Who Said Lecture is Dead?
Flipping the Traditional Classroom Model
By Craig Savage
I’ll let you in on a little secret: Teachers love to lecture. Okay, that’s probably not such a big secret. Just listen to one of my students: “Savage loves to hear himself talk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. He’s a good teacher, and I’ve learned a lot from him, but he does love to lecture and sometimes lecture can be tedious.”
The fact is, lecture is a very efficient way for teachers to move through the material they think is important, in the order they think is important, at the pace they think is appropriate. And it is true, I love to lecture. I get excited to share the things I am passionate about. My students can come to class, kick back and relax, and listen to me expound on the evolutionary trends in plant diversity or whatever other cool topics I am teaching.
However, in this time of educational reform (has there ever been a time when we weren’t reforming education?), lecture has become taboo, a dirty word. We are all well aware of the criticisms: lecture is passive, it can be boring, and it fails to engage students. There even has been a call for the end of lecture as a teaching methodology.
But lecture isn’t dead. Lectures are as popular as ever. How do I know? Check out the TED website (TED.com). TED is a non-profit site devoted to “ideas worth spreading” that touts “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” Here you can watch experts and thought leaders from various fields give 20-minute lectures on just about anything. TED.com receives millions of views a day. Lecture isn’t dead. Dead lecture is dead.
However, the larger question remains: Does lecture still belong in the classroom? Does lecture merit the consumption of class time it requires? Do students need to come to school to receive knowledge from well-informed teachers? Are teachers the holders of information?
For me personally the questions are: What is my value in the classroom? What is my job? What is the essence of good teaching? What does learning look like? I don’t have all of the answers to these questions (though I have some strong opinions), but I am trying to find out. Here is what I believe: I believe class rooms are inherently social places and I believe learning is personal.
“The sage on the stage” model (a style in which I was able to thrive as a student and a style I believe I have mastered as a teacher) represents a one-way flow of information that fails to capitalize on the social opportunities of a classroom. Furthermore, there is not one piece of information that I “teach” that my students cannot find on their own with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks.
So, last fall I decided to “flip” my class. In the flipped classroom model, students watch lectures for homework, and class time is used to work problems and clarify understanding. For example, when I teach genetics, traditionally I’d spend a class period explaining how to set up punnett squares and then send students home with a packet of practice problems. In the flipped model, I would post a video showing the mechanics, and students would work the problems in class where I could help.
Sal Khan made the argument for the need for this type of “flipped” instruction. (You can see his TED talk here.) He in turn got Bill Gates excited about the concept, and they started the Khan Academy. Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams brought the flipped classroom idea into mainstream education (you can find more information here) and showed how it could be used to strengthen traditional instruction.
On September 30, 2011, I uploaded my first lecture to YouTube. I figured my videos would have a limited audience and my students would benefit from being able to review the lectures on their own schedules. What I did not predict is the degree to which my students would appreciate the lecture-on-demand model. Furthermore, I did not expect the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment I would feel from the creative endeavor of making the videos. I’ve now used videos to deliver content, review for tests and deliver pre-lab instructions. (For a glimpse into my Biology class, visit http://bit.ly/IKTKTg.)
The other thing I didn’t predict was the wider audience and greater impact my videos have had. As of the writing of this article, my YouTube channel (Savage’s Science Tutorials) has had 168,000 views from 178 different countries on six different continents. People are choosing to listen to me give lectures on many different topics in biology and psychology. I receive comments and questions from students all over the world who use my lectures to support their learning. Every day I receive a thank you from a student who was struggling to understand a topic that a textbook, teacher or college professor hadn’t made clear. In this day and age of information availability, it was my video that broke the code or sparked understanding. I can’t express how gratifying it is to receive that validation.
But “flipping” class is much more than making videos and turning the lecture into homework and the homework into classwork. The potential for self-paced independent learning, mastery assessment and differentiation is substantial. Students benefit from being able to move through the material, taking notes and reviewing it as many times as necessary. One of my students remarked, “The best part about ‘Virtual Savage’ is I can pause him.” Other benefits include the potential for students to learn at their own pace. Students who are ready can accelerate, those who need to can slow down and those whose interests are piqued can go into more depth. Video lecture also allows parents to be more involved in helping their child study because they can essentially take the class along with them.
The flipped model also allows students time to think. More than any other time in my teaching career, I had students come to class with great questions, thoughtful answers and suggestions for further study. In addition, the flipped class maximizes the social context of the classroom experience with teacher-student and student-student interactions. Moving lecture out of the class frees up time to “do” science in the classroom – to develop activities in which students uncover and discover concepts rather than “cover” them. Students can collaborate, and I can move from the front of the class to the side of my students’ desks and work with those who need a bit more help or a different strategy to fully comprehend the concepts.
The benefits to teachers are almost as varied as they are for students. With video, every student has access to the exact same content, making it easier for students to catch up on missed lectures from illness or other events. Teachers can be their own substitute teacher and continue to progress through the course even when we have a series of snow days.
Personally, the process has rejuvenated me. After years of teaching the same lessons, I’ve found new and better ways to explain information. I feel a renewed sense of purpose and excitement. Moving the lecture to video frees up time to really work with my students on a day-to-day basis and helps me identify what they need from me. It might seem that lecturing through video makes teaching easy because I don’t have to lecture in class. But that is misleading, because as soon as I make a video and get feedback from my students and students around the world, I am motivated to improve them.
My “flip” is not close to being complete. This has given me a new outlook on what might be possible as I re-imagine what my classroom can look like. How dynamic can I make class? How much more can students learn with them at the controls and me redefining my role from teacher to learning facilitator? How much more enthusiastic will students be to achieve a level of understanding on their own terms? What opportunities will students take when given choices?