Saturday, September 5, 2015

Tutorials come pre-flipped. Stop flipping them back.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London
Physics tutorials come pre-flipped. Here I present an argument, in the interests of better undergraduate engagement and learning, for discouraging GTAs from flipping them back.

What is flipping? And what is it, exactly, that gets flipped? If the concept of the flipped classroom is familiar feel free to skip over the next two paragraphs.

In the flipped classroom, instructional content is accessed prior to and outside of the classroom and 'flips' or swaps places with instructional activities that take place in teaching contact time, inside the classroom. Classroom can be interpreted as any teaching space e.g., lecture theatre, tutorial room, teaching studio, teaching lab.

A definition from the Flipped Learning Network: ‘‘Flipped Learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.’’

In essence the tutorial session is already flipped. The instructional content has been delivered in the lecture and the tutorial is the instructional activity. You may already have a inkling about where this all goes wrong but we'll set off from this point with as much optimism as we can muster.

In my previous blogpost, Chalkboard, I suggested "[GTAs] shouldn't be spending much time, if any, [...] in front of a chalkboard..." The post arose from a number of requests for advice on the best use of whiteboards, chalkboards and flip charts. Other comments and requests received recently add to my concern that there is a belief, possibly a growing belief, that the TA's job is to give mini lectures either to supplement the main lecture or, more worryingly, to make up for the deficiencies of the course lecture or even the lecturer.

My main point is that the tutorial (or studio workshop or lab) is about undergraduates actively developing expertise through thinking and therefore should not become a presentation of what the TA thinks. Saying it all again in smaller chunks in a different room isn't effective and the undergraduates are telling us this by not turning up to tutorials. This is a key battle in the War of Engagement because currently the bums are not staying on the seats (good title, I feel another blogpost coming on). The TAs are foot-soldiers in the line of fire.

What should TAs do? In addition to chalkboard training requests, TAs are also asking for induction workshops addressing the fundamental question of what it is, exactly, TAs are expected to do in tutorials/labs/teaching studios and the institutional instinct is to go tribal: to direct the questioner to the academic in charge of the course because he/she presumably knows what the TAs should be doing. My view is that this just panders to the hegemony of traditional practices and leads us back to the chalkboard. Institutional structures and traditional beliefs are known to be major barriers to change even when GTAs are willing to change own their beliefs about teaching and learning based on cognitive research.

So how do we both change TAs beliefs and convert the try by achieving permanent changes in practice? As I explored in my blogpost Academic Coaching it will take more than an induction workshop. We need to take a long term approach and, crucially, to work in the the individual learning space of the each TA rather than treating this valuable and expensive resource as an amorphous group. But mostly, we need to teach TAs how to teach.

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