classroom structure flipped classroom Khan Academy numeracy

Becoming “Unflippable”

This post contains no real lesson or task ideas. That is a rarity for me, but every so often a philosophical battle ignites in my brain. More often than not, the question does not come from an established professional development vessel. Our division provides numerous officially sanctioned “PD” events throughout the year. They serve their purpose, but rarely motivate like those questions that come from within–or, in this case, from a student.

Every teacher is familiar with the following conversation:

Teacher: Can you please pay attention?
Student: I was paying attention.
Teacher: No you weren’t. Please put your _____ away.
Student: I was so–I have all the notes.

This infuriates me.

It wasn’t until a month ago that it dawned on me:

This is what the public thinks I do for a living…

People think my job is to ensure students get the notes. Why else would parents excuse their children from school to go shopping? or make dentist appointments during school hours? or extend Christmas break by two weeks in the Bahamas? Why else would students gauge their “learning” by the amount of times they visit a pencil sharpener? or the number of pages of scribble they manage? Why do they ask,

“What did I miss yesterday?”

and expect to be immediately back on the class pace. Students have spent enough time in classrooms to get this notion. Those students become parents… etc.

What do we as (math) teachers do to combat this mentality? Mostly–a whole lot of nothing. Our classes remain predictable in nature. Some students even complain when they should be getting the homework but the activity or lecture goes long. We have literally programmed our students. It is in this light that teachers get so offended when websites like the Khan Academy claim to revolutionize education. Teachers hate to think that they are replaceable by a set of videos when, in actuality, many of our lessons are.

Maybe the videos lack the personal nature and opportunity for diversification. But (school) math is very impersonal, and diversification can be achieved through more videos. They also add convenience to the equation. Anytime, anywhere, and at any pace.

The term “flipped classroom” is slowly percolating into the current educational lexicon. The process involves students accessing video lectures to free up class time for different activities. At first I hated the idea. This wasn’t changing teaching; it was switching the medium through which the transmission was performed. I pictured class as a time to test examples and do homework sets. 

My perception changed a month ago when I had the following conversation with a student:

Me: Where were you yesterday? You missed my class.
Student: I was sick; I didn’t skip.
Me: The motive was different but the results are the same. You need to catch up.
Student: I’ll just get the notes.
Me: It is more than notes. You need to understand why and how we do the math. You need to be in class to learn.
Student: Why? I don’t miss anything if I get the notes.

This student is right a lot of the time. I do my best to infuse meaningful mathematical tasks and activities into my room. Many of them are scattered throughout this blog. The burdens of time and curriculum force me into corners, and many classes could be easily captured through a video and a set of notes. I realized that if I wanted students to value the class time, it had to be in a classroom that was “unflippable”.

I now gauge my lesson success with a simple question:

Was that lesson unflippable?
Could the students learned the same amount through a video and a set of notes?

These types of questions guide my personal growth as a teacher. They allow me to catch myself when planning gets lazy and when the days get long. Naturally, I have begun to look for ways to free up more time and curricular space for unflippable exploits. Ironically, that has led me toward a flipped classroom model.

Ryan Banow (@rbanow) provides a great starting point here.

Students have responded very well to my Project Based Learning courses over the last couple years. I think the appeal comes in the structure of the class time. Small activities and tasks lead into larger projects; the collegial atmosphere and complexity of the tasks make the process unreplicable through a series of videos and solitary projects. The course is–in essence–unflippable. I am still struggling with the higher-level and increasingly abstract courses. As always, time is at a premium. At least for now it seems like flipping a unit or two may be an effective way to create class time that becomes unflippable.


10 replies on “Becoming “Unflippable””

Great questions, Nat. I prefer the project-based courses and lessons as well. By their nature they engage students and provoke them to reason and think. However, I can see many instances where "notes/videos" of some kind are useful. (Personally, when I was a student, I could not understand material until after I reworked it into (new) notes. As a teacher, I find this reliance on notemaking limiting, but when I attend PD I still summarize when I lern through (new) notes.) I wish you and your students luck with the projects you design.

Asking from a purely selfish pedestal, how do you design projects that substitute teachers can initiate, conduct and, as I am wont to do, engage in?

Love this post, Nat. I think there are good flippable lessons, but if a teacher is never having these moments… there's something missing. Reminds me of Artur C Clarke's quote: "Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!" (Electronic Tutors, 1980)

This question is a great litmus test for any lesson. It gets me wondering though if it is specific enough. Thinking about project based learning, or what I prefer in problem based learning, are those truly unflippable? Could a Dan Meyer style 3 act lesson be flippable? I totally know what you mean but what I am trying to define is what exactly separates a flippable lesson from an unflippable one?

The PBL classes have 2 generic phases. The first is an initiation into the topics being used to conduct larger projects. Daily tasks dominate this phase. The second is the project phase. It is very self-guided. Students learn the routine and follow rubrics through stages. When a sub come sin and they are in project phase, it is business as usual. They usually just circulate and check on what each group is doing. When a sub is in during the prep phase, I usually give a video task or a worksheet. Something that is fairly low-level. I can't expect every sub to be versed in PBL theory and leaving larger tasks is often daunting.
Thanks for reading.

I hear ya. Some lessons' richness comes from the discussion around otherwise traditional structure. That discussion is quickly lost with individual lectures delivered electronically. I love the quote; it captures my thoughts right now. Thanks for reading and driving my thinking deeper.

It is dangerous to typecast what exactly can be flipped. I don't think everything electronic is designed the same as lecture videos. Dan's material is built around deep thinking and mathematical curiosity. I don't think it would be nearly as effective flipped. The collective curiosity opens mathematical doors that some students may miss. The same goes for the #anyqs campaign.
I see unflippable lessons (right now) as those with active components. Students are creating and interacting. The teacher is circulating and spurring deeper thought. Students' "aha" moments are intermittently shared with the larger group.
It is an incredibly hard distinction to make, but this is what now drives my planning. I have a handful that are battle tested, and handful of other ideas.
I hope this clarifies. It would be a miracle because the distinction is still muddy in my head.
Thanks for reading.

It's difficult to re-create what happens in class on any given day – when students are learning collaboratively to create meaning and make sense of mathematics. While the results can be conveyed through a set of notes, the experience will be lost forever.

This is a very interesting post! I never really thought of the "flipped classroom" this way. I like how you're reflecting on each of your lessons and seeing if this is information is something that students could get from a video — hence, refining your teaching to get the most out of your classroom program.

I haven't fully embraced the flipped classroom yet, but I do find myself spending more time working with students on math, and less time "teaching" math. Instead of also teaching the full class every topic, I work with a lot of small groups. Those students that already have a basic understanding can explore open-ended problems in small groups, and I can support those students that need more help. Videos and pencasts that I upload on the website can be accessed from school as well as from home, so that students that even need review of concepts can have access to this review. After reading your post, I'm thinking that the "hands on math time" that students are receiving in the classroom does make it harder for them not to be here. I think that's a good thing!

Now that you're thinking in this way, what have you noticed about your math program? Are there still more things that you want to change? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!


I've been thinking the exact same thing lately. Students should be motivated in someway to "want" to be in class. If we aren't making our class time valuable then students are going to not value it.

Ahhh, you fooled me. I thought this was a case against flipping, and I was all set to comment about how "The most interesting parts of the class–the activities, critical questioning, and authentic assessments–cannot be flipped. Whatever makes your class unique will still exist in a flipped model; it's just the replicable parts of your instruction that can be sent home."

But then, as I was planning my comment, you added that last paragraph and said what I was thinking. Well met; you got me.

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