A Control Freak’s Guide to Shifting from Teaching to Learning

Higher Ed February / Special / February 16, 2019

-by Dr. Thomas Mennella-

Ah, control… We all crave it, relish it, and appreciate it. Yes, there are those among us who deserve the moniker “control-freak,” but they merely crave, relish and appreciate control a bit more than the rest of us. Be honest: what professor has ever said, “You know, I’ll just ride the wave of this semester and let it take me wherever it wants”? We are academics, and academics steer the ship; we don’t float with the tide. But Flipped Learning (FL) does bring with it some level of surrendering control, both in the classroom and among your colleagues. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, in the classroom, it’s great. But it is something in which to be prepared. So as you prepare to transition to FL, don’t be blindsided. Stay calm and relaxed. The ride is fast and furious and awesome… and you won’t always be in the driver’s seat.

Surrendering Control of the Classroom to Students

This was the scariest part of FL for me: no longer being the authority in the room, no longer officiating my classroom. And ironically perhaps, this is now my favorite part of FL. Each week of a flipped course should be constructed as a module. It begins with pre-work that students complete at home (typically, watching videos that you’ve created, but it can be readings as well or other activities which passively introduce students to the material). Then students arrive to class for review and fortification of the most confusing concepts from that pre-work. From there, they move on to active learning, student-centered activities that you design to achieve deep thinking and the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, and ultimately each week/module ends with an assessment of their learning. In this way, each module is its own self-contained weaning period. In the early phases, the students need you to provide content entirely, then they only need you a bit to clarify especially troublesome material, and then they don’t need you at all because they’ve reach proficiency (if not mastery). During student group work sessions in my flipped courses, typically during the second class meeting of the week, I’ve sometimes become emotionally moved (I’m talking full-fledged, lump-in-the-throat moved!) watching my students interact with each other and with the material in class. A few short days ago, they were naive to this material, and then there they sit engaged in robust discussion and debate about that same material. To say it’s magical does not do it justice. So just let go; surrender control. Your students will not let you down; in fact, they’ll blow you away.

“How do I let go?” you ask. The best practices for using in-class time in FL are highlighted in the Group Space Mastery section of the Global Elements table. This is a good place to start.

Surrendering Your Reputation Among Your Colleagues

When executed properly, FL leads to increased student learning gains, knowledge retention, academic performance and satisfaction. There are now dozens, if not hundreds, of peer-reviewed studies showing this to be true. Essentially, a flipped classroom is just more fun, delivers better learning gains, and students love it. As students go about their day, moving from your flipped class to their other traditional ones, they will eventually have what I call a “hey-wait-a-minute-moment.” They will come to realize that a superior method exists for teaching them (i.e., FL), and they will ask themselves why this method isn’t used in all of their classes. Sooner or later, college students (who, justifiably, see themselves as paying customers) stop asking themselves this question and instead ask it of other professors, chairs, and deans. This ultimately leads to a phenomenon that a former colleague of mine referred to as the ‘ripple effect,’ where pedagogical change occurs campus-wide in a grassroots fashion, driven by the students. This kind of change will not make you a fan-favorite of the faculty. Colleagues will not appreciate you out-shining them in the classroom, and they will resent the student insistence that they adapt to teach like you. My advice on this front is simple; arm yourself with the knowledge that student learning comes first. Surrender your ego to the moral good of superior education. Your colleagues don’t want to go that extra mile to truly teach their students? Let that be on their conscience. So they resent constantly hearing how effective of a teacher you are from other students? Then perhaps they need to change, too. They want to enjoy the same accolades and recognition that you are receiving? No problem. Then it’s time they embrace FL, as well. You are an educator. It is your responsibility – and I’d argue: moral obligation – to teach as effectively and impactfully as possible. Flipped Learning makes the change from passive to active learning a smooth transition for both you and your students, making it the ideal choice for this change. Let others choose their paths, but commit to yourself to be better than that. Choose the right path for you and your students, and surrender the desire to be liked by all of your colleagues.

It’s a bit scary, I know. But, here I am, no worse for wear and safely on the other side of the transition that you are considering. I’ve surrendered my classroom control to magical, dynamic student-driven learning that amazes me and surpasses my wildest dreams every single week. I’ve surrendered my ego to the priority of student learning, only to have that same ego buoyed almost daily by students telling me that they’ve never learned as well as they do in my class; that they never thought themselves smart enough to major in biology until they had me as an instructor. And, I’ve surrendered my last remaining bits of skepticism, now knowing that FL is the solution to the most pressing challenges of education today. So let go. Surrender control. Let your students drive the car, but help them navigate the route by following the path charted by Flipped Learning.

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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