Flipped out by flipping? You may have missed the point.

Last week, my Y13s were about to go into a week of exams, so we were going to miss some lessons.  Time is precious, so we looked ahead to the material to come (Newton’s law of gravitation and circular motion) and I suggested the students used Khan Academy videos and the text book to get ahead.  No big deal; just a routine thing we do from time to time.  The next day, I was taken aback by a triumphant ‘take-down’ of Khan by Tom Bennett in his blog The Laugh of Khan: if this is the future, then classrooms really are fl*pped.  As usual, it is a good, witty read – and I do know where he is coming from; it is a reaction to the hype and the overblown claims that ‘flipping’ is the new revolution.  No one idea is ever the new revolution.  But it got me thinking… when put in perspective, neither of these positions seems justified or especially helpful.  Firstly, as Eric Mazur pointed out at the recent SSAT conference, flipping has existed since we had books.  Secondly, the various methods of flipping are extremely powerful learning devices that teachers can weave into a normal flow of lessons.

Back to the future: 1987

My first ever job was teaching Physics at Winstanley College in Wigan.  Home of ‘chips and pea-wet’, ‘Latics’, The Orwell and The Verve. The Physics department had developed a fabulous method for teaching that may well have been ahead of its time. I’ve checked on their website and they still use it now.

The Winstanley Study Guide
The Winstanley Study Guide

It may not come over from the prospectus blurb here but it was a radical approach.  Basically, the entire course was broken down into units (there were 42 exactly in 1987, which pleased Hitch-Hiker’s Guide fans). Each unit came with a Study Guide; it directed students to read certain pages from certain books, to refer to specific diagrams, learn particular definitions and equations and then to practice some questions BEFORE THE LESSON.   That was the key.  Students turned up to lessons with the notes already in their folders.  Obviously it took time to perfect, building slowly over Y12, but by Y13, they were supremely good at it; it was automatic.  Lessons were fantastic because all of our time was spent on questions, discussions, teasing out misconceptions, doing practical work and running demonstrations.  We could zip through concepts where the pre-learning had been more straight-forward and cut to the chase with more difficult issues.  If I’d known how fabulous this system was at the time, I’d have kept a full set of all 42 guides… but I left empty handed! But this was ‘flipping’ in action; the students took responsibility for pre-learning the material prior to engaging with the teacher and each other.


With this in mind, the Khan Academy videos and the various alternatives like http://www.my-GCSEscience.com are just a development from the 42 study guides.  When woven into a scheme of learning, in a planned or spontaneous manner, these videos can help students to engage with a topic.  It isn’t meant to be a substitute for the teacher or be more effective than an interactive lesson – it is what it is:  a video of someone explaining something. The advantage is that students can rewind, pause and fast-forward to suit themselves. Here are two on the same Physics topic. First, my-GCSEscience:

And the same topic from Khan Academy

The Khan version is pitched at  higher level and covers more material. There are now all kinds of tech tools for people to make their own screencasts and so on.  Students who watch these videos can go to their lessons full of ideas, questions and some uncertainties all of which can be the starting point of the lesson.  In conjunction with other resources, they can use the videos to help reinforce prior learning, make notes, or simply get a different perspective.  Lots of students like them – but they don’t constitute a revolution.

Having seen the amazing Eric Mazur and his Learning Catalytics site in action I have since found this great website run by one of his researchers Julie Schell :

The Harvard Research team blog
The Harvard Research team blog

This is full of interesting ideas for ‘flipping’ which mostly hinge around the related concept of ‘peer instruction’.  I think this is important.  This is a two-stage process. 1) Students prepare for lessons by engaging with material in advance from books and online sources (yes, books too!!) and 2) students then interact with each other during lessons or lectures in a structured way so that their learning is enhanced.  The teacher’s role is to guide this process, to challenge, correct, probe.. but the students are driving it; at least they are driving it to a greater extent than if the teacher is the source of the knowledge and all the answers.

