Flipping Nick Gibb

My politics are pretty much the same as they were in May 1997. It was the first UK general election that I could vote in and I put my cross next to Anne Campbell, the Labour candidate for Cambridge.

My centre-left views were forged in the recession of the early 1990s and informed by the ram-raid of excessive privatisation and my father’s experience working in manufacturing. Despite all we have learnt in the intervening years, and despite how lonely a place it has become, the centre-left is still where I sit.

And yet I like to think of myself as a grown-up. I do not believe that those I disagree with must be evil. In fact, I believe they are motivated by wishing to make the world a better place. It’s just that reasonable people may disagree on the best way to do this. And when I can make common cause on an issue that is close to my heart with someone from a different part of the political spectrum, I will. Unashamedly.

So I was quite pleased to see Nick Gibb, a UK government minister, tweet a link to my previous blog post:

Others were not so pleased. Much of this was tribal and not worth responding to. However, there was one point, made in two contexts, that it is worth addressing.

The thrust of my post was that some teaching approaches act like a centrifuge and have differential effects on students: the advantaged gain and the disadvantaged lose. Two of the examples I gave were flipped learning and project based learning and I outlined my reasoning. I then suggested that this may be why two randomised controlled trials, one on flipped learning and one on project based learning, had failed and had hinted at increasing the achievement gap.

The flipped learning trial, in particular, gathered a lot of comment. It took place at West Point, a military academy, and so critics argued that it only demonstrated anything about that particular context. Flipped learning may in fact work really well in high school classrooms.

Firstly, why? What are the key differences that would make flipping more effective in high schools? If anything, we might expect students at West Point to be more intrinsically motivated than high school students and so flipped learning, which depends on students watching videos outside of class time, should be more effective in that context.

Secondly, the burden of proof lies with those who wish to promote flipped learning, not me. Imagine a drug company released a new drug to reduce the symptoms of influenza and a study was completed that showed that it actually worsened the symptoms. Imagine the study’s subjects were wealthy students in Switzerland. True, the drug company could claim that this study does not show that the drug fails with disadvantaged elderly US citizens, but would we be satisfied with that? No, we would want positive evidence that it works.

When you look at the wider evidence, there is no overwhelming support for flipped learning. For instance, a systematic review of flipped learning in medical education found no overall effect, although there was no comment on the achievement gap. When you go looking, what is most striking is the need for better quality study designs.

So that’s military students and medical students crossed off the list…

The other study I mentioned was a randomised controlled trial of project based learning in the UK. This found no overall effect and a potentially negative effect on disadvantaged students. Notably, a large number of schools dropped out of the project-based learning arm of the trial, reducing the strength of the findings.

Setting aside the question of why so many schools gave up on project based learning during the trial, we could simply dismiss this evidence on the basis of the attrition rate. If so, we have not proved project based learning works. We need positive evidence in order to do that and one particularly useful aspect of the UK study is the extensive literature review that finds little positive evidence for the approach.

Now picture all those pundits touring schools and conferences, claiming that project based learning is the future and will help students gain ill-defined soft skills. Where is the evidence base for that? Do we even care?

When it comes to teaching methods, the political divide is a distraction. The real divide is between those of us who value evidence and those who are happy to subsist on hot air.

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10 thoughts on “Flipping Nick Gibb

  1. All over the West people have tried “flipped” learning on small scales. Yet it’s never really taken off. Why?

    I suggest because all those individual trials have found the weaknesses, without any need to prove them academically. We gave a teacher at my school one of the best classes, and let her try it for a year. After that she lost interest in the concept, never mind us.

    If it had worked at our school, other members of staff would have tried it too. And I bet that is replicated across the world.

    You don’t need to heavily promote a method that clearly works — it is taken up voluntarily. That flipped working is still being promoted decades later is pretty much evidence that no-one is taking it up voluntarily.

    1. Explicit teaching works but in many schools is not taken up. You have neglected the effects of systemic bias or counter-narratives which can cause effective practice to be dismissed. I agree with your conclusion that flipped learning would be used if it worked because I don’t think it is being sabotaged though it is likely poorly understood by its users (which is another mark against it).

      Personally I think flipped learning is the natural state of a mentor/mentee relationship like a PhD student and their supervisor. Those relationships are educational outliers though.

  2. Yes, politics is a divide. While I’ve voted left and even very left all my life, for many I’m a conservative dinosaur because I back direct instruction (which has been proven both to work and to decrease the achievemnt gap) and find problem based, discovery, etc an anathema because it has not been shown to work and when it rarely does it widens the achievement gap.

  3. Who even cares about so-called ‘soft skills’? Well I for one care deeply about children developing a wider range of skills that go beyond traditional knowledge acquisition. And a lot of employers seem to care about ‘soft skills’ too…

    1. The argument Tristram is not that soft skills don’t matter. It is that they are extremely hard to define, and even harder to teach.

      I would like all children to use common sense. But no-one has yet, after all these centuries, been able to find a way to teach common sense as such. So we teach them knowledge, and along the way we guide them towards thinking about what they are doing, and why. But the concept of teaching common sense outside a context is useless.

      How do you teach politeness? Openness to new ideas? Resilience? You can tell them to be polite, open to new ideas and resilience until you are blue in the face. It will not make a jot more polite, open or resilient.

      You teach them resilience by showing them, step by step, how they can overcome tasks — but that lesson is a subsidiary effect of teaching them to actually do something.

      The point of “traditional knowledge acquisition” is not the knowledge as such. It is about teaching them enough of a context that they can work and reason within that context.

      1. Thanks for your response Chester. It’s interesting that you seem to equate soft skills with common sense, which is usually understood to mean something like ‘good sense and sound judgement in practical matters’. My understanding of ‘soft skills’ goes somewhat beyond this and typically includes more specific things such as leadership skills, teamwork, communication skills, creative problem-solving skills, and flexibility and adaptability of thought and action. But I accept that these things are not easy to teach, although in my own classroom teaching practice I was quite able to do so in a structure that provided a clear sense of continuity and progression.

        I am not suggesting soft skills should be formally ‘taught’ in isolated and de-contextualised lessons, and I have no problem with a curriculum that includes traditional knowledge acquisition – but my observation is that soft skills are not valued or given enough attention in the majority of schools, and most teachers have not been required to help children develop them effectively enough. More recently as an employee and employer in a commercial setting, it has been clear to me that excellent ‘soft skills’ are now frequently viewed as being just as important as subject knowledge.

        My main objection here was the use of the dismissive phrase ‘Do we even care?’, and I am glad you agree that soft skills do matter, and that they are difficult to teach – though of course that should not be used as an excuse, as it often is, not to bother trying to create and deliver rigorous learning experiences that enable children to master them.

      2. Hi Tristram. You said, ” I accept that these things are not easy to teach, although in my own classroom teaching practice I was quite able to do so.” How do you know you were able to do so?

      3. The mastery of ‘soft skills’ of my students was self-evident to all! They were highly creative, worked well as teams and were very effective communicators…

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