03 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: rejecting the "flip"

(1) ending required sameness     (3) re-thinking rigor     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again    (6) learning to be a society (again)     (7) re-thinking what "literature" means       (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (9) changing rooms     (10) undoing academic time     (11) social networks beyond Zuckerbergism     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more     (13) why we fight

"I can't wait to watch my Khan
Academy videos tonight..."
Maybe I'm highly sensitive to this. I grew up in a 420 square foot home with two parents and four kids. This was not a place for the calm production of homework. Now, yes, I had two university educated parents, smart, dedicated parents who did whatever they could, but both worked or went to school or both, and if my older siblings were struggling to help the "dumb little brother" with his homework, obviously, they weren't doing their own.

Anyway, this is not to be confused with an Oprah-style faux memoir, that's not the point. The point is that in my memory, my home had more important things to worry about than getting up at 4.30 am to do a kid's homework, the way President Obama remembers in his "tough" family life.

In later years, as a cop in Brooklyn and The Bronx, as the computer co-ordinator for a homeless mission with before and after school programs for homeless kids, and in work in high poverty schools, I know what kids in poverty face at home. And it isn't a few hours curled up with their own laptop watching video instruction anymore than it was ever my siblings and me curled up with textbooks. Real life, as they say, is different.

So in changing gears for this new year,
step two is "rejecting the flipped classroom."

Let me begin here: Any pedagogical design which relies, in essential terms, on homework is a problem for me, and many others.
"There is a growing number of parents and educators who don't believe we should rob children of the time after school with mandatory homework. We believe time at home should be for pursuing passions, connecting with friends and family, playing and engaging in physical activity.  In some families it might be the time needed to take care of a sibling, work a job, or take care of their own child.  Let us leave children to the activities they and their family choose or find necessary and instead as John Taylor Gatto suggests (in lesson 7), that we should "give children more independent time during the school day" at which time they may also choose to watch flipped classroom lessons." - Lisa Nielson 
in the family room, time for homework
Students, as I noted at the start, "go home" to radically variable environments. Some head home to houses with university educated parents with the time and inclination to support their learning, others to university educated parents with an inclination to do their work for them, others to university educated parents who are either not home or are 'not present' in their children's lives. Many more go home to homes without the parental resources or skillsets to support student learning, or go home to houses where the children themselves have real responsibilities - including child and/or parent care and/or employment which is essential to their survival within a family unit. Further, home resources vary dramatically. There are broadband - everybody has a computer at home - homes, and there are disconnected homes (see New Rochelle, NY's attempted solution for students who lack Broadband) - but these requirements are never mentioned by either homework or "Flipped Classroom" advocates. So, "Homework" - an essential part of the "flip" - has always been controversial for many good reasons.
"Structurally, homework might have one of two fundamentally opposite effects on the home. On the one hand, homework might be viewed as an intrusion by the school into hours reserved for the family--a direct threat to parents' authority to manage their children's time outside of school. According to this model, homework is an exercise of what might be termed "school imperialism" at the expense of parents. It interferes, for example, with chores, with music and dancing lessons, and with the social intercourse that parents and children may expect from each other in the evening.

"Alternately, parents might perceive homework very differently: not as an intrusion or a threat to their authority but, rather, as the primary means by which schools communicate and collaborate with parents on academic matters and engage them in the educational process. According to this model, homework is a link from school to home that keeps parents informed about what the school is teaching, gives them a chance to participate in their children's schooling, and helps to keep the schools accountable to parents. Not to assign homework is to exclude parents from playing an active role in their children's academic development." - Gill and Schlossman, 2003, TCR 105-5 846-871
"Children explained that the parents are `hardworking' people
who try `to support  their children' and `keep their children
safe' and who `worry a lot about how they can make (it so that)
their kids go to college'. [They] witness at an early age that
even if parents work hard, they may not be able to protect and
support their children. Poor children who witness people who
are working hard and not getting rewarded may well be likely
to have a more profound, complicated understanding
of the consequences of poverty."
(Weinger 2000)
From the 1890s until World War II homework was consistently highly controversial, with laws against it (California 1901 among many others), the muckraking work of Joseph Mayer Rice The Futility of the Spelling Grind, 1897), editorials in publications such as Ladies Home Journal, "It forced families to play a nightly "comedy of fathers and mothers teaching the children their lessons, with the teachers playing the detective the next morning to see how well the parents have done the work of instruction."' (from Gill and Schlossman among other locations), and the general weight of the Dewey-inspired progressive education movement. Homework was and is "unequal" because of home difference. It was/is "unhealthy" by virtue of trapping children inside and keeping them inactive. It destroys/destroyed "family time" wrecking the transmission of family culture between generations and between differently aged children within families and communities. It did/does undermine parental authority by making parents nothing more than enforcers of the schools' discipline codes.

