Sometimes Flipped Learning Innovation Just Sneaks Up on You

Higher Ed February 20 / Special / February 25, 2020

 – Thomas Mennella –

Here’s a little peek behind the curtain at FLR. Each month, soon after the release of our most recent issue, our FLR Editor-in-Chief, Errol St. Clair Smith, reaches out to the editorial team to share with us the next month’s theme. He then banishes us to a dark, windowless room in the basement of FLR’s headquarters tower, feeding us intermittently, until we produce pieces for that next issue. Well, that last part is a lie. We don’t have a tower, and we are fed. In fact, the entire staff at FLR have day jobs, and we produce FLR for you pro bono, as a collaborative enterprise entirely online.

Immediately after the release of the January 2020 issue, Errol contacted all of us to say, “The theme [for February] is: Advanced Flipped Learning Strategies: Beyond the videos! We’re looking to curate the most innovative applications and fresh Flipped Learning techniques we can find.” And I was stumped. For the first time since FLR launched, I didn’t have a single notion of what I would write about. For starters, I’ve already shared so much of what I do in previous issues of the magazine. But even more importantly, I innovate every day in my flipped classes. Every single time I meet with my students, I’m experimenting, they’re providing feedback, we’re exploring content and new ways of learning together. Every single day is an adventure. How can I possibly write about that?! And then the lightbulb switched on: how can I possibly not write about that?

Flipped Learning is off-the-hook amazing for the hundreds of reasons listed and supported in all of the past pages of this magazine.  But so much of that awesomeness boils down to two key features of FL: freedom and collaboration.

Every session that I spend with my students is a blank canvas. Students have engaged with the pre-work, they’ve been exposed to the content. They have some questions, some doubts, and some confusion, but learning has already begun. To be clear, there is structure to my group space; it’s not a free-for-all. But FL provides the flexibility to be fluid and dynamic in the classroom. I’m in no rush to GET THROUGH THE MATERIAL because I am supported by the pre-work that my students have already completed. Here are some examples of that freedom: a few years ago on one of the first beautiful spring days here in New England – after a long and cold winter – I heard a student say to another, “It’s soooo nice outside.” I turned to the class and said, “Do you want to go outside?” Unsure what I meant, they said, “Uh, yes…..”. So, we went outside. That day we were going to use a Socratic Seminar to debate issues related to bioethics. So we sat on our campus’ beautiful front lawn, positioned for a Socratic Seminar, and held our class. It was magical. On another day, in my genetics class, I was trying to review and demonstrate how chromosomes are dealt out to daughter cells during cell division. It just wasn’t going well, but I had an idea. We left the classroom to stand in that building’s large open anteroom. We all stood in one big circle, removed our socks (as stand-ins for chromosome pairs) and all acted out this cellular process together. And it clicked for everyone.  

These are just two such stories of freedom, but I have so many more. FL provides the freedom and time for rich and engaging activities. To be fair, could I have done these in a traditional class? Sure. But I’d be frantically looking at my watch counting the minutes as we moved outside or counting the minutes as we all took off our socks because minutes count in a traditional classroom: WE’VE GOT TO GET THROUGH THE MATERIAL! With FL, we’re all free – students and teachers together – to move where the learning takes us.

Collaboration comes from the rich and meaningful relationships that FL allows each of us to have with our students. I know each of my students as individuals. They feel connected to me from the individualized feedback that I provide each week, as well as from the micro-conversations that we’re able to have in class. These relationships lead to collaboration in the classroom. It allows them to trust that their learning will not be compromised by going outside on a spring day. It allows them to giggle with me as we all stand barefoot in our University’s proud foyer of its “learning technology center.” It allows them to say, “Mennella, still not getting it,” without any fear whatsoever of reprisal or defensiveness from me. This collaboration makes my students stakeholders in their own learning. It gives them voice and influence as a direct result of the relationships made possible by FL.  

So back to Errol’s prompt for this month’s issue: “We’re looking to curate the most innovative applications and fresh Flipped Learning techniques.” The innovative applications and fresh techniques emerge each and every day, my friend. They are the organic results of real-time collaboration in learning between my students and me, and freedom in my classroom to do whatever is necessary to support that learning. FL is the broom that clears the dust off of the classroom’s canvas, giving us all a blank slate on which we can explore together. So, Errol, as you can see, I cannot write a piece on this theme. I’m so very sorry…. Can I please have some bread now, and see the sun….

Do you see a typo or an error? Let us know.

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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