Apodaca: Flipping traditional classrooms on their ear

In my previous two columns I wrote about the halting journey toward infusing technology in education, and promising projects underway at some schools.

Yet, for all its potential, technology will be wasted without a concurrent overhaul in teaching methods. It's no good having 21st-century machines if they're plugged into an old, creaky system.

Which brings us to one of the hottest topics in education today: the flipped classroom.

Flipping turns the timeworn routine of classroom lectures followed by at-home work on its head. Instead, students are assigned to watch prerecorded lectures on their own — this becomes their "homework" — freeing class time for questions, discussion, problem solving and interactive projects.

The concept is gaining steam thanks to books such as "Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day," by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, and numerous articles in the educational press.

Some local educators have taken notice. The Orange County Department of Education in Costa Mesa recently presented a one-day workshop on flipping, featuring a presentation by Bergmann, attended by 90 teachers from throughout Southern California. And this summer the OCDE debuted its first class on flipping; 15 Orange County teachers signed up.

The flipped classroom is just one piece of a larger movement known as the blended classroom, a catchall phrase for the melding of online education with traditional face-to-face instruction. Flipping is generating the most buzz, experts say, in part because it's an easy concept to grasp, and can be modified and adapted to suit different subjects and student groups.

I know. "Flipping" and "blending": It sounds like we're making breakfast. But the imagery is certainly useful considering a good pot-stirring in the staid, antiquated halls of academia is just what we need to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world.

The flipped idea also dovetails with the educational reforms championed by such influential figures as Sir Ken Robinson, a respected author and lecturer, and Salman Khan, whose Khan Academy online videos are challenging long-held educational norms.

The rationale behind flipping is two-fold. First, it attempts to address the problems inherent in the one-size-fits-all model where the teacher stands at the front of the classroom and talks, then assigns the same homework to all students regardless of their level of comprehension. Lather, rinse, repeat, and many kids end up left behind.

Turn that around by letting students watch lectures at home, and they'll be able to pause and replay sections they don't immediately understand, take notes at a comfortable speed, jot down questions and use social media sites to solicit quick feedback. Or so the thinking goes.

The other purported benefit of flipping comes from the freeing of class time to spend on problem-solving and experiential exercises. Instead of imparting information from on high and expecting kids to absorb knowledge primarily from lectures, teachers become facilitators, helping students through multiple paths to understanding.

"It allows teachers to have a direct influence on each and every student," said Randy Kolset, the OCDE's educational technology coordinator. "That's what really thrills them."

Flipping is not without critics. Some educators deride it as gimmickry, and argue that removing the lecture from the classroom takes away the opportunity to engage students immediately through a question-and-answer format.

Another issue is unequal access to technology, although flipping proponents contend that it's a manageable problem since videos can be viewed on multiple platforms.

And naturally there are those who worry that too many kids will simply ignore their video-watching assignments, although I suspect that the numbers of homework scofflaws wouldn't be any greater than they are now. Indeed, there could be fewer shirkers if the coordinated classroom activities were stimulating, and students expected each other to participate. Peer pressure can be a powerful thing.

Despite the concerns, the growing interest in flipping indicates an encouraging move toward turning classrooms into interactive learning labs that engage and empower students. Whether it's a perfect model or not, it represents an increasing acknowledgment that in order to boost test scores and reverse depressed graduation rates, something different must be done.

The key to success with flipping ultimately will come down to — as always — the talent and commitment of well-trained teachers.

It won't be enough for teachers merely to tell kids to watch a video, and then expect that they'll know how to digest, analyze and apply the information, Kolset said. The students must be taught the skills needed to foster a rich learning experience, he said.

There will be those who believe that flipping tips too far to the self-paced learning approach to be practical, while others will contend that the technique doesn't go far enough, and that our entire system of education must be overhauled from the ground up.

I lean toward the latter view; though I'd argue that flipping is a solid step in the right direction. Not all revolutions occur in one big eruption; sometimes they prod and jab their way in, one innovation at a time. If flipping catches on, it might prove to be a propitious sign of something bigger to come.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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