It’s 2006, and two chemistry teachers at Woodland Park High School, Colorado, have a problem: in rural America, where sometimes the closest school is not so close, many students are often absent from school. So they have an idea: they record their classes and put them online for those who are absent. What they didn’t expect is that this idea would appeal not only to the absent, but also to those present, who can then review the lesson, stop it, go back and review it, and that from this didactic experiment would arise a movement of redesigning learning: the flipped classroom.

Interview with a teacher at Woodland Park High School

Before explaining what the flipped classroom method consists of, one must make a premise: innovative ideas do not stand on their own, because they are defined in relation to the problem they are trying to solve. So, to talk about why this innovation makes sense, we need to talk about the problem it solves, that is, what is not working in schools. However, this is not the intention of either the author of this article or the authors of Flipped classroom. Un nuovo modo di insegnare a apprendere, which is the main bibliographic source of this article, to make a sterile critique of the school. Rather, they seek to highlight its faults and hint at possible solutions, perhaps not easy, but already put into practice by thousands of teachers around the world.

What is not working in schools

We are used to thinking of the frontal lesson as the only possible teaching method, and it is probably really the only method of teaching that most of us have experienced in our lives. School classes, after-school language courses, university seminars, corporate training, online webinars, even workshops all look a bit like lectures: there is someone behind a desk, on a stage, on a screen, talking to us about something, and we’re there listening to him and, if it’s okay, we can raise our hands and ask a question. And yet it’s not so obvious that it should be like that. And in fact it hasn’t always been like that: it’s been like that since the book existed. The book, understood as a manuscript, was a rare and expensive object, and the lesson, or lectio, consisted precisely in reading it aloud, if not in the actual dictation of the book by an authority on the desk to an audience of learners. This is the first important thing to understand: teaching technologies (and the book is a teaching technology) influence teaching methods much more than we are used to thinking. Even after the invention of printing, when the book became accessible to everyone, not much has changed: the book has remained at the heart of teaching as a container of codified knowledge, and many of us remember at least one lesson spent reading the textbook in class.

Raffaello Sanzio, The School of Athens, 1509-1511. Fresco, 500×770 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City. In the philosophical schools of Ancient Greece the main didactic technology was orality, and the teacher was more like a mentor who guided everyone in his or her own personal journey of knowledge

What we use when we learn something by reading it in a book is a symbolic-reconstructive learning strategy, which stimulates above all deductive thinking (which is what we use when we first learn a general rule and then apply it to a particular case), analytical thinking and memory. The problem is that this is not how we learn naturally. When we learn to walk or talk, nobody gives us an anatomy manual or grammar: we do it by emulating others, trying, failing, trying again. And it’s the same as adults: we can’t learn to drive until we get into a car, no matter how well we know the highway code. This is an experiential learning strategy, which stimulates inductive thinking (from the particular to the general), hypothetical thinking and associative thinking; this learning is also the most significant and stable: we learn earlier, better and we do not easily forget what we have learned.

Two children use augmented reality viewers

Hypothetical thinking is what we use when we imagine how we would behave in a situation, and we use it, for example, when we play a video game. Video games have many interesting features: we have to overcome a challenge, that is, solve a problem and reach a goal; this motivates us, and we have to do this by exploring an environment, trying and making mistakes. Meanwhile, the environment responds to mistakes and successes with continuous and immediate feedback and remodeling the level of difficulty making it just a little more difficult with each success, in what in didactics would be called the proximal development zone. The associative thinking is instead what we use when we surf the net, passing from a post on Facebook to an article on a blog to a video on YouTube and so on, following one hypertext link after another, and we share, comment, actively interact, create content for the net. They really look a lot like the way we learn naturally. That’s why there’s so much ferment for gamification, serious games, virtual reality. So what happened is this: new technologies have made the way we learn outside of school more and more like the way we learn naturally, while the “real world” and the school have become more and more distant and impenetrable to each other. But what is the point of this double educational track, in which school, the place where we train as people, citizens, professionals, remains impenetrable to everything else?

This society no longer needs a school that reproduces knowledge, it no longer needs its students to acquire a consolidated wealth of knowledge, but rather it needs to foster the growth and development of the talents and individual potential of the new generations.

Graziano Cecchinato, Romina PapaFlipped Classroom, 2016, Milano, UTET, p. 17.

How the flipped classroom method works

The method of the flipped classroom therefore involves redesigning the didactics by reversing the frontal lesson-individual study-assessment scheme to make the learning path as similar as possible to the natural one, and does so in three points:

1) establish the challenge: the teacher proposes a particular problem to be solved, aimed at presenting and dealing with a topic; i.e. he or she has to problematize a topic;

2) lead the challenge: the teacher has to contextualize the problem and stimulate students to explore possible solutions, formulate hypotheses, verify their theses by testing ideas, solutions, conclusions (active learning) and compare them with their peers (peer learning); mistakes are presented as normal and not to be avoided, and students receive continuous and immediate feedback;

3) conclude the challenge: the teacher leads the last phase of elaboration and re-elaboration, presentation, argumentation, comparison and reflection on the results obtained; the evaluation in this context is formative as well as certifying.

Jon Bergmann, one of the fathers of the flipped classroom, speaks live on video at an event of Flipnet, an Italian association for the promotion of this method

About the digitalization of the school

Changing the teaching technologies without changing the teaching methods doesn’t make sense either: we did it with cinema, radio, television, computer, and it never really worked. I hope that this message has passed from this presentation of the flipped classroom method: the method does not talk about technologies, the focus is another, and the only reason why teachers use and let their students use tablets and online videos is that digital tools are really functional for learning. It is the digital tools that are particularly congenial to our natural way of learning, and they lend themselves very well to be shared, reused, modified, integrated, adapted by each teacher to his or her own needs and those of his or her students. If you knew the upside-down class only as “learning at home, practice at school”, I hope I have given you a broader overview of its real innovative force and its potential to create a more effective, efficient and inclusive school.

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