Flipping the Classroom at Top Universities

Written by Abi Kognity

26th June 2017

The Flipped Classroom has been sold to the teaching community as a brand new and progressive way of conveying knowledge, but is it? There is a strong case to be made that old-school academic institutions have been doing it for centuries. Mind you, this is not an attempt to undermine the flipped classroom, but to underpin it with legitimacy, in order to appeal to those teachers that are hesitant to change up their good ol’ ways.

As far back as the 1400s, the academic institutions of Oxford and Cambridge, or ‘Oxbridge’, have used the so called tutorial system as their go-to method of teaching. The system has received lots of criticism over the years, especially regarding its economic inefficiency. Here, we are only concerned with the ‘flipped classroom’ aspect of the tutorial system, which is an area that has not been so criticised.

The flipped classroom aspect becomes clear once the weekly timeline of tutorial teaching is laid down; students are given a list of the relevant reading for a topic, as well as written work, both to be completed before the weekly tutorial, during which the tutor addresses the most difficult areas of the topic. Then, the next week’s work is assigned, the process repeats itself, and the different weeks are connected in a chain of feedback, dialogue, and development. If this is not a flipped classroom environment, then I don’t know what is. Like most high schools, most universities have ditched the tutorial system in favour of a lecture system, where a topic is taught in a lecture setting, after which students consolidate and build on the information independently.

In universities, it seems fair enough that the tutorial system remains a narrow exception to the widespread lecture system, because the need for smaller groups is economically inefficient compared to massive lectures. However, an average high school classroom is already much smaller in size than a university lecture theatre. Therefore, the financial argument is invalid in a high school context, leaving only the benefits of an Oxbridge-style flipped classroom.

IB students might not be prepared for the high level of independence that is seen on a university level, but preparation for university is what the IB is all about, so some degree of independence is appropriate. A good way of striking this balance is using EdTech to facilitate the students’ independent learning and the teacher’s supervisory role. Kognity presents information in a digestible way, enabling students to prepare without being overwhelmed. Kognity also allows the teacher to monitor the activity of the students, which makes it possible to tailor the subsequent class seminar to the needs of the students, only focusing on those points were the teacher’s expertise is most needed.

At Oxbridge, the flipped classroom aspect of the tutorial system fosters independence, study technique, and confidence, all of which are important traits for a successful career. These traits could be developed at an even earlier stage, without putting too much distance between the teacher and the students. The flipped classroom stimulates debate and helps students rise above the textbook material. There is no need to be hesitant before flipping the classroom, especially not with access to today’s array of EdTech tools.

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