And so the flipping begins

August 29, 2012, 9:16 pm

The semester for us has gotten underway, and with it the flipped-classroom introduction to proofs class. This class has gotten a lot of interest from folks both at my institution and abroad. In the opening remarks at our annual teaching and learning conference, our university president gave some love to the flipped classroom model — and correctly pointed out that he’d been using it in his chemistry classrooms for 35 years. Indeed, there’s nothing inherently new about the flipped classroom — the name and the technology we sometimes use are new, I suppose — and yet this idea seems to be getting increasing amounts of interest, more than you’d expect from a mere educational fad.

I have to admit that prior to the semester starting, and after I had made the above blog post publicly commiting myself to running the proofs class this way, I had several bouts of cold feet. The first was after I described the setup to Beth, my terrific research student who’s been working on columnar transposition ciphers with me. I told her, enthusiastically, all about the flipped class concept and how it changes the dynamic of learning, and her response was: “I think I would be really uncomfortable in that class.” I didn’t want to hear that! I was hoping, at the very least, the strongest students among us would “get it” and be just as enthusiastic as I am. Immediately I felt like maybe I was wrong. After we talked, she was more “cautiously curious” than enthusiastic but at least not convinced it was a terrible idea.

The other times of misgiving about flipping this particular class have come when I think about what might go wrong, and the ramifications of a massive failure. Looking over the transcripts of students who enrolled in the course, I saw a lot of not-very-strong grades in their calculus and other more basic math classes, which brought up nightmare scenarios of large groups of students rejecting the approach, leaving me with a decision to abandon the whole idea and return to a traditional setup or else press on and hope they buy in. Either way it’s a failure. And then there are the course evaluations to think about — I gave up a tenured position to come here, remember.

So several times before the semester started the whole notion of flipping the classroom felt a lot like the picture I’m using above — flipping, yes, but also jumping off a cliff.

Ultimately I stuck with doing the course this way, mainly because of two things. First, I don’t think it’s right to make decisions based on fear of the unknown. For all I know, the students with weak backgrounds in calculus have those backgrounds precisely because their previous classrooms were too traditional. Perhaps they’d thrive in a math class, even if the material is harder, if they have a better time management infrastructure and more personal attention. Second, I simply believe with my heart that the traditional classroom doesn’t serve students as well as one focused on active engagement. The research bears me out on this but I’d feel the same way without it. And I don’t think I could, in good conscience, teach a course in a way that I know is inferior in terms of student learning to other ways, just because I was afraid of failure or bad evaluations or anything else.

So far — after two whole class meetings — the course has been going really well. Our first day, when I described the flipped classroom setup and explained in detail why we were doing things this way, seemed to be well received. Today was the first flipped class meeting, with the students having done reading and screencast viewing before class and working on a couple of activities about closure properties of number systems and conjecture-making in class for a grade, and everyone did reasonably well. Nobody has freaked out or started asking for more lectures yet. Friday is the big test for us — that’s the day we start on proof-writing in earnest. Students will be doing some reading, watching video examples of proofs being constructed, and working some guided practice exercises. Then they will try to write their first proof.

For my part, I’ll try to be more faithful about blogging the process here because I know people are interested. If you’ve got something in particular you’d like to hear more about, leave it in the comments.


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