Is The Flipped Classroom Relevant to ELT?
There is a lot of interest in the idea of the Flipped Classroom. It was even mentioned in the Horizon Report for Higher Education in 2015 as a key growth area. In all honesty I am a bit surprised how the Flipped Classroom has caught on and I had previously questioned its relevance to ELT and language teaching. I admit now I was wrong and I can now see that it does have a place in certain language teaching contexts. However I still think its application is limited and I will touch on this issue later in the article. I speak from a position of experience, having flipped my own courses back in 2006. My own work generated quite a bit of interest and I eventually won funding from JISC to continue the project. In this article I am going to outline what the Flipped Classroom is and how it is relevant to ELT.
What is the Flipped Classroom?
The basic idea of the flip classroom is to make use of technology so that we do less ‘teaching’ in the class and focus more on group work and task based learning in the lesson. If you think of most classes, especially in higher education, then there are large parts of the lesson where the teacher is explaining stuff. For example in a photography lesson the teacher might be showing the students how to use Photoshop. In an ELT context perhaps the teacher is explaining how a report is organized. This ‘teaching stuff,’ as I call it can be moved out of the lesson. We can record mini lectures or screen casts where we record ourselves explaining these concepts and then put these online. The students can watch them at home and in class we can focus more on group based, task based activities that practice the knowledge that was demonstrated and explained in the videos.
Drawing on different approaches to learning
The Flipped Classroom is simply a model of blended learning. It is not a methodology but rather a way of organizing learning and the learning content. In fact it really draws on several approaches to learning; namely a transmission (behaviorist approach to learning) and a social constructivist/task based approach. At home the students are watching videos, listening to podcasts and perhaps doing quizzes to check understanding. Most of this learning is very transmission based and does not involve collaboration of sharing of ideas (though in theory it could). Then the students come into class where they use their knowledge in group work and tasks. This learning is more collaborative in nature and fits more with a constructivist view of learning.
Another way to think about this is to think of Blooms Taxonomy of Learning. At home the students are memorizing information and perhaps checking their understanding. The focus is on the lower order thinking skills. In class the students are applying their knowledge, analyzing, evaluating etc. The focus here is on higher order thinking. The more challenging work is taking place when the teacher is present. The work the students do alone is based around the lower order thinking skills and in theory perhaps the time when they need less support from teachers.
You can see why this approach fits really well with Higher Education. The lectures that lecturers give in the class can easily be put on-line and the students can access them at home. The lecture time can now be used for more tutorial/group-based work, where the teacher can provide help and support while students work on tasks. There are huge challenges of course. Who is going to make all the learning content that the students access at home and what sort of tasks/group activities are we going to set up in class time?
Is the Flipped Classroom relevant to ELT?
Most ELT classes are not teacher centered. Students are often working in groups and pairs and teachers are aware of the need to get students to communicate and use the language. This is largely due to the impact of Communicative Language Teaching. In other classes teachers may even be using discovery techniques and inductive/deductive approaches to learning as well as task based approaches. In reality then, in ELT we already flip our classes to a certain degree.
That doesn’t mean that the Flipped Classroom doesn’t have a place in ELT. We don’t have to flip all our classes, but the model could be useful for certain lessons or certain part of the syllabus. For example we often need to teach grammar, explain different writing genres, or focus on the construction of paragraphs. A lot of this ‘teaching stuff’ could be put on-line so that the teacher is able to spend more time in the class getting the students to use what has been taught via the homework.
For example, let’s imagine that we are looking at the construction of paragraphs. We could make a video/screen cast that explains to students how a paragraph is normally made up. It might include an explanation of what a subject sentence is and how it should be supported by the rest of the paragraph. Perhaps there is also a simple quiz that the students have to do to check understanding after they watch the video. In class, the students are giving a series of paragraphs where the sentences have all been mixed up. The students work in groups and order the sentences, making sure the topic sentence is at the start of the paragraph. They then have a second exercise where they been provided with a topic sentence but are asked to write the rest of the paragraph in groups. The different groups could then present their answers to the second exercise to the rest of the group. The idea is that in the class time the students are applying and using their knowledge. The teacher’s role would be to move around providing support, making sure the students clearly understand the task, etc. The lesson may even include time for reflection on the task itself.
The Flipped Classroom throws up continual challenges and it is worth thinking about these. When I give presentations about the Flipped Classroom I always get asked the following questions.
- How do teachers produce the learning content that the students use at home?
Making the content is not as hard as you think. Screen capture technologies can be used to create videos where you can record whatever you have on the screen as a video. This can be done easily by teachers through tools such as SnagIt (SnagIt). So if you want to talk over a diagram, image, graph, document or even PowerPoint presentation, then this is pretty easy. The presentations from longer lectures can be loaded up onto a free tools like MyBrainShark (MyBrainShark) and Present.Me (Present.Me). The teacher can add their voice and even webcam to the presentation and easily share it with students.
