The Flipped Classroom in ELT

Flipped learning – or the flipped classroom – is one of the hot topics in education at the moment. It’s a core part of the ‘EdTech agenda’ and often espoused as one of the things that will fix a broken education system. So, what exactly is the flipped classroom and what could it mean for ELT? How well would the concept even work for language teaching?

What is flipped learning?

Flipped learning reverses the ‘standard’ model of teaching by delivering instruction to students at home through self-study materials and moving the ‘homework’ element to the classroom. The idea is that class time is therefore focussed on the elements of learning that benefit the most from the support and input of the teacher and fellow students. Straightforward knowledge transmission can be covered just as well (probably better, in fact) through online self-study, with students able to work at their own pace until they’ve got the basics covered. So, it’s basically a form of blended learning, but a bit more prescriptive in terms of what should best be done at home and what should best be done in class.

How is it done?

In the US education system (where the flipped classroom seems to be gaining most traction), this usually means making video lectures available online, with students then doing practice activities and problem solving tasks in class. Now, if that suggests that the standard ‘unflipped’ classroom means a teacher giving a lecture to a group of passive students, then clearly there’s a problem there that the flipped model might help to alleviate.

Why do it?

Well, it certainly sounds logical and attractive, doesn’t it? According the Techsmith, the key benefits are:

  • Students get more 1:1 time with their teacher
  • It builds stronger student/teacher relationships
  • It allows teachers to share information with other faculty, substitute teachers, students, parents, and the community easily (assuming they’re posting video lectures online)
  • It allows students to work more at their pace and catch up on missed lessons
  • It creates a collaborative learning environment in the classroom, since more time is spent engaging deeply with the concepts being learned, rather than sitting listening to the teacher

According to Knewton, student engagement with concepts taught in schools generally is poor, while 30% of internet users have used online educational videos, such as those provided by the Khan Academy – and these two facts suggest that the flipped classroom is a way of improving education. Knewton say that some of the benefits of the flipped model are:

  • Students get instant feedback on practice activities
  • If they get stuck with their ‘homework’ they have a teacher (and other students) on hand to get them through the brick wall
  • Students can build a list of questions as they watch the online video and bring them in to class for the teacher to go through with them

There is some evidence out there (including in the Knewton article) that moving to a flipped model can result in more engaged, better behaved students and improved learning outcomes. As the flipped model matures and continues to grow in popularity, I expect we’ll see more examples and get a better sense of how effective it is and how best to apply it.

Any disadvantages?

Well, it all sounds great, but there must some problems, surely? The obvious issue is that it relies 100% on all students being able to access the online content. And if that content is primarily video-based, then they’ll need reasonable bandwidth. The other obvious problem is the need to create all that self-study online content. Even if it’s simple video clips, that’s an extra stage in the process of setting up a course. There are blended learning options available from publishers which could be used in a flipped class course, but none of them were really designed specifically for it, so there will always be compromises, and deciding which elements to do in class and which your students should do at home isn’t necessarily all that straightforward. Then, there might be a risk of students feeling they’re not getting full value if the ‘main’ content is delivered online rather than by the teacher. And finally, how ready are the students to take responsibility for their own learning? If they don’t bother to do the online learning, then your lesson is stuffed. In the unflipped model, if the students don’t do their homework, you can still plough on through the syllabus (as if that was a good thing…).

Does ELT need flipping?

If you’re reading this, then I suspect you’ve never taught English by giving lectures to your students every lesson and then asking them to do sets of practice activities as homework. So, I don’t think flipped learning as it’s usually defined is really an inversion of the communicative model in English language teaching. But surely the basic principle is as valid for language learning as it is for anything else? If so, then it ought to be possible for it to improve language teaching and learning, even if it might be a more subtle change than it would be for a maths course in a US university, for example.

What to do at home

A series of short video clips isn’t going to cut it for providing the ‘input’ stage of the flipped model that students should be doing at home. Maybe it would work for maths, but for language learning it’s just way too passive. So you’d need video plus a variety of interactive activities for concept checking, and perhaps some receptive practice activities. It would also seem logical to spend this time on vocab learning, listening, reading – all of those could be done perfectly well online. And, according to the flipped model, if that’s the case then wouldn’t it be a bit of a waste to spend precious classroom time on any of this?

What to do in class

Well, the obvious answer to this for language learning is that classroom time should be focussed on everything that would benefit most from the fact that there’s a room full of students and a teacher. So that means communicative activities, pair and group work, and possibly dealing with particularly thorny language issues where input from a teacher can be more efficient than self-study. That might not be particularly different from what many ELT teachers already do.

Perhaps there’s a risk that it might be difficult to make it work with less experienced or motivated teachers, or those not used to the communicative approach. If you’re focussing classroom time on more communicative activities and dealing with difficult questions, that presumably puts greater demands on the teacher when planning and managing the lesson. But then, these are probably the teachers whose lessons would benefit most from the flipped model.

Where next?

Given the strength of the trend towards the flipped classroom in education generally, I would expect it to become more common in ELT, in partnership with the increasing popularity of blended learning. Really, flipped learning should be seen as an improved version of blended learning. If this is the trend, then we should expect to see off-the-shelf ELT products specifically designed to facilitate flipped classroom courses.

