In the final issue of my school’s student newspaper last spring, one of the students wrote an editorial criticizing the flipped classroom and other ‘progressive’ teaching methods.

“Critics denounce lectures as boring and passive, but good teachers make lectures interactive, interesting and informative,” he wrote. “It’s no wonder that the best college professors are renowned for their lecture prowess.”

I wish I could have responded in that moment, but the school year was over and the moment lost.

The author is now graduated and gone, and I’m sure most of his readers will have forgotten his words by now.

But I can’t let his assertions go unchallenged – even if he’ll never read this — because I know this student’s voice represents what so many colleagues, administrators, parents and students think but will not say out loud:

Teaching by lecture works.

Learning by lecture is easy.

Stop fixing what ain’t broken.

The trouble is — they are wrong. Deeply wrong. And that entrenched “business as usual” view is stopping us from making critical changes we must make if we want our students to learn more and perform better in high school.

Let’s start with the “renowned college professor” argument. Two years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Richard Felder, an emeritus professor of engineering at North Carolina State University. Felder has a unique perspective, as a passionate instructor who has spent decades reflecting on how his students learn.

Felder has won 15 awards for his teaching, including the Global Award for Excellence in Engineering Education (2010) and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Engineering Education (2012). He was the inaugural recipient of both – I think they invented those awards for him.

He told me that for his first 15 years in academia, he lectured.

“That’s the way my teachers taught me, what all my colleagues around me were doing. I was quite good at it. The students loved it, and I won some awards and so on. But over a period of time I started to become more and more conscious of the fact that things were not going the way I wanted. I’d give these brilliant lectures and all of the students would think it was wonderful… that was beautifully clear… then they’d take a test and come back with 47/100, a lot of them, and something was wrong.”

Sound familiar? We’re “teaching” the content really well, but they’re still not getting it.

Felder suspected it wasn’t the students’ fault. There was something fundamentally wrong with the lecture method of teaching. When an educational psychologist told him about active learning strategies, he said, it was a revelation.

“I started dipping my toe in the water, trying some of these things in my engineering classes and found out that they worked! My students were performing better. They weren’t universally happy about being put to work rather than just being told things they need to know, though.”

In fact, the long-time lecturer met a lot of student resistance, especially from the brighter students – the ones who were able to learn with or without a brilliant instructor. What many were objecting to was the struggle, the fact that no one was telling them everything they would need to know, and they had to work harder to figure things out for themselves.

(One of the students quoted in my school newspaper’s editorial actually said, “It’s easier to go through the material together as a class and have questions asked when the teacher is teaching it.” Yep, same resistance. We prefer what seems easier, even if research shows it’s less effective!)

Felder is so confident that interactive teaching strategies are superior – and he has the results from decades of students to back it up – that he now bluntly tells other professors “a large percentage of what you do in class is largely a waste of time.”

“Stop lecturing. It’s a terrible technique. Abandon it.”

So what about the student journalist’s other arguments? He hadn’t read any of the research on teaching and learning, of course. He wasn’t familiar with the longstanding conclusion of education psychologists that we forget about 70% of what we hear in a lecture.

He argued that flipped instruction – meaning that students watch a brief video lecture at home and then work on problem-solving in class – only works with well-prepared students (with “strong background knowledge”) and “extraordinary teachers.”

This time, it’s useful to consider Richard Hake’s research involving 6500 students in 62 different physics courses. Twenty years ago, Hake’s comprehensive study found that even the worst-performing instructors using interactive teaching methods fostered better student learning than the very best lecturers.

On a personal note, my colleague and I used flipped instruction with all of our AP Macroeconomics students this year, and we echoed Hake’s results. Compared to our 2016-17 students (who learned by lecture), we had 50% higher enrollment this year, and our pass rate increased from 90% to 92%. In raw numbers, we went from 60 out of 67 students passing to 91 out of 99 students passing.

Were our students well-prepared? Well, most of them were high school freshmen with no background in econ.

Were we extraordinary? Maybe, but this was only my colleague’s second year teaching this course. That’s a high level of proficiency in two years!

I believe student learning is at a much bigger risk if we trust ordinary teachers and ordinary students to rely on lecture as the primary means of instruction.

The student journalist concluded by asserting that “lazy teachers can take advantage of flipped classrooms under the false pretense of innovative teaching to decrease their own workload.”

Possibly true. But lazy teachers can also use the same lecture notes for 20 years to decrease their own workload. I don’t think we should select or reject teaching strategies based on how badly the worst members of our profession might abuse them.

Is it possible that a flipped classroom could be a bad learning environment? Of course.

Is it possible this student had a bad experience? Of course.

But anecdotal evidence like this isn’t a reason to abandon methods that decades of research have proven superior. We need to embrace interactive teaching strategies and flipped instruction and figure out how to maximize their potential in our classrooms, rather than letting naysayers carry the day yet again.


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