Kralovec and Buell(2001) make the argument contemporary with their assertions that homework works against the poor and working class children via home inequity, Kevin Thomas explores the demographic impact of immigrant status combined with homework in this century, ("English-language proficiency, for example, affects the ability of immigrant parents to navigate the vicissitudes of parent-teacher relationships and labor market conditions and is also likely to affect their ability to help their children with their homework.") (see also Lareau, Home Advantage), and Alfie Kohn has loudly brought the Deweyan arguments into the present.

So, first, the "Flipped Classroom" is homework dependent, and I would argue that "homework" is, and always has been, a socially reproductive construct, which rewards the wealthy and educated parents by giving their children a huge advantage in school.

Nobody says it better, South Park explains homework as Social Reproduction in "Token is Rich"
(much as I hate to say that Cartman is right)

But the "Flipped Classroom" is worse than 'typical homework' - it literally shifts the explanatory part of school away from the educators and to the home, however disconnected that home might be, however un-educated parents might be, however non-English speaking that home might be, however chaotic that home might be. So, kids with built in advantages get help with the understanding, and kids without come to school the next day clueless. Those "flip" advocates who acknowledge this talk about ways of "catching kids up," of providing school time for those without access or resources at home, but what this really means is putting the kids from homes in poverty into perpetual remediation as the wealthy continue to blaze ahead.

Homework under the Streetlights (New York Times)
This is the same as the teacher who gives kids "free time" or extra study advantages if they complete work or tests quickly. What they are doing is punishing kids who require or prefer more time. Punishing those who read slowly or who use alternative text, for example. Recently my "spousal equivalent" moved through the first 375 pages of Wonderstruckas we sat in a Barnes&Noble on a Saturday afternoon. I bought the book, brought it home, and after three days was on page 23. In school, and especially under the Flip Principle, she's have 2.75 extra days of doing other work - more advanced work - already, while I'd be locked in remedial hell.

In the worst cases, the Khan Academy model, the flip is just an especially brutal version of the old, "go home and read pages 741-749 and do the problems on 750-751," but with videos instead of text. Now videos might be better than text for some kids, but there is no more choice, no more explanation, no more interaction than in this worst model of schooling. I think these are the parts of education which require the most care, the most individualization, and the most interaction between educator and learner.

School is the place for schoolwork. School is also the place where we can help children make sense of their "outside of school" lives. It is the responsibility of educators to help students with their outside lives, not the reverse. And if there is homework - as I told Virginia educators last month - that homework should be, "what can I bring home from school which helps my family and community."

Especially in these times when the economic divide in the United States and in the United Kingdom is at or near historic - Dickensian - levels, the embrace of a pedagogical system designed to increase educational outcomes disparity on the basis of home life seems particularly horrible. We need to be better educators than that, better people than that.

So while I fully embrace, encourage, am even part of initiatives which bring the information resources of school to all children's homes - I think we must move beyond WiFi to 4G-WiMax efforts which connect our students and their families wherever they are - I believe the uses of those technologies and information access at home should be in support of the students themselves, their families, and their communities, and not in support of narrow pedagogical efforts which belong within the school day.

So please, reject the flip. Re-imagine your school day and everything you do instead. A "flipped classroom" is the same classroom, just re-arranged. Our students deserve more imaginative thinking than that. And all of our students deserve an educational environment which moves us toward equality of opportunity, not further away from that.

- Ira Socol
next (delayed by a day or two): re-thinking rigor


Rick Fletcher @TRFletcher said...

As usual, you raise important points. And FWIW, I'm no fan of the flipped classroom - although if done well, it can work great.

As strong as your points are, as a nation, we do not grow by slowing down to meet the requirements of every citizen. The challenge is to find ways to help all meet higher standards. As I read your piece, it seems to suggest we slow down.

irasocol said...


I do not think I ever suggested that anyone "slow down," except in terms of the acceptance of the idea (very common is schools) that "faster is always better" (see James Gee on this).