- How do we make sure that the students actually watch the videos and are therefore prepared for the lessons?
When we set homework in class, sometimes students don’t do it. We can have a similar situation with the Flipped Classroom. Students often come to class without watching the videos. If students do turn up to the lesson without watching the videos or preparing for the lesson, then you can organize a part of the class where those students who have not engaged with the material can go through the material and get up to speed. This is exactly what I did when I flipped my classes at the University of Westminster.
- What sort of tasks and activities do we set up in the class?
In ELT, we tend to do lots of imaginative things with our class time and it is quite common for us to organize our students in groups and pairs and get them working on tasks. In the Flipped Classroom, we should be doing more of this than ever. The Flipped Classroom works well for discussions, debates, presentations, group planning etc. We could, for example, get the students to watch a video about fracking for homework and then in class set up a debate in groups. The groups would then write a basic essay plan that would answer the question about fracking as well as writing an example introduction. Some of the group members could then present their plan and introduction to the rest of the class. If done well, the Flipped Classroom does allow more efficient use of class time.
- Do we always need to produce video for the homework? Is it a Flipped Classroom if we get the students to read something for homework and then discuss it or do a collaborative activity with it in the class time?
For me the essence of the Flipped Classroom is harnessing the affordances of being face-to-face and the affordances of technology. It doesn’t have to be video. At times we may make use of podcasts, e-books, articles, or discussions. However, video does seem a key technology in the delivery of the flipped learning. Most research would point to it as the most efficient way of delivering information to students. I try to set up mini tasks or quizzes to check for learning, so that the students aren’t simply watching videos at home but rather checking their understanding too. There are actually free on-line technologies that allow us to do this (Ed Ted).
- What role does the teacher play?
I believe that the role of the teacher is really beginning to change and technology has a large part to play in this. Students now have access to lots of additional information on the internet and via e-books as well as through many resources. Therefore the role of the teacher is to help students make use of all this additional information. Skills such as effectively searching for information, deciphering the bias in text, checking sources, reading critically, and others all need to be developed and encouraged. Teachers are no longer the key sources of information for students. The Flipped Classroom can play a role in helping students to develop as autonomous learners as it allows for more choice and greater control to be taken by the students. It does pose a challenge to the students. There is no doubt there is an added responsibility of coming to lessons prepared, already having engaged with the learning material they access from home.
- Do we have to assess differently?
One of the things that has surprised me when I have read about Flipped Classroom projects is that many of them don’t suggest that the assessments have to be changed. In fact many of the schools that have flipped their classrooms in the USA are still preparing students for the SATS exams. My feeling is that there are new soft skills that are developed through the use of the Flipped Classroom and that these skills need to be assessed. This is an issue that is likely to become part of the educational debate in the next few years.
Does it work?
There is a body of research beginning to emerge around the Flipped Classroom. Most of the research has focused on the reaction from students to the idea. In general this has been positive, though overall if students had the choice they would still prefer live lectures to recorded videos. A study at Villanova University which is noted in the Horizon Report shows that weaker students benefit from the making use of the videos and screen casts and that they did better in subsequent exams. Day and Foley have also demonstrated real gains in learning through homework assignments, projects and tests.
The reality though is that there is a need for more research. It would be interesting to see if the approach has any impact on the autonomous learning of the students. It would also be interesting to know more about the shift in the learning culture of the students too. From the teacher’s perspective, a better understanding of the time involved in developing and finding the material would also help other teachers to understand more about its feasibility. Teachers will need to be trained in key technologies for creating the homework and content too and a greater understanding of what these tools are and how long it might take to learn to use them effectively, would also help our understanding.
Whether the Flipped Classroom has relevance to ELT really depends on the emerging research around the topic. My feeling is that it does have a limited place and that perhaps in teacher training courses, EAP, ESP and Business English it might be especially relevant. Though most teachers would probably claim to base their teaching on some form of communicative language training, in reality we are all quite eclectic in our approach to teaching and learning. The Flipped Classroom could be one more idea at our disposal that may be useful in certain parts of our syllabus.
MyBrainShark. A video that shows you how to use and access MyBrainShark
Present.Me A video that shows you how to use and find Present.Me. Available at
SnagIt. A video that shows you how to use and access SnagIt
Thornbury and Harmer (2013) Debate on CLT. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoUx036IN9Q
Villanova University. Report available at
Verleger E, & Bishop,J (2013) The Flipped Classrom: A survey of research. Available at