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Education Upside Down & Flipped Learning

Those of you who know me know that I am not a fashion guru, so I was quite surprised last month when an eighth grader commented that she liked my shirt.  At first I thought she was joking.  I was wearing a madras shirt, but then it dawned on me that madras shorts seemed to be popular so maybe madras shirts were as well.  My shirt was probably twenty years old, and I suspect that some of you are not old enough to remember the OSCC—Old School Clothing Company—or for that matter, its parent company, Harolds, where I bought it.  I was reminded of this incident when I saw this headline recently in the morning paper—“Back to the Eighties”—which went on to explain that “oversized jackets, track pants, and Oxfords now set the pace.”  Who knew?  But what it really reminded me is that in education, like fashion, there is very little that is truly new.

One of the hot “new” trends in education is flipped learning.  I’d seen stories about the flipped classroom in the local media, both in the newspaper and on television, and I’d read, “Turning Education Upside Down,” a positive piece about it in the October 9 New York Times.  So I googled “flipped learning” and checked out a website,, which touts it as “a new method of teaching turning the traditional classroom on its head.”  It shows a graphic of a traditional classroom with a teacher referred to as “a sage on the stage.”  The “sage” is giving a lecture to children sitting at neatly aligned desks facing him with this homework assignment, “Reading and questions due tomorrow,” on the board behind.  Next to the traditional classroom on the screen is the flipped classroom where the teacher is called “a guide on the side.”  The kids are at tables working together on the day’s activity, the guide standing by, and the homework—“WATCH lecture online tonight!”—on the board.

Several things struck me about Knewton’s flipped learning website.  First, the expectation that teachers will prepare and upload three 5-7 minute lectures a week doesn’t seem like a lot of homework for kids of any age.  Second, I liked the site’s use of videos.  I suspect you are familiar with Khan Academy where I recently watched a 6 minute video on Divisibility Tests, part of Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra, and it was great.  Knewton’s teacher lectures, however, are not going to be Khan Academy quality.  Most uploaded videos—especially “sage on the stage” videos—are going to be just as boring as sitting in a class listening to a lecture.  The lecture video does have the advantage of being shorter, allowing kids to re-listen to parts they don’t understand, and going at their own pace, but it has the disadvantage of removing spontaneity and human interaction.  Most significantly, it rests on the assumption that kids are willing to do their homework in the first place.  So it’s time for a basic reality check.  Kids don’t fail to do their homework because number divisibility is not presented in an interesting enough way.  They choose not to do their homework because number divisibility is less interesting than almost anything else they could do, online or off. is no doubt a well meaning company, but its goal is to make as much money as it can by selling hot “new” products to schools desperate to improve the quality of the American educational system, a system floundering with too many dispirited teachers teaching too many unmotivated children.  If, as its website says, only 69% of American kids graduate from high school every year and if 7,200 are dropping out every day, this problem is not going to be solved with a simple flip of the curriculum.  The problem is not structural but human. 

So flipped learning may be the newest educational “innovation,” but it won’t revolutionize teaching or learning. 

Those innovations are truly rare, but one that could have was the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives published by Benjamin Bloom in 1956.  Bloom’s Taxonomy divided learning into several broad categories but focused primarily on what he called the cognitive and affective domains.  The cognitive domain focuses on facts and information to develop a student’s intellectual abilities. Divided into six major categories from simple to complex, the Taxonomy starts with the basic ability to recall, comprehend, and apply information and then moves on to the more sophisticated thinking processes of analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing the information to create knowledge and understanding.  Teachers who use the Taxonomy to guide their teaching and questioning are far more effective at getting their students to think.  The problem, of course, is that very few teachers are even familiar with it and it requires work and practice for teachers to use it well.  In a world where the average public school teacher teaches less than five years, Bloom’s Taxonomy won’t be able to have the impact on learning that it should.

The history of American education is a history of give and take, of pendulum swings, a history of continuing struggle between various camps who all believe their ideas enable children to learn best.  The most dominant conflict has been between educators who focus their teaching on the cognitive domain but implement it in different ways.  These conflicts are about process, and as we saw in the flipped classroom, they generally break down into traditionalists who are more stand and deliver types and progressives who are more active, collaborative types. 

