Ollie Wood, Academic Manager of The London School in Thiene, Italy, explains the flipped classroom and looks at how it can be successfully implemented.


Blended or flipped?

A definition is always a good place to start. So, just what is ‘blended learning’ and what does it have to do with a ‘flipped classroom’ (whatever that may be)? Well, blended learning is an umbrella term used to describe a way of teaching that combines online resources with in-person instruction to create a more personalised learning environment. Additionally, with blended learning teachers often make some or all of the content available to students outside of class time. Now, a ‘flipped classroom’, which is a rotational model of blended learning, takes this to the extreme: students consume all of the traditional input material at home at their own pace, and during class time they complete work assignments traditionally given as homework, as well as other activities such as team-based or project-based learning. This, in short, describes the flipped classroom model, because it flips what students do at home and in the classroom.

How’s this better?

Typically, when a teacher plans a lesson they have to make an educated guess about the knowledge-level of their class, since there is usually very little information available about what each student really knows or remembers. The problem here is that if the content is too difficult then most of the students will be lost and if it’s too easy then most of them will be bored. This results in teachers teaching to the ‘middle of the class’ and hoping for the best: not an ideal situation. So, by flipping the class and putting content online, students can move at their own pace. Those who are familiar with the material can go through it quickly, while others who aren’t as familiar with it can take their time and do additional research in order to understand the concept being explained. An additional benefit for all students is that they can choose to engage with the material when they are most alert: from early in the morning to late at night. Students can also take the breaks they need without having to worry about missing out or distracting others.

Speaking of time …

In a traditional classroom, the approach is generally time-based. This means that the whole class moves at the same pace; all students get the same lesson on the same day, and then they all move on to the next topic regardless of their individual performance or if they have gaps in their knowledge. The flipped classroom is flexible enough to allow the use of a mastery-based model, which acknowledges that not all students are going to understand the material at the same time. Some students might need more time to understand a topic, while at other times those same students will speed ahead. By giving students as much time as they need on a topic, and letting them decide when they are ready to continue, flipped classes can help to ensure that students move forward only when they have shown that they can apply what they have learned with confidence.

So, what goes online?

In essence, any type of work that is more passive or cerebral should go online. So, if we think of a typical PPP lesson, it is the presentation and practice stages that should go online, leaving the face-to-face lesson time free for the production element. This approach is also backed up by lots of research that suggests that people learn best when supported through active work. We’ve all had students that have come into class complaining that they had understood concepts when they’d learned them in the classroom but had became confused when trying to apply them at home. Well, the flipped classroom means that teachers are available when students need them the most: when they are trying to apply their knowledge. Another challenge that the flipped classroom addresses is that of ‘group work’. How many times have we heard our students moan about the difficulties of coordinating in-person meet-ups with colleagues? Or what about making sure those same meetings were constructive? Moving group work into the classroom setting makes the logistics straightforward, and it also allows the teacher to keep an eye on group meetings and to help facilitate them if needed.

How is this different from a ‘normal’ EFL lesson?

It’s true that the EFL industry does already recognise the benefits of spending class time doing group work and communication activities. However, the flipped classroom takes this one step further. Here, the group work and ‘free practice’ are the bulk of the lesson. Let’s, for example, take a reading lesson. The majority of the lesson stages would be online: warmer and introduction; unknown vocabulary; and the reading itself, with its prediction and comprehension questions. In class, the lesson starts with a warmer/reminder and then launches straight into the post-reading discussion or production activity: these are no longer rushed through in the final 20 mins of a lesson while you have one eye on the clock. So, the flipped classroom optimises student-teacher interactions. To paraphrase Alison King (1993), the teacher transitions from a ‘sage on the stage’ who delivers the theory to a ‘guide on the side’ who interacts one-on-one with students to help guide them in ways that might be impractical or impossible with a traditional teaching model. Indeed, the flipped classroom fully embraces a student-centred learning model: something every EFL teacher should be striving for.

So, where’s the catch?

The flipped classroom, like any teaching approach, brings with it some important challenges. Obviously, as this approach depends on technical resources, they have to be affordable, reliable and easy-to-use for both students and teachers. Also, there is likely to be a learning curve that has to be navigated, especially for those that have never used technology in the classroom. Another challenge is making sure that students are reliably and independently studying the materials, so that they are coming to class prepared. Yes, this can be incentivised by closely tying in classwork to the content that is being delivered online, but it’s not foolproof. There will be students who come to class underprepared. Unfortunately, outside of tracking their progress with learning platforms and sending gentle reminders, there is not much more that can be done to tackle this.

Is it worth the effort?

Yes, absolutely. After I had read all the literature on blended learning and flipped classrooms, I was ready to give it a go. I knew there would be a considerable amount of effort on my part, but I was sure it would benefit my students. I wasn’t wrong. Yes, I had to really plan well in order to create the right tie-ins between online study and class activities. Yes, I had to change my teaching approach. Yes, initially some students needed a lot of help and support: teaching them how to think, as well as what to learn! However, with the right effort, my shift to a flipped classroom was successful. I can honestly say that when it is done right, blended learning can lead to a much more enjoyable and effective learning experience for both parties.