Tuesday, April 9, 2013


I try not to swear around my children so for several years I have been saying things like "Flipping heck you flipping flipper!" when someone drives badly or misses an open goal. I used to call bad drivers idiots, but that had to stop when the chants of "Mommy is a idiot" began (due to her allegedly driving too fast). I also make extensive use of the neologism jipe, which literally means jumping/leaping diagonally from one part of the floor at Kroger to another.

Seeing the checkered floor you can, perhaps, imagine how tempting it is for kids to do this, and yet a busy supermarket is not a great place for diagonal leaping. So jiping, while no terrible crime, is not a good thing. And a flipping jiper is not a good person to be. Nor is a jipey flipper. (I know non-parents are nauseated by such talk, and others might be too. It is over now.)

Anyway, that partly explains the title of this post, but my real subject is teaching. Marcus Arvan has a wonderfully honest piece about teaching as a Visiting Assistant Professor here. It's a rather grim tale, but one of the happier bits is this:
I attended a teaching workshop which emphasized the "flipped classroom" -- i.e. getting students to do more work in the classroom, rather than being the "sage on the stage." My wife and mother also suggested that instead of working myself into the ground prepping for classes, I should prioritize getting students to work. I did. I now spend 1/3 of my 2-hour classes discussing mandatory reading responses students prepare, another 1/3 having students do group work in the classroom, and the final 1/3 giving a lecture. It has worked wonders. My student evaluations have soared, and more importantly, my students are improving beyond my wildest dreams. Getting them to work -- to do philosophy themselves, both in the classroom and at home -- works wonders.
I have read about this kind of thing before, but the idea seemed to be that instead of lecturing in class something like lectures would be delivered outside class through textbook readings and video tutorials, or things of roughly that sort. And my concern has always been that students might not bother to do the reading or watch the videos, or that they would bother but would not understand and that class time would end up having to be spent on lectures covering the material they were supposed to have covered on their own. Giving mandatory reading responses is an obvious solution, but it doesn't ensure that students will understand the reading they are responding to. And it brings other potential problems. How mandatory are these responses if they are not graded? And if they do count for part of the grade for the course, how much do they count? And what has to be cut to make room for this extra work? These are not meant as rhetorical questions. I just would like to know how it's done. More on this below--I found out!

And then there's the group work. My two concerns here are what the nature of this work would be and how to avoid making students feel like guinea pigs or lab rats. My ideal class is a conversation, and in a conversation you don't make people split into groups and perform some exercise you have prepared for them. I have seen people do this kind of thing well (though not in philosophy), but I can't imagine myself doing it well. I would feel manipulative. And self-conscious.

But enough criticism and skepticism. How might I flip my classroom, if I did do it? I think the first thing to do would be to assign short or easy readings (since they have to be able to make sense of them on their own, without a lecture from me). Then the mandatory responses would require students to do something like identify the thesis and the argument(s) for it in the reading, and to identify a likely objection (which might be one mentioned by the author or one that the student comes up with herself, or finds by doing some extra research). Discussion of these responses would involve students reading out their answers and then collectively identifying the best ones and correcting any that are incorrect. Most of the discussion, I imagine, would be about the relative merits of various possible objections, but it might also focus on exactly what the author is arguing for, or how she argues for it. You would have to collect the responses at the end to make sure that everyone had really prepared one and didn't just repeat what others had said, but the grading could be some combination of credit just for trying and bonus points for contributing well to the discussion (by correctly identifying arguments, etc. or helping others to see where they had gone wrong). Maybe a C for preparing something that looks like a reasonable effort and up to an A for positive contributions in discussion. And all of this might be, what, 30% of the grade for the course? It could amount to about 20 pages of writing, after all.

