Pre-reading or Flipping the Classroom?

Conversation in school and recently higher education has included discussion of the “flipped classroom”.
What do we mean when we speak of the “flipped classroom”?

This method of teaching involves assigning students to work through the basic content of…on their own time, often by watching a recorded lecture or completing a guided reading instead go listening to a traditional in-person lecture (Saitta et al, 2016:1).

The argued benefit is that

The approach frees up class time for group problem-solving assignments, demonstrations, experiments, questions and answers, and other engaging experiences (Saitta et al, 2016:1).

For years, my colleagues and I in theological education claim, this is what we have been doing:  setting pre-reading (fixed or options from a list) or investigative tasks (interview, observe, etc) to enrich the learning experience. But why do we do this?  Recent trends which focus on learning outcomes should raise this question for us.  Let me cheekily set out three (bad) reasons, and then some options.

Reason 1: To teach the vocab

One of the often heard complaints from new students to theology (in its many forms and disciplines) is the extensive use of technical language.  This is rife in all academic and professional arenas.  We have 2000 years and more of both to draw from.  Reading does help to build familiarity with the language (do we encourage the building of a personal dictionary, consulting of glossaries that are found in some of the better textbooks and websites, or other means of assisting (and assessing!) this?  If not, should we or could we?)  In and of itself, the reading does not teach the vocab, and knowing the vocab is surely only part of why we set reading.

Reason 2: Weeding out the (un)worthy

This would be a merely hypothetical reason if it were not that I can point to examples from my own experience and practice. The student who reads (and understands!) is the one we can identify easily in the classroom (and if we are cunning, online). This is the person who can provide the summary of the reading (perhaps helping those who struggled, and certainly assisting those who didn’t bother!). This is the person we want to engage with — despite our protestations that we are there for the weak as well as the worthy — sorry, the strong.

Reason 3: Demonstrating our own brilliance at an even higher altitude

If our students do not do any preparation, we need to start at the ubiquitous square one.  If they have done some reading, we can use this as a reason to bamboozle at a higher level.  (I am guilty of this one, too.)  I had a lecturer whose classic introductory line was “You understand, I hope…). This was the beginning of a section which it was clear that we had no idea about.  It allowed a higher level input — yet further over the heads of those present.

The conversation on flipping the classroom may not give us answers, but it helps set some useful questions.  And we don’t need to do something forceful in flipping to get flipping good results! We have at least some options in using our pre-reading well.

Some options for using our set-prereading

Option 1: A basis for discussion

One of the challenges for students, especially those new to a discipline, is making sense of why they are doing the pre-reading.  Coming from the sciences into theology, this was something I struggled with.  I used to be able to read the whole reading list (normally the chapter of a textbook). Now I could barely read the bibliography, and when I tackled the items, I noted that they did not all agree!  I soon discovered that this was the nature of the humanities in general (and now, more than then, the sciences).  Had the reading led clearly into a discussion of key issues, this would have helped.  So here is a suggestion: Set out reasons for doing the pre-reading (and make the material easily accessible). For instance, indicate that the reading will help students to participate in (or lead) a discussion on a topic drawn from the reading (early on in a class, you will probably set out the question, later on, you may leave this open to assist students to develop skills in presentation and argumentation).

Option 2: A foundation for student presentations

Most of our students will spend their lives talking about the big ideas we are helping them to discover and explore.  Rarely will they respond in writing. So if we are to prepare them, they need to Learn, Articulate and Communicate (naming three of five of the University’s Graduate Attributes). A presentation can assist with this.  One option to engage students, other than those presenting, with the set reading is to have each construct a question for the presenter (posted online before the presentation), or to ask for a summary — marked out of 100% if submitted before the class, and out of say 75% if later. (This allows the student who didn’t get the point to resubmit, and the student who was lazy to still show some evidence of learning, even if only from the presentation.)

Option 3: All three reasons above

Good pre-reading can indeed help students to learn vocabulary.  To strengthen this, assess it! Have occasional quizzes, ask students to (gently) question each other, set up a wiki for technical terms. Make it fun!

Use responses to the readings to assist better students to engage, if they wish, with more challenging reading and ideas.  And use the responses to identify and assist those who are struggling.  It is often the personal encounter that is reported as the catalyst for dramatic change in student learning. Perhaps you will identify — amongst the initially weak or strong — someone who has a vocation to theological teaching. Opportunity to help and learn from others may help to shape their future.

And let’s show off our brilliance, once we have helped our classes to conquer the basics.  The careful scaffolding we construct as teachers, to assist in learning vocab and basic concepts, to identify those who are thriving and those who are struggling, should help our classes to reach a point where they are ready to engage the big ideas which we have spent a lifetime seeking to understand, and a career seeking to teach.

Our brilliance as subject-matter specialists will be more likely to be appreciated if we exercise our skills as teaching experts.  This is, I think, student-centred focus working towards our own actualisation

(Please note that all of the ideas suggested above can operate effectively in classroom or online contexts.)

References

Saitta, Erin and Brett Morrison, Julee B. Waldorp, and Melody A. Bowdon, “Joining the Flipped Classsroom Conversation”, in Best Practices for Flipping the College Classroom (ed. Julee B. Waldorp and Melody A. Bowdon), Routledge, 2016.

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