Rather I object to embracing a system which ensures that the most vulnerable will always be left behind.

Your concern is a common argument in many educational conversations. It is often advanced as a reason not to embrace universal design, or to not allow accommodations. It was the reason tracking was created (see Shearer 1896), but I see it tied to a very old, very Protestant, very irrelevant model of education.

We learn within a societal context, and the essence of learning lies in how to take in information from a wide variety of sources, process that information with a wide variety of supports, and transmit your acquired and converted knowledge to a wide variety of others. All the rest is hoop-jumping.

So you may rush ahead with memorization of formulas, but if you cannot explain how and why to use them to me, you have a hobby, not a skill. And if you do not know how to access what I know, your chances of success in the marketplace (of ideas or goods) has fallen dramatically.

So school cannot be about quantity of content. It must be about applicability, collaborative learning, community cognition, and leveraging information. In all these I am suggesting that we all speed up together.

- Ira Socol

David said...


This has gone in my Flipped reference directory for teachers. As always, stimulating stuff.

However, I think what is missing is a finer brush stroke. First, I believe that the "homework" component of the flipped classroom (and I prefer the more correct term, flipped curriculum) can actually be done at school - with devices in class or a computer lab. Nor does "flipped" need to mean video lecture but can also mean use of self directed learning through online tools/applications. Second, you should make a distinction between knowledge heavy subjects and those that are skilled and have an applied focused (such as my own interest, second languages). I advocate online practice through video interaction for languages - in class they can get the smaller group and human face of learning but you need technology for the vast amount of "practice" necessary.

But you offer a necessary sober second thought....


irasocol said...


There are nuances, and there are all sorts of variations, but when faced with a "fad" in education which is being marketed by Bill Gates as "the solution" the first thing is to say to people, "stop, and think."

I am a firm believer in hybrid education within schools http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/07/physical-place-for-virtual-education.html and I believe in both "in place" and virtual possibilities out of school time - in Colorado this summer a language teacher told me excitedly about using http://todaysmeet.com/ rooms during class and then leaving then open for kids to converse at home, and what a huge hit that was. But what troubles me is a general argument that content delivery can be shifted away from school, to home, and that this is somehow fair, or even good, for students.

- Ira Socol

Wm Chamberlain said...

My problem with the flipped classroom is the same as with any school work taken home, it gets in the way of our children having time to learn about what interests them. In a way we are stealing their time for our purposes.

Yannis Vatis said...

The South Park reference is quite spot on. I'm an advocate of the actual learning happening within the classroom and not at home. There are definitely, though, several types of homework activities that do not favor anyone, such as exercise drills that only require pen and paper. When it comes to projects, it's a different ballgame altogether. For sure a wealthier child can have stronger presentation so maybe the projects shouldn't be judged based on that. Maybe presentation guidelines should be given, but that might kill creativity.

Ben said...

I love all the points you make about not just the digital divide, but the divide between home and school, the precious hours that families have to choose what to do with; reinforce the culture of learning and productivity via homework or reinforce the culture of learning and community by spending more time with one's family members at home.

Ultimately, I don't think it's far for anyone outside of the family to make the latter decision for them, save in cases of neglect or abuse, but I don't see a reason to reject the concept of the flipped classroom if all that's being preached is a flipped classroom that's simply a "remix" of the traditional learning environment.

Given that you've identified and reminded us of the basic tenet of Maslow's Hierarchy of Need (for which I applaud your convictions having watched my wife teach in an urban environment for 4 years), I'm curious what you would have to say about the "Flipped Class" model for those students that are approaching the top of the pyramid and were given the free reign to help create and participate in the flipped content themselves, rather than just rely on "off the shelf" content provided by a teacher.

John R. Walkup said...

I voice similar concerns about flipping the classroom. All too often we forget the lack of resources many of our students experience when we go home. Flipping the classroom is a great ideal, but often impractical. Worse, it is too easy to plow ahead with a great idea as long as only one or two students are left behind. But education is supposed to be free for all students.

On the other hand, not assigning homework can harm students once they enter college, because college instructors assume that all of their students have developed solid study habits. Unlike K-12 teachers, college instructors are not obligated to accommodate every student's home situation.

For that reason, I think a sensible homework policy is in order. I believe that Norman Webb's Depth of Knowledge model provides a good tool for creating such a policy, such as http://bit.ly/1zwM4hV