Flipping the Classroom

I’ve been impressed by Khan Academy for a while now, but seeing their TED talk this year was a revelation.  The concept of reorienting teacher time from lecture to expert consultant is genius, groundbreaking.  It ties much closer to the actually process and flow of learning we see in games then a traditional classroom setting (and I don’t mean the cheesy-and-possibly-harmful achievement system).

Let me summarize their game.  The loop starts with students assigned homework.  But in this case, that means a few 10-20 minute videos, the primary and only lecture in the loop.  The following class, teachers can then focus on answering problems, encouragement, and positive reinforcement.  The site then provides repeatable exercises with as much automated hints and explanation as they can provide, and students are expected to start them during class, while the teacher is available to help them get over any initial bumps.  And of course progress is all tracked, so students and teachers can focus their conversation around exactly where things get stuck.  Class becomes more like office hours then lecture hall.  Missing homework means not having the time to watch a few videos, not failing at a task.

As a former teacher, I find this all quite extraordinary.  The Academy loop maximizes the expert human mentorship teacher can provide.  All while utilizing the process of learning involved in games, what makes games so successful.  It gets a lot closer to flow then the current classroom loop (which enjoys beating up on flow every chance it gets, all without the shame to be embarrassed about it).

If that was it, I probably wouldn’t have even posted. Reading through the community though, two complaints struck me.

To paraphrase, one teacher said “I can’t get them to pay attention in the classroom.  They just want to go to the bathroom and gossip.  They’ll never do exercises in the classroom.”  And I recall a story from another teacher with a failing student: “She was clearly not proficient.  But her parents and district were hounding me to pass her.  The parents would harass me.  All her other teachers had passed her, why couldn’t I?  She wouldn’t be allowed to play basketball any more, and she was the star player.  Why couldn’t I just make an exception?”

In both cases the teacher is forced to take the role of the disciplinarian, a role he doesn’t want.  Teachers didn’t want to be lecturers.  Now, they don’t have to be.  Khan Academy can go even further.  Games are rule systems, and when rules systems are applied equitably and fairly, they create even-handed standards that are their own enforcement.  Teachers don’t need to be disciplinarians either.

What do I mean?  Imagine a classroom where the teacher walks in Day 1 and says: “This is going to be different.  It’s your responsibility to beat these 3 challenges.  By doing so, you’ll be ready for grade X and to move up in the world.  No one’s going to force you to practice, but it’s your responsibility to beat these challenges.  If you don’t, the game is going to flag you as failing.  Failing means you can’t move up next year.  I don’t have control over it.  I’m not even involved in that.  But, we’re all in this together.  We’re a team.  This will be our office hours and our dedicated practice time.  You don’t have to show up; everybody has their off days.  But if you don’t keep up in the game, then the game will know.  We’re all here to help, if you need it.  Everybody wants you to succeed, but it’s up to you to make that happen.”

Now, this isn’t something you can just turn on tomorrow yet (to use their terminology).  Standardization is always thorny in schools (particularly in things like writing).  And of course cheating would have to be detected and prevented. But these are tricky but solvable problems that shouldn’t derail schools if the payoff is highly successful learning.

Go back to this new teacher’s introduction.  Notice the change in the frame of reference and the use of tribal leadership.  The teacher is now there because he’s your friend.  He’s only there to help.  The obstacles in front of students are accurately world-based challenges.  Not people-based.  And the classroom becomes a Fourth Stage place – a team-oriented tribe working together as equals to succeed, rather then a Second Stage tribe – a dictatorial elite giving orders that must be obeyed.

In fact, this “Khan Academy Advanced” model is only one step from the “idealized” model – no grades, no requirements, just free-form learning for every student in every student desired direction.  Like a sort of school-sized home schooling.  All that would be required is taking one last step of eliminating grades and just having “open” office hours, where teachers-as-expert-mentors show up to their rooms, with a list of game sections they specialize in.  Students come to them.  “School advisors” could act like parents, encouraging them forward through there entire multi-year school experience.  The game moves them through the education system, independently, at their own pass, and graduates them when they are ready in an equitable way.

Yes, student aren’t always motivated, and some of these subjects are boring.  But we know from various studies that much of that is driven by disenchantment with the current learning structure, not the subjects themselves.  And games have shown (if you didn’t believe it already) that with world-grounded incentives kids can and do achieve far more when they initiate it themselves.

Is this the best future for education?  I don’t know.  But it is a different future for education, that helps more people more effectively.  And it lights up a path that frees us up to experiment once again.  To move from a teacher-as-enforcer paradigm that requires locking down the educational structure, to a teacher-as-mentor model that encourages learning without institutional restrictions.  I can’t wait.

2 thoughts on “Flipping the Classroom

  1. Many countries do have some form of what you describe (perhaps not so ideally) with rigourous standardized testing and branching scholastic paths. It doesn’t quite match the “try/fail/repeat/master” loop in that there’s limited time before each tier of testing. Themain criticizism however is teachers/students/parents all work to game the system by focusing on techniques/memorization to optimize for the test as opposed to “creative thought/real problem solving” whatever that means. In any case, no matter what the game is it will have rules/patterns to exploit and success being tied to success at the game rather than the innate success of the task, the system is subject to all the ‘achievement’esque issues.

  2. I love it. Now I have to go watch that Khan Academy lecture you referenced. My wife is an educator and, through conversations, I’ve keyed in on her roles as both classroom manager and (sometimes) disciplinarian. On rough days, any education that takes place is incidental because those two over-arching roles absorb her energy.

    This is not to say that the idealized structure put forward in Khan Academy Advanced will be without its snags, but it seems an innovative way to maximize learning time. I can’t wait to learn more. Thanks.

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