If you’ve tried the flipped model (or even an approximation of it) in ELT, then how’s it worked out? What worked well and what didn’t? Which elements were most suitable for students to do at home? Does the whole concept even make sense in an ELT context? It’ll be interesting to see how this evolves, and I’m sure we’ll be talking more about the subject, since this post is just a case of dipping our toes in the water.

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/roland/

17 thoughts on “The Flipped Classroom in ELT”

  1. It seems that not a day goes by without @sophia retweeting another flurry of converts to the Sophia.org method of classroom flipping, and as mentioned above, it seems to be gaining traction in education in general. But, I agree that flipping for ELT and for more knowledge-focused subjects differs somewhat. I don’t know that most of us really think of the ELT classroom as a place to remember and understand a set quota of knowledge. Good classrooms usually encourage higher order thinking skills at a variety of stages as a matter of course. I suppose that vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, as systems rather than skills lend themselves to being flipped, and then we can encourage learners to use that knowledge in class to improve skill proficiency. One other real area of strength for the flipped model, in my opinion, is that of peer correction. One learner may get one thing, another may easily understand another concept/point/video etc. If those two can pair up in class and explain and help the other, then have some meaningful context for using that knowledge, then we’re really maximising the benefit of the time in the classroom.

    There was a Paul Braddock talk at the IATEFL LT sig this year on Flipping the classroom, I wrote a summary here: http://www.eltplustech.com/2013/04/the-flipped-classroom-paul-braddock.html

    Reply
    • Thanks Jonathan. Yes, it’s really about making the most of the classroom time you have, especially if it’s a blended learning situation where the course syllabus assumes/demands a certain proportion of self-study. And the two key resources that you have in class that you don’t get in self-study are a teacher AND other students in the same room as you. If they’re not in some way helping to learn better, then you’re better off without them. I think there are some aspects of language learning where it’s very likely that they’ll help you learn better, and other aspects where that’s less likely to be the case (not that it CAN’T be the case, of course).

      Reply
  2. There’s something unique about language teaching that makes me doubt the need or effectiveness of flipped classrooms. When teaching languages, the subject matter and medium are the same. This is unique for language teaching. You don’t teach Maths by talking in numbers and equations, for example – you need a language to talk about Maths in order to teach it. That means that in language teaching, the ‘input’ stage is not such a waste of classroom time as it might be for other disciplines. If students are following a grammar presentation, they are also practising (through listening) the subject matter. If a student asks a question, the medium that is being used (assuming s/he asks the teacher in the target language rather than the L1) is the same as the subject matter. I think EFL teachers and teaching materials are generally pretty good at making the input stage interactive so, since the medium of that interaction is also the subject matter (and interaction is crucial in language acquisition), I don’t think there’s such a great need to think about taking the input out of the classroom.

    Reply
    • I agree that language learning is different. I was thinking of the fact that it requires a combination of knowledge/skills/pragmatics etc in a way that maths, for example, doesn’t. The thought of subject matter and medium being the same is an interesting one. Although that does assume no (or very minimal) use of L1 in class, which is probably not that common globally.

      Do you think that every aspect of learning a language is always done better in a classroom? I think it’s quite possible that would be the case if you have an excellent teacher and a small-ish group of supportive and highly motivated fellow-students. But what percentage of ELT classes does that describe? I think the potential of the flipped classroom is as a better approach to blended learning. In which case, would you argue that blended learning itself is inferior to 100% classroom based teaching?

      Reply
      • I think in language teaching a teacher will want to be involved with the learning process much more than teachers of other disciplines. So, is every aspect of learning a language is always done better in a classroom? I tend to think it might well be. Let’s just think about grammar presentation and practice, which appear to lend themselves well to being moved out the classroom. As a teacher could I trust that my students have really ‘got’ everything I want them to get if I’m not there? I don’t think I could, and it’s crucial that they have because I won’t necessarily be able to tell from freer, communicative activities taking place in the classroom. This is because students can communicate imperfectly but still communicate nevertheless – this is particularly the case in monolingual classrooms where strongly L1 influenced utterances will be understood by other leaners with the same L1 but might not by people with other L1s, including native English speakers. Also, we don’t necessarily expect students to be able to immediately master the grammar that’s been presented and practised when speaking in less controlled contexts. Learning doesn’t work that way. So we can’t rely on the classroom activities to really show us how students got on with the work they did outside the classroom.

        Again I suspect this is a difference with other disciplines. If students do the Maths input stage outside the classroom, then presumably s/he just won’t be able to do the practice activities in class if the learning wasn’t successful in the input stage. And the teacher will be there to help out and give extra explanations. That can happen to in language classrooms, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as straightforward, for the reasons I outlined above. I’m not against blended learning in terms of giving students extra input outside the classroom, but the flipped classroom doesn’t really convince me.

        Reply
  3. Came late to the article but are it says the flipped classroom is a hot topic at the moment. As such the IATEFL learning Technologies SIG is having a one-day conference on the theme of the flipped classroom in ELT in October. You can find out more info about it on http://ltsig.org.uk or email me.

    Reply
  4. Is flipped learning method suitable for teaching The Basics of English Language Skills in EFL teeaching taching situation?

    I believe flipped learning technique is useful but not for false begginers of the language.

    Reply

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