In the summer of 2016, I attended a Flipped Learning conference in London that completely changed the way I thought about my job...
The conference was an opportunity for teachers, researchers, and education practitioners to come together and discuss how advances in digital technology and education theory might combine and transform how children will learn in the schools of the future.
The ideas explored that day changed me as a teacher. They led me to put traditional methods behind me and encouraged me to work for one of the world’s most pioneering schools – a place that’s already embracing these smart new ideas.
Sitting down for the first talk of the conference, the teachers in the room were asked a simple, if unusual, question:
“Who are you as a teacher? The Sage On The Stage or the Guide On The Side?”
Since Victorian times, the teacher has typically stood at the front of the classroom. Strict, attention-demanding and in-control, they write information on the blackboard for their students to copy down in silence. This, we were told, is "The Sage On The Stage" version of teaching.
“Were you all listening? Do you understand what a verb is now? Good. Your homework is to write four paragraphs on what you have learned today.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because this method of teaching is still being used in 95% of school classrooms today – over 100 years later. And nothing has really changed! This is how I was taught at school. This is how students are still learning today.
So what about "The Guide On The Side" model?
This rarer form of teacher is more akin to a sports coach or a seminar leader. Simply put, the Guide On The Side puts the students in the driving seat of their own learning, emphasising their own power, curiosity, control and goals. It’s then the Guide On The Side’s job to help them achieve these. Typically, these teachers are more flexible, responsive and democratic.
Teaching itself becomes more of a dialogue, which keeps the student focused, empowered and interested.
Let’s consider in a little more detail how these two types of teachers approach their craft.
In the Victorian classroom, the Sage sets homework and expects it to be completed before the next lesson. But The Guide might give their students an alternative assignment:
The academics I met at the conference that day explained that something subtle and powerful is going on here.
The core emphasis of a child’s learning is now happening outside of the classroom. The student has taken ownership of their learning and explores new topics, on their own, in their own time. Once autonomy in learning is achieved, the brain has far greater desire to hold onto the information, and seek out more.
This, in short, is Flipped Learning.
Being introduced to Flipped Learning – when coupled with the Guide On the Side approach – was the reason I wanted to change my teaching style forever.
Flipped Learning is what the Guide On The Side does, or facilitates. Before we define it, I want to explore why the Guide is, for me, a better form of teacher. This is all to do with a flipped mindset for the teacher, and not just the student.
When you think about it, the Sage On The Stage role has a lot to do with power dynamics and ego. As a teacher, one can often find themselves embodying and repeating the roles that they were subjected to as students. The duty that comes from standing at the front of a class can couple with a difficulty in ensuring everyone is on board, understanding and engaged.
It also explains why teachers can get exhausted, grumpy, and burnt out so quickly: the pressure to stand up and perform, maintaining everyone’s attention, is draining and can lead to irritability – especially when some students aren’t perceived to be ‘keeping up’.
At the conference, we were introduced to the concept of Flipped Learning, and how it fundamentally re-routes and democratises those burnt-out energies.
Flipped learning means the standard educational model is flipped: the students do the core learning and research for a topic before or outside of the lesson, and then come to class to consolidate, develop and cement their learning.
Students might learn the content at home through means such as video lectures or podcasts, and then come to class to work on assignments and projects.
This allows for a more individualised and customised form of education, as students can learn at their own pace, rewinding or pausing lessons as needed and doing the key reading at times and speeds that suit them.
Additionally, it allows for more time in class to be spent on hands-on activities, which research has shown to be more effective for long-term learning.
“Flipped Learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space.’ – The Flipped Learning Network
By completing the bulk of the necessary work before the lesson begins, students have a different experience when they arrive for their lesson. Instead of instructing from the front, the teacher no longer has to ‘chalk up’ verb conjugations, for example, and instead can move the focus of the lesson into more interesting territory: can we speak without verbs? Why do we need them? Is it possible to create a new verb?
There are some very real, vivid reasons why this type of lesson feels so different:
Done correctly, research suggests that the student who takes charge of their own learning, and is challenged to respond emotionally to this learning in the follow-up lesson, will perform better than their Victorian-modelled counterparts. They will also expand their general cognitive abilities – researching, close-reading, independent learning – in order to be able to grasp greater challenges later on in life.
This all sounds good but, as I wondered that day, is it realistic?
As teachers, can we really expect our students to do all the hard work for us? Can we trust them to do it? Will parents complain we’re being too soft, too liberal? What happens if a child is working at home and encounters a topic in their textbook that’s too challenging – what happens if they get demotivated?
My anxieties were answered by a briefing on the incredible advances in education technology (sometimes shortened to ‘ed-tech’) across the last decade. With kids so much more tech- and internet-savvy – and with this media being so integral to their everyday lives – the flipped learning model now makes much more sense.
Why fight the tide? Computers and phones are where the students of today – and tomorrow – will turn to in order to learn. Flipped learning harnesses that natural tendency and curiosity. Crucially, we can turn to technology to provide the bulk of the ‘instructing’ that the Sage on The Stage once had to deliver, leaving the modern day teacher with time to actually teach.
These virtual learning platforms are, in effect, interactive textbooks: a student familiarises themself with a topic, reads up on the basics, watches videos, takes quizzes and has the internet at their fingertips if they don’t understand.
Students then go into live lessons with a teacher, where they can put their newfound theory into practice. This has profound effects for memory retention, as well as personal engagement: working out how you connect with a particular topic, what it means to you and the world you live in, is the new job of the flipped learning teacher.
Students are invited to bring what they have learned – let’s call it their foundational knowledge – in with them, merging it and re-energising it into the “group learning space” – where there are rich opportunities for experimentation with new ideas, the application of new skills; opportunities to ask questions, make mistakes and experience breakthrough moments.
That day was certainly a breakthrough moment for me: much like the concept of the flipped classroom itself, I went in already knowing a little bit about what the concept was: a few hours of rich discussion later, and I was passionate about it.
Once the conference in London was finished, I walked out with a new purpose. It seemed to me so obvious this was the way teaching should go.
It led me to search out organisations who were practising it and to connect with colleagues who were equally passionate about the Flipped model, and that’s how I found a home at Minerva’s Virtual Academy (MVA).
Now, every day of my teaching is a Flipped day. And every day is a good day. I feel more refreshed, energised and enthused, getting to teach the dynamic, engaging lessons I’ve always dreamed of, whilst the students are arriving bright-eyed and full of questions, debates and conundrums they’re itching to solve.
It’s what school should be. And it’s high time everyone caught up. After all, the technology is here, waiting to be harnessed. Now we just need to flip the education system itself.