“You want your students to be active; you’ve got to be a little passive.”
–Professor Timothy Bresnahan, Stanford University

This quote was posted in a recent article published in the Tomorrow’s Professor listserve. When I read it, I immediately thought about how well it applies to flipped learning environments.  Flipped learning environments are dynamic, interactive, and engaging.  If you were to observe one, you’d see students actively engaged in solving problems, talking with each other, working through a task, or creating a product.  You’d see the instructor walking around the room, mingling with the students, providing assistance, and asking questions. Sure, the instructor might take a moment or two to gather everyone’s attention and provide an explanation or reinforce a concept, but then the energy would immediately “flip” back to the students.

At its core, a flipped environment is all about what the students DO in the space shared with the instructor.  The flip occurs because the focus of that space is on what the students are doing, not on what the instructor is doing.  If we relate this idea to the quote above, you could say the instructor is being more passive while the students are being more active.  Although, I’d like to add that the instructor is being what I’d call “actively passive” because it takes a great deal of energy, attention and awareness to step to the side and support students’ learning in this type of environment.

Learning to be an “actively passive” instructor means building a different set of skills to ensure the flipped learning environment is successful.  It’s not about delivering the most organized, most well-prepared, most structured lecture.  It’s not about knowing all of the answers or never making mistakes.  As you try flipping your lesson, here are three recommendations to consider so you can create a successful experience for both you and for your students:

1.  Embrace messy.  A flipped classroom is “messy” which means students are often working through problems or confronting situations where there might not be a clear answer or a perfect approach.  If you need structure and control, and if you need to know exactly what to expect at every moment in your lesson plan, then this will probably be the most difficult challenge for you to tackle.

On the flip side (pun intended!), this might also be the most challenging task for your students to tackle as well. Some students do not appreciate the “gray” area in the learning process. They get frustrated easily.  They want to know the answers. They want to memorize the definition. They want to know if the choice is true or false, A or B, correct or incorrect.  This is certainly a teachable moment and one that you can model for your students.  You have to push yourself to let go and explore the unknown. Note that this does not mean you let go of control of the classroom. You still plan and organize, but you allow time and provide structure for students to practice, make mistakes, try again, and make connections about the course material.

To practice embracing the mess, try starting your class with a provocative quote, fact, or statistic. Then allow time for students to quickly write down their thoughts, discuss them with a neighbor and explore other perspectives as a whole class.  Try not to judge, critique or edit their responses. You don’t know what they will say or which way the conversation will go, so try to listen, record a few notes, and hold your comments until the end of the discussion.  (Notice that you’re practicing being “actively passive” with this exercise!). As you become more comfortable with the students leading the discussion, you can add more of these types of activities into your class.  Start small and practice with a “low stakes” activity.  Have patience with yourself and with your students as you learn become more comfortable with the unknown.

2. Ask effective questions. A flipped class is active.  Students are always engaged in a task or working on a problem, and your role is to support that learning process. When you’re serving as the “guide on the side” then it’s essential for you to learn to ask questions that generate a response.  Many instructors ask “dead end” questions, meaning the questions have a “yes or no” response which doesn’t stimulate critical thinking or analysis. You also want to avoid asking, “Are there any questions?” because most of the time, this creates the awkward silence where you and your students are looking around, feeling anxious, and wondering when this is going to be over.

To practice asking effective questions, you can begin by designing small tasks and  pre-planning questions related to the task.  As you plan your lesson, look for moments where you can ask students questions rather than telling them all of the answers. But, these questions should be worded carefully.  Use a tool such as Bloom’s Taxonomy to carefully organize and scaffold tasks and questions.  Start with a lower level task such as, “In small groups, list and describe the main characters in the story.”  Then ask a question about the task such as, “Joe, which of the characters resonates with you and why?”  This strategy engages your students and gives them time to prepare to answer the question properly.  Notice how your role during class is to provide structure for the task and to ask the questions, but not to provide the answers.  Notice again how you are being “actively passive” with your approach to engaging your students in the flipped classroom.

3.  Be quiet. Students in a flipped class should be thinking, analyzing and creating.  As they work, your role is to let the learning happen. This means being there for your students, providing resources, and organizing the structure, but it also means stepping back and letting students work through the learning process without too much input from you until they need it.  For many instructors, silence in the classroom is awkward and they want to fill up the time by talking more, lecturing more, or sharing more examples. But sometimes students need quiet time to think, to process or to review what they’ve just learned.

To practice becoming comfortable with silence in your classroom, try giving students time to reflect and write about something they recently learned or read.  At the end of class, post a question or prompt and ask students to write for five minutes, for example.  You can also practice quiet time by asking a question and waiting for at least 30 seconds  (time yourself) before you say anything. This will give students time to formulate their thoughts so they can answer your questions intelligently in front of their peers. It’s awkward at first, but part of a successfully flipped learning environment is learning how to give the students the space, time, and resources they need.  And they often need more quiet time to think carefully and sort out their ideas before presenting them to you or others.

Final Thoughts:
Learning to be “actively passive” is probably one of the most challenging aspects of flipping any learning environment.  Instructors are used to having all of the attention on them as they stand at the front of the room and lecture to the audience. It’s challenging to re-frame this role, and it can be a little scary to let go of what is known and comfortable. But when you do, a whole new world opens up to both you and your students.
What advice can you share for becoming more “actively passive” in the flipped learning environment? What strategies have helped you overcome the fear of letting go of some of the control in your classroom?


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