The goal of both groups is the same—to get kids to read, write, compute, and think better; they just don’t agree on how best to do it.  While I’m more aligned with the progressives, what’s most important in the cognitive domain is to develop a good curriculum based on essential questions, backwards planning, and taxonomically high level assessments.  I’ve seen excellent teachers who lectured more in class and assigned projects outside and exceptional teachers who discussed issues and did more projects in class and assigned reading outside.  There is no one right way to teach.  But there is a wrong way, and was right that any teacher who lectures every day and has students read and answer questions every night needs to find another line of work.

There is another educational camp, however, one which focuses more on the affective than the cognitive domain, on our emotions, feelings, values, and attitudes. The affective domain has five major categories which are also listed from the most basic to the most complex.  These categories include our ability to receive and respond to experiences and then to choose, organize, and ultimately internalize those experiences into the values we live by.The media doesn’t normally pay much attention to this camp because the effectiveness of its programs and teaching are very difficult to measure, but it is important nonetheless.  Generally what causes Americans to pay attention to the affective domain is when we ask our schools to fix a social problem.

At the end of the 19th century, the social problem America needed to address was seven and eight year old kids left alone for 12 hours a day while their parents worked in factories…or even more frightening, children themselves working 12 hour factory shifts doing unsafe, dirty jobs for pennies a day.  Moreover, most of these children were the sons and daughters of immigrants flooding to America from southern and eastern Europe and Asia.  How could we Americanize this motley crew of foreigners?  Public schools provided the answer.  Children were kept safe during the day, assimilated into American life, and if talented enough given the opportunity to make something of themselves.  One way the schools accomplished this was by having all children, no matter where they were from, learn English.  Another way was by having these immigrant children pledge their allegiance to our flag at the start of each school day.  And that was the secret of how America became a melting pot….as well as the birth of our Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. 

After WWII and the horror of Nazi racism, we had to confront another major social problem: How do we integrate our country and rid it of its racial prejudice?  Once again schools were asked to help, and they turned to the affective domain.  The first step in using the affective domain is to get kids to simply receive a new idea, so public schools began to put children in classes with children of other races.  Next they did things to get them to respond to each other. 

They were put in positions where they had to work together, in sports, music, drama, and clubs, and as teammates often do, they began to talk to each other and eat lunch together in the cafeteria.  Over time, and some very rough times at that, attitudes started to change as kids began to value the tolerance and integration they were experiencing at school.  But when they went home, they were still confronted with the intolerance and prejudice of their parents.  This confused them and forced them to move up the taxonomic ladder.  They began organizing their thoughts and feelings, comparing and contrasting their attitudes to the attitudes of their parents, deciding what they really believed, and ultimately affirming their beliefs to others.  Many chose and publicly affirmed the value of tolerance and incorporated it into how they lived their lives. 

As a result, American society has changed dramatically over the last fifty years.  Who would have thought in 1963 that we would ever elect an African American president?  It seemed as remote as the implosion of communism, and yet both have happened and even more importantly now seem normal. 

There have been more recent issues that schools have been asked to address by working through the affective domain to change attitudes and feelings; for example, self-esteem in the 1990’s was boosted, perhaps sometimes a bit too much, through the combined efforts of parents and schools. 

Now bullying is the hot issue in education, and I have no doubt that teachers working through the affective domain will ultimately make a difference there as well. 

There is, however, another group of educators within the affective domain whose goal is specifically to develop the moral and ethical side of America’s children. These are the proponents of character education.  Many are religious and support initiatives such as returning prayer to public schools and placing the Ten Commandments on school walls.  Others are less sectarian and look for ways to include virtues like kindness and generosity in the curriculum.  Perhaps the best known proponent of this form of character education is Bill Bennett, President Reagan’s Secretary of Education.  He later edited The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories and then published it in a children’s version.  Bennett’s philosophy was simple.  If you want children to be good, you have to teach them to be good by talking about virtue…and about those who showed it as they lived their lives.

A final and increasingly more important group of educators and psychologists has challenged the character education movement for dominance of the affective domain over the last twenty years.  Daniel Goleman who authored the bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, in 1995 and developed the concept of EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) has long preached the importance of empathy and self-awareness for success.  Though some people have dismissed his work as pop psychology, many of Goleman’s ideas have been widely accepted.  Based on my experience, I particularly agree with his belief that IQ, while important, only accounts for about 25% of a person’s success.  So what accounts for the other 75%?  A lot of EQ.  In addition to self-awareness and empathy, Goleman explained that EQ was determined by self-regulation, the ability to avoid impulsive behavior and fulfill short-term obligations; by motivation, the passion to pursue goals intrinsically, the perseverance to keep striving, and the resilience to continue in the face of failure; and by social skill, the ability to get along and work well with others.  Over the last twenty years, many psychologists and educators have spent more and more time investigating these components of success, all of which are part of the affective domain.  Today they are most often simply referred to as non-cognitive skills.