Next, group work. Students might work together on another piece of philosophical writing, doing the same kind of thing only this time as a group and with limited time. Or they might prepare an answer to the question: why does this matter? (For instance, if they have been reading something about personhood, they might think about the implications this might have for the abortion debate or belief in life after death.) Or they might discuss among themselves whether the author's argument or the best objection to it is stronger. Then each group could report back to the rest of the class, and the class as a whole could discuss the various answers. This group work would have to count for grade, too, but maybe less than 30%. And then the final lecture could summarize, correct any possible misunderstandings, and set the stage for the next class.

I don't really see much here that couldn't be achieved in other ways. For instance, requiring reading responses and then spending most of the class on traditional lecturing interspersed with "Socratic" (scare quotes because this kind of thing is not really very like what Socrates actually did) questioning of individuals (if you like calling on people) or the whole class (if you prefer to ask for volunteers, as I do). But I had no idea what kind of responses people like Arvan require, nor what kind of group work they have their students do. I don't think mine would enjoy the kind of thing I've described above, but I haven't tried it. 

Now I do have an idea what Arvan does. He tells me here:
The daily reading responses I have students complete are always the same. They are asked, in no longer than 1/2 page double-spaced, to:
(A) Summarize in their own words a *single* important claim from the reading, and
(B) Motivate a serious philosophical question or worry about it.
I grade them on the importance of the idea they summarized (is it important, or a trivial point unrelated to the author's argument?), how accurately they summarize it, and how well they (briefly) motivate their question or worry. These get them to think about the material and lead to great class discussions.
The group assignments are somewhat different. Sometimes I have one group assignment at the beginning of my lecture (asking a question or two about the reading) and then one at the end (asking a question or two about my lecture). Other times I sprinkle the group assignments in the middle of my lecture, to get them to think about arguments I've just presented.
Typical questions for group assignments go something like:
"What is Philosopher X's argument on p.Y, second paragraph? Summarize it in your own words. Next, raise an objection and state how you think Philosopher X would/should respond."
"I just put Philosopher X's argument into premise-conclusion form. Is the argument valid? Is it sound? (Are all of its premises true?)"
These also lead to great class discussions, not to mention opportunities to clear up misinterpretations (which helps them read more accurately for future classes. Because group assignments make up 20% of their final grade, they have real incentive to learn from their interpretive mistakes!).
John Protevi describes his practice at NewAPPS:
Everyone who stresses student in-class work has their own percentages, so I thought I'd share mine. As I give individual comments on RR [reading response, I take it] papers by email rather than in class (but not everyone writes a paper each week; I have them in teams of 3, with one drafter, two commenters, and then the drafter revises and sends in the final), I don't have that component.
A typical class for me has 15-20 minutes intro, group work, then concluding discussion with each group presenting their work. In the group work I divide the reading into sections, and then assign each group to a section. I mostly ask them for an outline of the main points, the structure of an individual argument, or sometimes a diagram of the concept.
I'm torn. Teaching like this does involve getting students to do real work, and apparently leads to both real learning (or the production of good work, anyway, which seems like evidence of learning to me) and great teaching evaluations. And yet it still seems a little too distant from my conversational ideal. My favorite class this semester is an interdisciplinary seminar on Wittgenstein's Vienna (loosely based on the book of the same name). I think some of the students are a bit lost, and I feel a little at sea myself when I deal with non-philosophical stuff (although I don't spend much time on completely non-philosophical material), but we have great conversations about the reading in class. It's fun while still having a serious focus. And they have to write several papers, which I grade demandingly. Those who pass the course, and I hope they all do, will have really learned a lot, I'm sure, and grown up a bit too. I don't know if that could happen in a flipped classroom. Maybe it could. My main belief about teaching is that you have to use methods that you believe in. Students want teachers who know their stuff and genuinely believe in what they are doing. I think they are right to do so. So if flipping works you should flip. I'm just not sure it's for me. I am tempted to give it a try though.     


  1. Father Ted Crilly responds to a loss by the horse on which he has bet: "You FLIP! You FLIPPING, FLIPPING FLIPPER! Oh, it's the knacker's yard for you, pal!" (video)

  2. I pretty much am Father Ted. Thanks for the video (and it's good to see you blogging again).