concept.

Sure, some problems remain. One that’s been pointed out frequently by skeptics is that in early days of adoption flipping has been too often viewed as a panacea. It will not fix all that ails education, and it shouldn’t be expected to. So much more needs to be done, from addressing inequality in our schools to ditching our over-reliance on standardized tests.

Perhaps in recognition of this, some teachers have wisely avoided making a big deal about flipping their classrooms and have shied away from making sweeping pronouncements about how this strategy, or any other new idea, is going to change everything. They might know from experience that overheated claims often lead to big disappointments and backtracking in the world of education.

They also likely understand that major obstacles remain for flipping to make much of a difference in many classrooms. One hurdle that exists in far too many schools is finding reasonable solutions for children who don’t have easy access to technology to watch the recorded lessons — and yes, there are still many kids like that. Another is ensuring that the taped lectures, whether done by individual teachers or from online sources such as the Khan Academy, are well-designed.

But perhaps the biggest key to the success of flipping lies with how willing teachers will be to put in the extra effort needed to make this or any other new tool or technique truly effective. The best educators are the ones who are themselves constantly learning and willing to explore and experiment to address the particular needs of each class and every child. They must be open to getting out from behind a podium, metaphorically or otherwise, and interacting with kids, finding out how and why they are struggling and working side-by-side with them as they learn and grow.

And we as a society must give these teachers the resources and wholehearted support they need to make it happen.

My guess is that the controversy over flipping will ultimately settle down, and the best practices derived from the movement will work their way seamlessly into many schools. It’s not a revolution, it’s evolution. It will continue to evolve in fits and starts, but it will survive and, with perseverance and a little luck, bring about some positive results.

Someday — soon, hopefully — we will no longer need to use the term “flipped classroom.” They’ll just be classrooms, where all the good ideas employed by committed, resourceful teachers should be used to give our kids the best shot to succeed.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.