Perhaps the best known contribution from this group is Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research into growth mindsets.  Essentially Dweck has shown that children have either a growth or fixed mindset.  Those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable, not fixed; that it’s important to try, even if you fail; and that when you do fail, you should not give up but try harder.  Kids with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is fixed and unchanging; that talented people don’t have to try because they are smart; and that when you don’t understand, the best thing to do is to cheat or lie so people never question your talent.  Dweck’s work with middle schoolers showed that by consistently praising children for their effort, not their intelligence, we can get kids to try, and we can get them to learn.  After all, the kids who fail to learn don’t fail because they aren’t smart enough.  They fail because they don’t try enough.  The issue is not intelligence; it’s effort.  It’s not about cognitive ability or the cognitive domain; it’s about non-cognitive skills and the affective domain.

I thought about Dweck’s work when I first encountered the “Do You Know?” scale which asks kids twenty questions about their families.  For example, “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? ”  “Do you know where your parents met?”  We know good things happen when children know about their family’s history.  They have a stronger sense of control over their lives and higher self-esteem. But what story do you want your kids to understand about your family?  A story of accomplishment through exceptional talent and skill?  Or a story of resilience blending hard work and perseverance?  The better story as Dweck’s work shows is the story of resilience—we’ve had successes and failures but we’ve never stopped trying.

The ability to sustain effort and interest in order to reach your goals is what’s required for success.  It is also Angela Duckworth’s, a psychology professor at Penn and recent recipient of a MacArthur Award (often referred to as the genius award), definition of “grit.”  To test the importance of grit for success, Duckworth studied many groups and people and then created a simple twelve question test to measure it.  She most famously gave it to West Point plebes and then looked at the scores of the students who dropped out during that difficult first year.  When she compared their results on her grit test to their scores on tests of cognitive ability and physical ability, a low grit score was by far the best predictor of future drop outs, far better than their cognitive or physical ability scores.

In another study of the importance of non-cognitive skills for life success, James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, compared GED recipients with traditional high school graduates and high school dropouts to see who they more closely resembled in terms of life success ten years later.  What he found was that in terms of intelligence, GED recipients were as bright as high school graduates, but in terms of most other measures of success—annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, illegal drug use—GED recipients were almost identical to high school dropouts.  Heckman’s findings offer a strong challenge to those educators who operate predominately in the cognitive domain and believe that success depends primarily on cognitive skills—the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests.  If GED recipients were just as smart as traditional high school graduates and had passed an equivalent test of academic mastery, why did they do so much worse in life?  Heckman concluded they struggled in life because they did not have the non-cognitive skills—self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, intrinsic motivation, and social skill—to subordinate themselves and negotiate their way through high school. 

Finally, there was a study that began in the 1960’s at the Perry Preschool, part of a Michigan Head Start program, to see if preschool improved poor children’s academic outcomes.  When the scores came in five years later, it was clear that it hadn’t…and that led many people to question spending government money on preschool for disadvantaged kids.  But the Perry study has continued to follow those kids through their lives.  Here’s what they’ve learned: the Perry children were more likely to graduate from high school; more likely to be employed at age 27; more likely to earn over $25,000/year at age 40; less likely ever to have been arrested; and less likely to have ever been on welfare.  So what was it the Perry kids had learned in preschool?  They hadn’t grown particularly in the cognitive domain but they had grown significantly in the affective.  Those non-cognitive skills the Perry children learned in preschool made a huge difference in their life’s success.

So maybe what’s new in education is that research continues to help us understand how our brains work and the attitudes, habits, and skills we need to be successful in life.  In other ways, however, maybe it really is back to the eighties…and not just in fashion.  Do you remember Robert Fulghum’s famous 1988 poem, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  “Share everything.  Play fair.  Don't hit people.  Put things back where you found them.  Clean up your own mess.  Don't take things that aren't yours.  Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.”   That’s the essence of a good preschool curriculum, lots of love and non-cognitive skills, and it’s pretty good advice for how to live a successful life.  What’s new is not how to do it.  The only thing new is how we explain it.

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