To flip or not to flip: An innovation in education or an educational fad?

| January 28, 2016

A flipped classroom means inverting the traditional teaching procedure – for example teacher’s lectures outside the classroom or homework done in class. But do students actually learn better that way? Michael Jacobson has some answers.

The notion of a “flipped classroom” has attracted considerable attention in the popular press in recent years. Still, there are questions: Why flip? What to flip? How to flip? To flip or not to flip?

For many teachers, there seems to be a broad, if vague, sense that “traditional” classroom teaching is not working very well, and thus there is an interest in trying something “new.”

Part of the appeal of the flipped classroom may be the use of technology, which is supposed to be innovative, and additionally this approach promises to make class time available for student-centered activities where the teacher can be a facilitator or mentor. The general notion of the flipped classroom also seems to have been popularized in part by social media and by articles in newspapers and magazines, which may add to the perception that this is a new and innovative way to teach.

The typical understanding of the flipped classroom is inverting the teaching procedure so some activities such as a teacher’s lecture that traditionally have taken place inside the classroom are “flipped” to happen outside the classroom, and the same for out of class activities such as student homework that is now to be done in class.

However, it must be stated that despite the considerable popular interest in the flipped classroom there has been virtually no careful research investigating flipped classroom approaches. One needs to be careful in education about what might be called teaching fads. Teachers are professionals who are responsible for the vital role of educating our children and the future citizens of the world. It is essential that teachers do not use a pedagogical approach just because it is a currently popular fad. Teaching practices, just like medical practices, must be based on solid empirical research that has been carefully vetted and published in top ranked peer reviewed academic journals.

Consequently, proponents of the flipped classroom need to conduct and publish rigorous research about this approach. In particular, I believe research must investigate a fundamental question: Do students actually learn better in flipped classrooms?

Now, as a learning researcher, I would not be surprised if a study that just compares a flipped classroom to a traditional class actually would show superior learning for the flipped approach. This would be an encouraging finding indeed.

The next research question would be, why? Was this due to the “flipping”, or was this due to the fact that a flipped classroom has learner centred activities with the teacher, whereas a traditional classroom typically does not? Research would then be needed to compare a flipped classroom with the digital video lecture and the teacher facilitated class to a comparison condition with no digital video lecture and the teacher facilitated class. (Now a good researcher would know to have the comparison condition students watch some sort of video—say of a National Geographic TV show on a different subject—that would be of the same length as the digital video lecture.) Proponents of the flipped classroom would, of course, expect that this approach would result in superior learning.

However, I hypothesize that the comparison condition students would score equally well as the flipped classroom. If this hypothesis was confirmed, this would suggest that there was no learning “value added” of the pre-class digital video. Rather, the teacher assisted learner centred activities alone would have caused the learning gains.

Why would this be an important finding (even if contrary to flipped classroom advocates)? Firstly, it would inform a teacher about the activities given to her or his students. If there is no need for students to watch a digital video lecture, then do not waste the student’s time with an unnecessary activity. Secondly, some flipped classroom advocates strongly advise teachers to record their own personal digital video lectures. This is a very time consuming task for already busy teachers, many of whom probably lack the technical skills to do this. If there is no learning advantage for the students, then the teachers should save their valuable and scare time for other teaching activities.

And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, a research finding demonstrating that learner centred activities are effective ways for students to learn—and they enjoy learning in such ways—should give teachers (and parents and policy makers) confidence. After all, innovative learner centred approaches such as inquiry learning, problem based learning, project based learning and so on, have been previously validated in a wide range of high quality research studies.

Still, you might be wondering how this can be? This seems to violate “common sense.” How could the students learn as well if they were not first told the “important ideas,” if they were not prepared first by the digital video lecture, or even by traditional teaching?

We actually have some very rigorous and persuasive research that has shown students may in fact learn more deeply if they are not taught first! As examples, the “productive failure” approach of Professor Manu Kapur has students engage in an open ended Idea Generation and Exploration phase, which is then followed by a Consolidation phase where the teacher teaches; Professors Dan Schwartz and John Bransford have shown students benefit from an open ended “time for talking” about their ideas before having a lecture. In empirical research studies, both of these approaches have been found to be superior to having the direct instruction provided first. These findings (and related studies) have been reported in the most prestigious educational research journals.

I find such findings intriguing and quite exciting.

Let me share a little known secret: sometimes true innovation in education seems to violate “common sense.” This is why careful educational research is so important. For a readable (and free online) overview of foundational research in education, I recommend How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. I believe (passionately) that if more educators knew about—and tried out—some of these innovative, intriguing findings about how people learn, then we would see a renaissance in education, here in Australia and internationally.

More in future blogs, but for now, happy and productive learning!


  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind experience, and school. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
  • Kapur, M., & Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for productive failure. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(1), 45–83.
  • Schwartz, D. L., & Bransford, J. D. (1998). A time for telling. Cognition and Instruction, 16(4), 475–522.