My 40 Years in Flipped Learning – Part 1 of 5

--Originally published at Flipped Learning Network – POWER LEARNERS

In the 1960’s, I was a Ph.D. rocket scientist working on controlled nuclear fusion. On the side, I taught Advanced Calculus for Engineers at U.C. Berkeley. The usual 25% in that Master’s degree course did fine. The problem was that, despite my terrific lectures and good intentions, 75% didn’t. They passed the course but didn’t gain any useful or lasting competence or confidence.

In school, it had seemed natural that some of us got A’s and a lot of others didn’t. But now I was the teacher. I was collecting a salary but I wasn’t delivering the goods. A 25% success rate is embarrassing. It indicated I simply didn’t know what I was doing as a teacher. Sadly, only a small fraction of us are doing any better even today.

I decided to figure out why and what we could do about it. I didn’t go back to school but I read and I was mentored by Robert F. Mager, William A. Deterline and others. I became very excited by what I learned. There was a lot of flipping historically and at that time. Of course, no one called it flipped learning until after 2000. Still, some people were flipping and getting fabulous outcomes by having students do their homework in class.

Was This Flipped Learning?

Before telling you about my earliest flipped classes, I know I must tell you why I call what we did “flipped learning.” I have some trepidation because I know we don’t all agree on the definition. Despite the risk of turning you off, here it is. I think flipping is “Learners Doing Homework in Class with Help.” I like this definition because I think it captures the essence of how and why flipping can drastically improve outcomes. This definition also helps us understand why some flipping flops. Salmon Kahn, creator of the hugely popular, popularized the term “flipped learning.” He suggested that teachers flip their classes, assigning students to watch his free videos at home and to do their homework in class.

I will go into this definition in greater detail later. I will also explain why I don’t mention technology or videos in my definition. I ask for your patience on these important issues.

The Problem for Criminal Law Courses

When I tried flipping, it worked and I loved it. My first big success was eliminating flunk outs in criminal law courses at 85 California Community College Police Science Departments. Here’s the case history. Following the Black Panther VS Police shootings in Oakland in 1968, police departments in California wanted to increase diversity among their officers. The problem was that minority recruits mostly flunked the required criminal law courses and dropped out.

I saw an opportunity here and went to sell the Oakland Police Department on changing their criminal law courses. Captain Palmer, head of personnel and training, asked me, “How is this different from a correspondence course? We know those haven’t worked very well. Students enroll, work mostly on their own, and too many struggle and drop out.” I said, “You are right.” Always good to start a discussion from common ground. “Yes. The students will be reading and then applying the law to typical scenarios in class, as though they were doing homework. The difference is that the instructor will be right there in the classroom to provide immediate, individual help on request.” Neither he nor I were sure this would work. I thought it would, based on the great results my mentors had gotten in similar situations. The Captain went along because he had a real problem and wanted a better solution.

Developing a Flipped Solution

Up to that time, criminal law for police was a traditional lecture course. In Oakland, the students had 24 hours of lecture over 10 days. From our surveys, we estimated students were spending 40 or more hours at home, reading a law school text and trying to memorize sections of the Penal Code. It was a “killer” course, with bleary-eyed recruits hoping to pass the final exam. Throughout California, black and Hispanic recruits had very high dropout rates.

After reviewing the available textbooks on California criminal law, I decided to develop a new, combined textbook and workbook for a flipped course. I learned the law from the officers who taught law at the Oakland Police Academy, then I started writing. The book explained the law, a step at a time. After each paragraph or two, there was one or more exercises. The exercises had typical cases and asked the student to determine whether a crime had been committed, and, if so, which crime. The requirement was for the officers to be able to correctly identify each of 220 common crimes, using the California Penal Code as a reference.

My mentors guided me in developing the book. They told me that after writing a chapter, I was to try it on someone who didn’t know the material. I was to sit and watch that person learn. If the person had a question or problem, I was to tutor for a minute or two, so the learner would be able to continue in the book. Also, I was to figure out, with the learner’s help as needed, how to fix the book so the next learner wouldn’t have the same problem. After making those fixes, I was to repeat this watch-and-fix process with a second learner, and then again with a third. This was fantastic. The instructors who checked the book for accuracy and I would never have pinpointed many of the most important fixes.

