The inverted calculus course: Overture

January 27, 2014, 7:55 am

3011652637_05f202dca6_n As many Casting Out Nines readers know, last semester I undertook to rethink the freshman calculus 1 course here at my institution by converting it to an inverted or “flipped” class model. It’s been two months since the end of that semester, and this blog post is the first in a (lengthy)  series that I’ll be rolling out in the coming weeks that lays out how the course was designed, what happened, and how it all turned out.

Let me begin this series with a story about why I even bother with the flipped classroom.

The student in my programming class looked me straight in the eye and said, “I need you to lecture to me.” She said, “I can’t do the work unless someone tells me how to get started and then shows me how, step by step.” I took a moment to listen and think. “Do you mean that you find the work hard and it’s easier if someone tells you how to start and then what to do?” I replied. “Or do you mean you just can’t do anything unless someone shows you?” “I mean I can’t learn without someone showing me,” she said.

What a failure – not of the student, but of the way we “educate” students. I put “educate” in quotes because a system of schooling that actively builds dependencies of students upon teachers for their learning is not an educational system. Look at the word: educate. The etymology means “to lead someone out of something”. It implies that the learner is in a state in which they ought not to remain, and “education” consists of being led into something better. An educated person is one who has found her way intellectually, is still finding her way, is capable of leading others to find their ways.

But the student above is in exactly the opposite situation.

That student, like all people, began her life with the fundamentally human ability to learn things on her own. Not only could she learn on her own, the most important things she knows were learned more or less on her own, with guidance (leadership): things like how to feed herself, how to speak her language, how to ride a bicycle. It is this ability to learn, with guidance but without dependence, that makes us human. And yet, by the time she took programming from me, she had lost the ability to learn independently, the taste for learning independently, even the belief that she was capable of learning independently – as if that kid who learned to eat with a fork and ride a bike were a completely different person. She has been dehumanized – dependent upon an authority figure for her further development to an extent unmatched since the days of diapers and baby food.

Actually, one thing above is wrong: This student has not lost the ability to learn independently. She absolutely still has that ability. It’s obvious that she does: Otherwise how would she learn to use her phone? Navigate the college’s registration system? Play her sport? For the things that really matter to her, experts may have helped – that friend who’s good with technology, that coach who watches and gives pointers – but she did not learn those things by lecture. So that human ability is still there – fighting to hang on.

This student was in my very first flipped classroom, a one-credit course on MATLAB at my previous institution, four years ago. I certainly did a lot of things wrong with that class and got a lot of complaints that were totally justified. But what I also found was that flipping the classroom can challenge students to change in positive ways – especially when it comes to the issue of independent learning. Many students have built up a comfortable system in school, a nonagression pact wherein the instructor makes things easy for the students and the students make life easy with the instructor. The flipped classroom overturns this and insists that students take ownership in the basic levels of learning a new subject. I like, a lot, the fact that the flipped classroom forces the issue about student ownership and initiative in the learning process. It inevitably causes discomfort for some students, but it’s the kind of discomfort that is concomitant with growth. I am willing to take heat all day long for that.

Back to the student. She made it through, and even got a good mark in the course and learned a lot about programming. At the end of the semester, I put together a slide show called “Five Things You Can No Longer Say About Yourselves” for the students in the class, based on comments that I had gotten about the flipped classroom earlier. Honestly I cannot remember what the first four of those were, but the fifth one was: “I can’t learn without someone showing me first.” My message was: Not only can you learn on your own, you already do learn on your own and you will continue to learn on your own your whole lives, and this entire class proves that you can. I snuck a glance at the student during this slide, and she had a look of surprise and a smile on her face.

All this to say: When my colleague Marcia Frobish last year brought up the idea of flipping Calculus 1 at our university, it seemed like the right thing to do. Calculus 1 sets the agenda and the tone for all future learning in mathematics for most college students, and it just seemed wrong not to take an opportunity to get so many students on the path toward independent learning. From the beginning, I had my student’s story in mind and the stories of many others like her. Yes, we want our students to be masterful at Calculus. But what we also want is for them to take positive steps toward being what the psychologists call self-regulating learners. In fact I have come to see my entire vocation to education as being a leader with the particular task of leading students toward self-regulation. And the flipped class has proven to be an excellent platform for this.

So in the next post, I’ll discuss what self-regulated learning is and how it formed the basic conceptual framework for everything I did with the flipped calculus class.


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