40 Years in Flipped Learning (Pt 5/5): No More Academic Drownings

Peter Lenn has written 4 post in this series. Access them here

To conclude my recent series of posts, I will tell you about what I consider the most conclusive and inspiring case history of the large-scale power and potential of flipped learning.

Before starting the story, here is some context. We all know there is lots of room to improve educational outcomes. So, I won’t re-hash depressing statistics. We also know about many well-financed and well-meaning initiatives that either didn’t work or couldn’t be replicated. I think there are the two main problems, both of which I know can be overcome with flipped learning ideas and methods.

The Two Main Barriers

The first problem is that almost everyone in the U.S. emphasizes the importance of teaching over studying. We — parents, politicians, faculty, and students — continually talk about incentives for teachers, using technology, longer school days and years, and charters and vouchers to challenge districts to perform. We fail to apply the messages from neuro-scientists and psychology researchers like Angela Duckworth (Grit, 2016) and Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (Peak, 2016).

Second, almost all of us attribute student outcomes mostly to talent, intelligence and motivation, rather than to disciplined practice.

We do these two things mostly out of habit, sometimes out of mistaken beliefs, and sometimes out of self-interest.

To significantly improve outcomes, we must align our thinking and actions with the evidence. The basic message from the research and many successes reported in the literature is this.

  • Learning is a change in your brain that enables you to do something you couldn’t do before.
  • The learner causes those changes by practicing what is being learned.
  • Instruction—lectures, videos and books—prepares students to practice.
  • Learning is accelerated by good instruction, prompt feedback and assistance, and success in learning.
  • People learn at different rates.
  • Mastering today’s lesson makes learning the next lesson quicker and easier. In other words, learning makes you smarter.

My #1 Best Example of Successful Flipped Learning

My top example of flipped learning is Red Cross Swimming instruction. You may immediately think of the differences between swimming and algebra or school. Swimming is fun. Everyone wants to swim. Algebra is completely different. It is no fun for most students and hardly anyone uses it in their life or work. In addition, you may think, lots of people are just not good at math and maybe they can’t learn Algebra. Beside all those differences, is Red Cross Swimming really flipped learning? It is done in water, not a classroom. Please be patient. It won’t take long to tell the case history and why I think modern swimming instruction has relevance to education and us educators.

In 1900, U.S. death rates from drowning were eight times what they are today. If we can discover the miracle behind this, perhaps we can use it in school.

Before 1903, swimming instruction consisted of tossing people into deep water and rescuing them if needed. It’s no surprise that almost no one learned to swim. In fact, most people didn’t think most people could learn to swim. Then Red Cross Swimming started in Brookline, MA. Instructors abandoned the sink or swim approach. Instead they embraced a gradual approach—master one step before going to the next. By the time I went to high school, swimming 100 yards was required for high school graduation in Illinois.

Prior to Red Cross Swimming there was water safety instruction in classrooms. Back then, one might have imagined getting a 10 to 20% reduction in drownings by hiring better teachers, paying for performance, and adding class time. But those things would never have delivered like learning to swim.

I call Red Cross Swimming flipped learning for these reasons. First, progress is competency-based. Students sequentially put their faces in the water, blow bubbles, open their eyes underwater, and get the tops of their heads wet. Then, the instructor holds each student in turn until they can all do a dead man’s float. In a swimming class, the differences in learning rates is accommodated by having everyone wait for even the slowest learner. So, this is not what we usually think of as self-paced learning. Still, with limited instruction time to demonstrate each step, learning by doing, and persevering to mastery, I consider this process to embrace the key ingredients of flipped learning.

I also ask you to consider that beginning swimmers are often hesitant and frightened. So, the motivational advantages of swimming over Algebra don’t show up until the swimmer has some competence. I find that mastery has that positive motivational effect even with subjects many students usually consider dull.

I believe we can do this in education. We can coach students in how to learn. We can also coach them as they learn. That’s what Flipped Learning is all about. Helping our students avoid drowning in school—whether dropping out or passing without lasting competence—is the highest and best calling for us educators.


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