When the whole book was done, we ran the first class of 25. This time, the students used our text/workbook in class. I was in the classroom and so was the former lecturer and very knowledgeable Sgt. Joe Colletti. We explained to the students that they were to learn in class, mainly using the book. Whenever they had a question, they could raise their hand. One of us would come over and talk with them individually. We scheduled the final exam for the morning of the fifth day. At their own choice, the students did some studying and review at home, but not very much. Everyone reached certifiable competence on the final exam, and did so in far less time than in previous classes. After the first offering, the flipped class in Oakland was conducted by a single instructor. Different instructors ran two or three academies per year, for 8 years, with similar results.

Spreading the Word

Next, I got a list of criminal law instructors from the state’s office of Peace Officer Standards and Training. Like any publisher, I sent those instructors an offer of a free copy of the book. I also invited them to a free, half-day workshop on conducting what we then called a “self-paced, mastery learning” criminal law course. That was standard terminology among those of us doing this sort of flipping at that time. For the next several years, I did two workshops a year, one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles. About 20 to 25 instructors came to each one. The results in Oakland and the endorsement from the state office of Police Officer Standards and Training were key to gaining interest.

In the workshop, I asked the participants to role play being students in the flipped course for two hours. After seeing how that worked, we would discuss the process for the next two hours. Pretending to be students and watching the operation of the flipped class worked great. Most instructors got it. They saw that they could be “A Guide at Your Side, rather than a Sage on the Stage.” They also realized immediately that they had no lesson plans to prepare, no lectures to rehearse, and no homework or quizzes to grade.

Almost every instructor who came to the workshop flipped their course using our text/workbook. For the next many years, as far as I know, every police recruit at 85 of the 102 California Community Colleges passed criminal law. I published an updated edition every two years to cover changes in law. That’s how this ex-rocket scientist became the co-author of the best-selling criminal law book in California.

Almost every one of the hundreds of instructors I have worked with on flipped learning has found it more effective. They also found the flipped class to be hard work, in the sense of being vigorous but fun. In contrast to occasionally having those wonderful “teachable moments” with a few students, they report having the joy of seeing 2, 3, even 5 ah-ha moments for their students in every class hour.

Why it Worked

To finish this story, here is why I think these flipped, college law courses worked better than lecture/discussion.

  1. There were lots of exercises in the book. Approximately one exercise per paragraph, which is 5 times the usual.
  2. After each exercise, there was the answer. That enabled learners to get immediate feedback on their practice. We told them to cover the page below where they were reading so they wouldn’t see the answers before answering the exercises. We explained that looking at the answers before answering on their own would not exercise their brains enough to produce learning. That was enough.

Both of the above features have been shown in numerous published studies to be very effective.

  1. The instructor was in the room to provide additional feedback, instruction and encouragement on an individual basis.

My experience is that access to real-time help when a learner is “studying” at least doubles that learner’s learning rate on that assignment. By “studying” I mean the reciting, memorizing, answering, writing, and solving that learners do to master their lessons. Though this is not universally accepted, there are some major studies to support this, too. (More later)

  1. The learners moved at their own pace, mastering one lesson before going to the next. Nowadays, many call this competency-based learning,

I will present lots more evidence about this as we go forward. For the moment, I ask you to consider this. It is vastly easier to learn multiplication if you can already add and subtract. In other words, pre-requisites are important, and often essential. This is true not just course to course, but also assignment to assignment.

Coming Attractions

Since you are reading this, I imagine that you will soon teach a course in a college or school. You may be considering running that course in a flipped format. Or, you may want to improve on a flipped course that already exists.

You now have some sense of me and my start in flipped learning. In the coming four posts in this series, I will share more of my experience and that of others. I will also try to be brave enough to give you a few laughs at some of my mistakes along the way. I hope these case histories will ease your path to great results with flipped learning.



  • This is a fantastic , wonderfull post.I am eager to read the following post. I would be so happy if I could get in contact with you to exchange thoughts, idea etc…
    I have to say that I agree totally with the definition you give about flipped learning even though some other could also fit somewhat. No need to make it complicated. This one is simple and effective.

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