I think there is huge potential for using these videos in this context – to help students prepare for lessons or to consolidate learning afterward. They never replace lessons; they make lessons more sharply focused on the learning that the students still need to do.  Referring to the clouds in my Learning Arcs post, I think that  ‘flipping’ videos can support the processing phase very effectively, using homework time for students to explore the learning that is still to be fully landed later on.

The Learning Arc clouds
The Learning Arc clouds

But of course, let’s keep it in perspective.  No-one is making anyone do this.  Will it become a growing trend?  Yes that is likely, because students will find them useful.  Could you teach yourself a whole GCSE through this method?  Possible, but less likely.  Is it a revolution? No; it is just an enhancement on what we were doing in Wigan 25 years ago… and what teachers have been doing for centuries: getting students to take responsibility for their own learning.


  1. Hi Tom,
    Between a range of writers/bloggers, there seems to be a continuous thread of developing T&L.
    Flipping isn’t new, if one thinks of preparatory activities and how they fit into the dynamics of the learning process. It can become very individualised, as needed.
    My own earlier view from a Primary perspective was written here. Simpler than yours!
    Best wishes,


  2. Wise words as ever. I agree that some people seem to be missing the point, it is not about the technology but planning homework and lesson time so that the teacher is with the pupils when the learning needs most support. Fits well with solo principles of learning. Where technology helps is the opportunity for students to access a variety of learning material they couldn’t have done even 5 years ago. You still need high quality teachers for the face to face bit


  3. I like this blog (or is it an article?). I read Tom Bennett’s appraisal of the Khan academy and I see his point of view (although he was perhaps a little hard on ol’ Sal?). I make youtube videos for my students (my-GCSEscience.com is my website and that’s my video in your article/blog – I’m very flattered to get a mention and a place next to Sal). I see two parts of the picture because I am a teacher – have been for about 19 years. I’ve got tons of kids who are gushing about the help they received from the videos and that they owe their A*s to me, etc. I think they have to have at least an ounce of nouse (sp?) to get A* grades and the videos by themselves won’t do it. However, it seems to help and they watch.
    On the other aside of things I’ve got a my own class of kids in year 10, who are not stupid, but at the same time not very motivated either. They’ll happily work away at whatever I ask them to in class, but can I get them to be excited about the videos? No chance. The only time they want to watch is in class, and I suspect its because they want me to shut up for 10 minutes so they can zone out. I’ve even tried giving them live lessons over the holidays using some IWB sharing software. First go I had two turn up online, the second time five. I’m pretty sure if I offered the classes to kids who have subscribed on youtube, there would be a big take up. So yes, there seems to be the kinds of kids who will search out these types of videos and use them and others who won’t go near them. I suspect there are more in the latter category and the key to the learning revolution is getting those kids engaged. That’s where the challenge is.
    By the way, I hope Tom Bennett never sees any of my videos!


  4. […] In Great Lessons, therefore, this process is built-in.  This is where homework comes in.  For me, homework is an automatic, embedded, essential element in the whole flow of learning; I set it almost every lesson with every class.. because the learning never stops.  I’ve written that ‘Great Teachers set Great Homework‘ (see also here for the Hattie research, effective size etc)… I’m a big fan.  The best form of homework is the kind that should really be called ‘prep’.  This is the basis of ‘flipped learning’ – where students pre-learn material so that lessons are less about giving information and more about processing it and going deeper through questions.  I’ve written more about that here: Flipped out by flipping? You may have missed the point. […]


  5. Very well written and thoughtful. I have just done Action Research at secondary level using Flipped Classroom techniques and found the system to need some serious ‘structure’ and ‘planning’ before its introduction. Now working in the HE sphere, I consider flipped to be a vital component of mature learning


  6. […] It’s inevitable that, over the course of a career in teaching, perspectives change.  If I  could go back and have a word with my young teacher self, aged 22, I’d certainly be telling myself to show a bit more respect to the guys who had been working at it for a few decades.  Listen to them – they know things you can’t possibly know!  (Actually their approach to physics teaching through a form of flipped learning was amazing; I didn’t realise just how good it was until much later. Flipped out by flipping? You may have missed the point.) […]


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