[Originally published 8.17.12 in the Santa Fe Leaderership Center  newsletter]

The new school year is launching, and it is a busy time for establishing our academic routines, but don’t let this year be another year of business as usual.  Take the opportunity our annually cyclical enterprise provides us to reconsider which of our routines are ready to be reversed.

It is remarkable how quickly the concept of flipping the classroom surged, spread, and has taken root across a great breadth of schools.   Though it is by no means universal, or universally favored, what a buzz flipping has created.  Some may dismiss the buzz around flip teaching as faddish and short-lived, but I think the buzz is happening because flipping is un-dismissible.

The speed with which it has spread, however, is not entirely  surprising when we factor the significance of networked learning and social media today.  As Chris Anderson, who is the “curator” of the Ted Talks and a remarkable thinker in his own right, explains in what is one of my very favorite TED Talks, Crowd Accelerated Innovation: “New global communities [are] granting their members both the means and the motivation to step up their skills and broaden their imaginations. It is unleashing [and accelerating] an unprecedented wave of innovation in thousands of different disciplines.”

This post isn’t about flipping the classroom; it is about extending  the spirit of the flip throughout the work of our schools.  (For more about flipping instruction, seeFlip Your Classroom,  the fine new ASCD book from a pair of high school chemistry teachers who pioneered the practice at their rural Colorado high school, or my recent review of the book. )

Dan Pink was the among the first to write on a large platform about flipping instruction (Daily Telegraph, September 2010), and last year he extended the spirit of flipping in a book available free online, the Flip Manifesto, which is entirely worth your perusal.   As he describes it, “The manifesto you have here offers 16 pieces of advice that run counter to-indeed, that often directly contradict-what you might have heard elsewhere.”

Borrowing from Pink’s example and drawing from the spirit of the recent Olympics and the vitality, charm, and smiling magnanimity of the magnificent Gabby Douglas cartwheeling across the floor exercise, let’s flip our way across and throughout our school cultures.

Flip Meetings.  This is the first and most obvious extension of flipping the classroom; apply the same principle to faculty, board, and other types of meetings.  Instead of taking the precious time of people coming together for the presentations which precede conversations, shift the presentations to video delivered in advance.   Bill Ferriter has written very helpfully about flipping faculty meetings;  Lee Burns at Presbyterian Day School (TN) is flipping his board meetings and reports positively about his success.

Flip Mission.   We are conditioned after decades of repetition to perceive mission as the ultimate core of our organization, and only occasionally do we see purpose paired with mission, either as a separate statement following mission, or as commitment made within the mission, usually toward the end.   Invert it.   What is most important about our organization isn’t what we do but why we do it and the difference we are seeking to make in the world.

Purpose, Dan Pink has explained so thoroughly in Drive, is what drives people; it is among the primary motivations we know of, along with autonomy and mastery (and let’s face it, so much more significant than autonomy and mastery).   Put purpose first, and shift mission in the subordinate role.

Flip Sequence.  Doubtlessly there are scores of schools with strong constructivist principles and problem-based learning curricula which don’t, but the routine of schooling I observe most often is to put the instruction first, the problem second.  Students observe the lesson, read the book, study the directions, watch the demonstration, and then confront the problem.

Flip it.   When problems come first, students discover and demonstrate what they already know and what they still need to learn, and instruction follows suit.  As the brilliant Dan Meyer recently wrote,  “Why does Khan Academy make an explanation the very first thing a student experiences with a new topic in math. When we put the explanation first, we get lousy learning and bored students.”

Flip Helpfulness.   Continuing with Dan Meyer, whose mathematics education blog is must-reading, consider his haunting and unforgettable two word motto, “less helpful.”

It is so powerfully the impulse of every educator to help, it is encoded in our genetic make-up.  Indeed, it makes us feel great to help: I love helping people (once I overcome my inertia and get out of my chair).   But too much of the time our noble and gratifying impulse doesn’t help our students; their learning comes in the struggle, in the lull, in the lag times before we intervene.  Help less to reduce helplessness.

Flip Testing.   “Ok students, time to put away the books and laptops:  here are your exams.”    We’ve already incorporated calculators into many of our examinations, and some teachers use open book testing regularly.   Now is the time to open the laptops and open the networks for tests and exams.

Advantages occur on many levels.  Students must develop higher orders of proficiency in search, critical evaluation of web-based information, and use of powerful online tools such as Wolfram-Alpha, all skills which will enormously benefit their future learning and productivity; teachers have to rethink their questions to ensure that they are asking higher order thinking of their students when they demand answers that are not easily google-able.  (Much more about Open computer and open network testing is available here.)

Flip Facts.   Deeply embedded is the habit of asking students to focus first on mastering the fundamental elements of a particular subject.  “Study this chapter and be sure you know the key facts,” we tell them.  But as Harvard Professor Ellen Langer explains in her wonderful writing about mindfulness, when we treat “facts as absolute truths to be learned as is, to be memorized, [we leave]  little reason to think about them.  Then, there is little chance that the information will lead to any conceptual insights or even be rethought in a new context.”

Rather than facts, teach “drawing distinctions:” study multiple perspectives and competing interpretations about each subject.  According to Langer, in every study she’s reviewed, the students who drew distinctions tested better: they recalled more information and the essays they wrote were judged to be more creative and intelligent.

Flip Roles.    Life-long learning always been essential, but never as essential as it is today; our professional educators are obligated by their profession both to pursue continuous learning vigorously and to model it for their students.   Our teachers can teach best when they are learning the most and presenting themselves in the mode and manner of learner.

David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal,  reports on his research about most effective pedagogical  practice, describing the ideal teacher his way:

What mattered most was not the substance of the course so much as the way she thought, the style of learning she fostered. For instance, Ms. Taylor constantly told the class how little she knew.   She stressed the importance of collecting conflicting information before making up one’s mind, of calibrating one’s certainty level to the strength of the evidence, of enduring uncertainty for long stretches as an answer became clear.

Meanwhile, our students often learn the most when they are teaching others.   Pam Moran (who I believe to be the finest public school superintendent in the nation) recently wrote

After observing multi-age communities in Irish classrooms and coderdojos, adolescent orangutans in Borneo, and Mitra’s “hole in the wall” child-teachers, I wonder why we wouldn’t begin to redesign our schools to take advantage of this natural capacity of young people to teach, not just to learn?

At Harvard, Physics Professor Eric Mazur is vigorously pursuing this flip with his students, reporting vast improvements in the proficiency growth of his students in his very challenging courses.

Flip PD.    “Professional development” as a phrase is deeply overdue for retirement.  Ken Kay and Val Greenhill wrote recently in The Leader’s Guide to 21st century education, “the PD plane is in such a state of disrepair that no one wants to get on.”

Begin this flip by shifting the terminology to “professional learning,” and continue it by drawing upon the wisdom and practices of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), Critical Friends Groups, and Action Research.   New models of teacher conferences are swiftly sweeping many parts of the countries:  Take the lead by using your campus to host and facilitate Unconferences or Edcamps (Google these terms for more information).

Flip also the timing of faculty meetings and professional learning sessions, from late afternoon to early morning: educators are far more primed for collaboration and learning in the first part of the day than the last; students, particularly secondary students, on the other hand, are far less ready to go first thing.

Look ahead to your school year like Gabby Douglas and her Fab Five team-mates face the vault: take a deep breath, roll and loosen your shoulders, stabilize your breathing, pull yourself up to your greatest height, take one short step, then a second, and then sprint with all your speed to spring off that vault and begin flipping as many times and in as many ways as you can.


Related posts and for further reading on flipping instruction:

My presentation at edleader21: