Overcoming the Biggest Barrier to Flipped Learning

Cover Story February / Special / February 17, 2019

-by Errol St.Clair Smith-

The barriers to Flipped Learning come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Like the air that surrounds us, these barriers are everywhere, but they can still be hard to see. In one wicked example, an ingredient that makes Flipped Learning possible may be the villain that blocks your school’s success with Flipped Learning – educational technology.

First This, Then That

Google the phrase “pedagogy before technology” and in 0.39 seconds you’ll get 27.1 million results. Dive in, and you’ll quickly find yourself careening down a rabbit hole of expert opinion on “the right relationship” of teaching and technology. Here’s a small sample:

ISTE | Put pedagogy before tech

Think Pedagogy First, Technology Second – TeachThought

Considering Pedagogy Before Technology

Pedagogy Before Technology? – The Principal of Change

Should Pedagogy Always Drive Technology? | EdTech Magazine

Tech for sake of tech a ‘waste of time in the classroom’ – CQUniversity

If you make it to page two, you’ll even stumble onto the Pedagogy B4 Technology Conference.

Did you notice that the first source Google returns is Stacey Roshan writing for the International Society for Technology in Education? Roshan issues an authoritative command “Put pedagogy before tech,” but by the time you drill down a few levels, educators are beginning to question this principle with essays like “Should pedagogy always drive technology?”

So how clear are we on the right relationship between pedagogy and technology?

    1. I’m very clear.
    2. I’m still trying to figure it out.
    3. It doesn’t matter.

For now, it appears that the most relevant answer may be number three — It doesn’t matter.

Will Technology Take Over Your Classroom?

For almost 100 years, schools that consciously put pedagogy first passionately touted their priorities. Montessori Schools, Waldorf Schools, and Reggio Emilia Schools enchanted parents and educators with their approach to teaching. These “pedagogy-first” pioneers, turned their teaching strategies into a global network of schools that embraced their pedagogy and proudly displayed their labels.

Today a new set of school labels are sprouting up like weeds in the cracks of a schoolyard playground. Listen keenly and you’ll hear educators declaring, we are a Microsoft school, an Apple school or a Google school.  It’s astounding how ubiquitous these new school labels have become. It’s even more astounding when you look below the surface to understand what these labels really mean.

This week I reviewed two stories about mandated professional development — one for Microsoft technology and the other for Apple technology. Each story involved educators compelled to use these company’s products in their classrooms. Of course, mandated PD is nothing new and mandated textbooks, well, “this is how we do it.”  But what are the broader implications of requiring teachers and students to learn and use a specific company’s technology?

Curiosity eventually led me to a New York Times’ article about the fierce battle raging between technology giants for the hearts and minds of schools, teachers, and students. It was titled, How Google took over the classroom.

After three days of groping my way through a maze of related stories, the big takeaway is that the advocates of “pedagogy before tech” have been outgunned and outmaneuvered. A commitment to any technology can lock schools into an “ecosystem.” Keeping up with constant changes to that technology ecosystem can drive instructional priorities and relegate pedagogy to the back of the bus.

Facts First

      • In 2017 Chromebooks and other Google devices made up 58% of all devices purchased for US classrooms, according to Futuresource data.
      • The dominance of Google has led to an epic battle between the big three Microsoft, Apple and Google.
      • The battle is profoundly reshaping school priorities.

The New York Times piece concluded that “Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education.”

This view is supported by Common Sense Media (CSM) a children’s advocacy group that vets the security and privacy of classroom apps. Bill Fitzgerald is a learning apps analyst at CSM. Speaking about the on-going battle to sell technology to schools, Fitzgerald summarizes the impact succinctly.

“It centers learning on technology, not students.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that the growing influence of educational technology means that our priorities are screwed up and that the tail is now wagging the dog. But it’s clear to many passionate Flipped Learning practitioners that the hot new ed tech gizmos often overshadow interest in the proven pedagogy of the flipped classroom.

If Flipped Learning Is So Effective, Why Isn’t Every School Using It?

Experienced Flipped Learning educators on six continents are absolutely clear about one thing: The pedagogy of Flipping Learning is genuinely transformational, and they would never go back to passive learning.

But what many Flipped Learning teachers are deeply uncertain about is why more educators aren’t flipping their instruction. Raise the question and the typical reasons cited are lack of support from administrators, lack of time, the effort required for teachers to make the transition, complacency, new initiative fatigue, and garden-variety resistance to change.

But aren’t these barriers present for educational technology as well? How is Google overcoming these obstacles?

Lessons Learned

Below the surface of the ed tech battle, there may be useful lessons for Flipped Learning practitioners and evangelists.

Though Flipped Learning has been around for over 10 years, it has not yet reached a tipping point. Early adopters around the world report that they are still struggling for acceptance and support. By contrast, in just five short years “Google Schools” rapidly spread to include over 80 million educators and students globally. Why?

Story after story on the rise of Google’s dominance in education reference Google’s “education strategy.“ On the flip side, keen observers tell us that Microsoft got left behind in the USA because they lacked that key ingredient. Mr. Hal Friedlander, who is now chief executive of the Technology for Education Consortium, put it this way:

“The challenge for Microsoft is that it did not seem to have a coherent strategy.”

Hmmmm…. Is it possible that education technology is simply distracting us from the real barrier to Flipped Learning? Could it be that Flipped Learning has yet to entirely break through the invisible barriers to broader acceptance because there has been no coherent strategy to do so?

Because Flipped Learning started as a grassroots movement, it’s inherently fragmented. Today, many Flipped Learning practitioners are still:

      • Practicing Flipped Learning in isolation.
      • Operating with best practices that are personally, locally or narrowly defined.
      • Satisfied with their results they are getting and seeing no need to look further
      • Trying to share Flipped Learning with individuals who don’t share their vision.
      • Overlooking, discounting or rejecting the benefit for global collaboration.
      • Expecting sustainable success without a coherent strategic plan

Pedagogy First Pioneers

If you go to the web site of the Association Montessori Internationale, you’ll find a link to the AMI’s New Strategic Plan. The plan lays out AMI’s five-year vision to expand its pedagogy around the world. AMI calls it the Bold Goal.

“The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) launched a Bold Goal project in February 2016 to increase our social impact by tripling AMI’s presence in U.S. education within five years. Through this project, we are implementing a strategy towards achieving that goal.” — AMI 

Dig deeper and you’ll find that AMI‘s strategy involves:

“Upholding quality standards and reaching out to collaborate and partner with individuals, communities, and organizations who share our vision.”

The key elements are:

      • Quality standards
      • Shared vision
      • The right people
      • Time

Waldorf Schools, one of the other “pedagogy-first” pioneers we mentioned earlier, is about to celebrate a big milestone. On September 19, 2019, Waldorf education will proudly mark its 100-year anniversary.  The first Waldorf school was founded in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919. Today there are over 1,100 Waldorf schools and almost 2,000 Waldorf kindergartens in greater than 80 countries. Which raises the question, what does the future hold for Flipped Learning?

What will be the narrative on the pedagogy of Flipped Learning 100 years from today? Will Flipped Learning practitioners and evangelists have pulled together and created a legacy of lasting impact? Will there be a global network of Flipped Learning schools, along with Nobel Prize winners, and world leaders who have graduated from them? Does Flipped Learning have the right stuff to be relevant a century from now?  Does it have the energy to move flipping learning beyond flipping lessons and classrooms to flipping school systems worldwide? Do Flipped Learning evangelists have the motivation, vision, and resilience to persist through a zillion obstacles for a hundred years or more?  Are we sipping too much “growth mindset” Kool-aid here?

What we know today, is that there are Flipped Learning educators who are thinking beyond their classrooms. Educators who are taking the time and making the effort to help move schools around the world from passive to active learning. Educators like Terra Graves, Peter Santoro, Thomas Mennella, and Jon Bergmann are coming at the challenge from every angle — blazing new trails, swimming upstream, and pushing against those opaque barriers. But there are hundreds more of these flipped-learning trail blazers who are doing their best to keep pedagogy before technology.

What’s most inspiring about these Flipped Learning pioneers are the creative ways they are overcoming the invisible barriers of fragmentation, isolation, and short term thinking. The ways they are collaborating to shape a collective long term vision for the pedagogy of Flipped Learning.  It’s possible that their work matters now more than ever. Why? Because Montessori, Waldorf, and Google have already proven that  “putting pedagogy before technology” may be a unifying mantra, but it takes a unified, coherent strategy to make it happen.


Errol St.Clair Smith
I am the Director of Global Development at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. I joined the education community in 2005, working closely with national education organizations on community outreach and professional development. Over the last decade, I’ve led the development of community platforms for The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE); the Association of Curriculum Developers (ASCD); the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Associations for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Parent Teachers Association (NPTA), and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO). I'm honored to have received four Emmy nominations and an Emmy Award for public affairs programming. In 2017 I co-authored Flipped Learning 3.0 with Jon Bergmann. The book was updated based on the AALAS Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning in 2019.

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