Flipping the Classroom is a Safe-to-Fail Experiment

Teaching in a classroom is a complex issue. Some teachers try to maintain a stable, predictable environment – train by rote, test, retest, pass anyway to keep in the age category. Sir Ken Robinson calls this teaching using the factory model. What are the alternatives? One that’s catching on is Flipping the Classroom.

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As shown above, universities like Penn State are trying it out. More and more teachers at the high school level are giving it a go.

On YouTube, an 8th grade math and Algebra 1 teacher at a public school explains why she flipped her classroom in 2011.

Recently the Vancouver Sun newspaper carried the heading “Flipped classrooms create magic and controversy in schools.” Carolyn Durley “flipped” her Biology 12 class at Okanagan Mission secondary in Kelowna. On the other hand, David Wees, a math and science teacher at Stratford Hall in Vancouver, isn’t a fan of the flipped classroom because of the potential for homework overload but said he supports any strategy that reduces teacher-led instruction.

This blog isn’t about the pros and cons, why you should and why you shouldn’t. It’s not about lambasting lazy teachers, lazy students, lazy administrators, lazy parents, lazy school trustees. Or perhaps, it’s not laziness but a matter of just too busy working on other life priorities; it’s easier to stay conditioned with the factory model.

This blog is about how do make change in a system steeped in tradition and culture. It starts with somebody not happy. In Durley’s case, she began to wonder if she was serving her pupils well as “the sage on the stage,” given the wealth of information available online and the growing expectation that schools in the 21st century will do more than deliver content and help students prepare for standardized tests. It might be educational leaders desiring a better solution to achieve the real goal: putting students in the centre. Or it could be a school trustee frustrated with the present money-sucking black hole and wanting more bang for the buck. In Change Management terminology, we call this the “emotional need for change”. Without it, the status quo will continue.

So our heart is now pumping and our head is demanding something needs to be done. Where do we start? Sadly, we often start off on the wrong foot. How many times have we seen this: A splashy announcement is broadcasted stating the formation of an astute task force mandated to launch a study. In 6 months they will report back, confident that the “problem” will be fixed. Alas, with the passing of time more urgent problems have arisen so the report is shelved indefinitely. The problem hasn’t gone away, it’s just been put on the back burner.

If the preceding was the wrong foot, what’s the right foot? It begins with the correct approach, recognizing that the teaching is a Complex Domain issue. The aim is to try to make sense of what’s happening and searching for behavioural patterns that can lead us to new solutions. We are on the Unordered Side of the Cynefin Framework where we observe to understand and learn, not the Ordered Side where we fix, repair, or get back on track.

Flipping the classroom is Safe-Fail Experiment
Conducting a Safe-Fail Experiment involves probing the system, sensing the behaviour changes, responding by either accelerating the positives or dampening the negatives. We will even shut it down if it is becoming dangerous to health and wellness.

What Southridge school in Surrey did last year is a great example. They gave the flipped classroom a test run and invited three experts to the school in late August to train all of the senior school teachers.

Be aware that Safe-Fail Experiment is different than a pilot project in the Complicated domain. Pilots are typically the second step in a larger implementation. The first step was developing a business case prepared by an expert analyst. In some circumstances, money may have been spent on a feasibility study prior to the more detailed business case. A decision is made and approval to proceed granted. The pilot project’s role to pick a test area, find oversights and make refinements before rolling it out to the masses. Once launched, very rarely are implementations stopped. After all, who wants to look bad and confess they made a mistake. Nope, once the track is put down and the train leaves the station, the project manager’s goal is to stay on track and get there on time, on budget.

This isn’t to say a Safe-Fail Experiment or Probe is an off-the-cuff effort. On the contrary, the discipline of project management is just as important. There is a leader and a team who follow a prescribed method to put the experiment into motion, monitor the impact on a regular basis, assess whether positive outcomes should be increased and negatives should be reduced. Like a project, it has a start and an end point. The Safe-Fail Experiment usually run 3 to 6 months, ample time to sense how the system behaved and what patterns emerged. And herein lies the big difference. It’s the patterns that potentially lead us to new solutions. It may or may not be the actual probe put into motion. You may discover serendipitously something else significantly better. In fact, a radical, provocative, crazy probe is a more effective simulate to jolt the system.

Flipping the Classroom is a radical probe and is gaining traction. But it may not be the final destination. “This is an exciting time in education because technology is finally pushing people and organizations to change the way they do things,” said Cameron Seib, Southridge school’s math curriculum leader.