By William H. Robertson
While the idea of a flipped classroom has become something of a hot topic in science education, the actual teaching method used by many educators often does not fundamentally change the traditional teacher-centered, lecture-based classroom approach. So, how does one successfully implement a truly flipped classroom? In this article, the approach is to employ a constructivist methodology within the application of a hybrid course design. Constructivism is characterized by a five-phase process known as the 5E Instructional Model, which includes the phases of engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation (Bybee, 2003). With this colearning approach, students are enabled by the teacher to construct deeper and more comprehensive understandings through activities that match their cognitive capabilities and are delivered in a framework that first sparks motivation, incites inquiry, and, as a result of collective experience, delivers content knowledge in conceptually correct contexts. The key to the constructivist method is to build on previous learning and apply new material through meaningful experiences that center on active learning and require students to address their own understandings in various learning opportunities. As a result, the constructivist flipped classroom in science education should first lead with face-to-face (F2F) active-learning opportunities to explore concepts through practice, followed by content delivered primarily through online mechanisms.
Within the realm of science teaching and learning, a growing teaching and learning strategy has been for instructors to consider “flipping” their content delivery and instructional approach. For many teachers, this flipping implies modifying an existing F2F class to include greater online activities, assignments, and content materials. Flipping can also signal a shift from an F2F class to a hybrid approach, which would include F2F classroom sessions that focus on active learning and practical applications of content material in individual and group contexts and regular asynchronous online modules for in-depth content delivery (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007). While these perspectives may seem to be congruent on the surface and as though they lend themselves to an increase in pedagogical applications and content understanding, there is often an inherent design flaw that stems from an absence of a constructivist approach, in which open-ended, student-centered activities generally lead each topic and the delivery of primary content by the instructor subsequently follows (Swan et al., 2019). In other words, the constructivist teacher first facilitates an experience for the learners, followed by the content delivery, which allows the learners to assimilate the course materials based on their own classroom encounters and online interactions. The concern for many instructors unfamiliar with a constructivist methodology is that they may merely replicate a traditional, didactic, instructor-led classroom dynamic without any great change in instructional strategies or course organization (Mulryan-Kyne, 2010). To align with a constructivist-based teaching approach, the classroom instructor must often reorganize the order of in-class experiences (provided first) and content delivery (provided second) to properly implement a student-centered, teacher-facilitated, technology-enhanced, active-learning classroom (Table 1).
|Table 1. Alignment of constructivist methodology with a flipped classroom approach.|
For example, in a science class such as Introductory College Biology, the class may be learning about photosynthesis and the importance of plant respiration in maintaining life on Earth. Many instructors may begin their flipped classroom approach by requiring students to read material from a textbook before class and perhaps to even do a pretest or short quiz to test their content knowledge. This may also be done through a learning management system (LMS), where content materials, including online texts, assessments, and videos, can be made available for students to access online. While this approach may not seem unreasonable or in any way incorrect in terms of altering the instructional pattern within a constructivist paradigm, it does not, in effect, change anything. It merely replicates the age-old paradigm of teacher as expert and student as novice while requiring students to wrestle with the content prior to class, then use the interactions in the classroom to have students apply the content knowledge within the framework of an activity.
Within a pedagogical framework contrasting a traditional classroom approach with a constructivist methodology for teaching, a pathway to a well-designed flipped classroom can be observed. In a traditional teacher-centered approach, students are provided content and asked to do something with it—that is, the content delivery always comes first and the experiences for students follow. In a constructivist approach, open-ended experiences that require no specific previous content knowledge often lead the classroom interactions within the engagement and exploration stages (Taber, 2011). Once these student-centered experiences are presented and explored by students individually or in small groups, the instructor may begin to connect the classroom activities with an explanation through the content knowledge needed for the class by linking to students’ prior knowledge and real-world practical experiences (Shivarama, 2014). The content delivery can then happen in earnest by having students work to explain and elaborate on their experiences through interactions with primary texts, video instruction, and formative assessments, which may include quizzes, exams, or short essays.
To enable such an approach to be implemented practically, educators should utilize teaching strategies that provide experiences first and content delivery second. Constructivism is one such method that is valuable as a pedagogical and curriculum organizer, as it is a learning strategy that builds on students’ existing knowledge, beliefs, and skills (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). “[Constructivism] includes skills and activities that increase curiosity for research, satisfy students’ expectations, and make the students focus on an active research for information and understanding” (Ergin et al., 2008, p. 57). Within a constructivist approach, as students encounter new information, they work to synthesize new understandings based on their current experiences and their prior learning. Students self-assemble meaning while continually self-assessing their understandings of concepts set in a context of their own world experiences. In other words, the constructivist approach to learning states that learners of all ages build new ideas on top of their personal conceptual understandings (Eisenkraft, 2003). In this process, students and teachers experience common activities while applying and building on prior knowledge.
Primarily, the constructivist flipped classroom is a hybrid-based course design and approach wherein a majority of content materials are delivered asynchronously through an LMS to maximize active learning within student-centered pedagogical strategies during F2F meetings (Lee, 2018). As a method designed to maximize experiential learning within a classroom environment and to best leverage interactive problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, the constructivist flipped classroom looks to leverage student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions primarily within an F2F environment while maximizing student-to-content learning opportunities online. By design, the constructivist flipped classroom would provide greater feedback to learners within the classroom environment through shared experiences, and the linking of these experiences would be accomplished through the students working online with the course materials after F2F sessions.
This definition implies that there is a shift of content delivery primarily within an asynchronous learning environment accessed outside the classroom while leveraging formal classroom meetings for students to actively engage in and explore activities that emphasize interaction and collaboration (Shea et al., 2015). In turn, this positions the classroom as a space where a gifted instructor models behaviors, habits of mind, and techniques relevant to the subject being taught while effectively differentiating instruction for students both individually and in groups (Kilis & Yildirim, 2019). In other words, the F2F instruction is for active practice within the discipline, which would include discussions, experiments, hands-on activities, projects, and cooperative group work (Wang et al., 2019). Scholars have reasoned that the constructivist flipped classroom emphasizes and enhances important 21st-century skills for learners including creativity, innovation, comprehension, content acquisition, and problem-solving, each of which have been linked to increased academic performance by students (Wang et al., 2019).
To create a truly constructivist flipped classroom, the class should be a hybrid environment, with alternating classroom and asynchronous online sessions. An F2F classroom meeting should always be held prior to an online session, and the F2F session should provide students with the opportunity to engage and explore the content they will next study through a series of online activities that will allow them to explain the subject in a richer context, as well as to elaborate on their new content acquisition through a deeper understanding based on experience (Galway et al., 2014). This subtle difference makes this type of constructivist classroom truly flipped, in that the student first engages and explores topics and content through cooperative learning experiences within the classroom, then looks to make sense of those experiences by interacting with primary content outside of class and in the online environment (Zhang, 2018).
As we return to the biology example of photosynthesis and plant respiration, how might this be done differently to truly flip the classroom with a constructivist design? Once again, the approach would center on providing a student experience first, then following it with content delivery online in preparation for further topic explorations. In this manner, the instructor should engage students around the content matter within the F2F class with a captivating video or presentation of a real-world event that captures the attention of the classroom. The instructor should then lead students into an exploration of the science topics by asking a series of open-ended questions such as the following: Why are plants important for life on Earth? How are animals and plants interconnected? How do plants get their food to grow? Why are plants primarily green and not another color, such as black or red?
The purpose of these questions is to get students thinking and offering their perspectives on these issues while the instructor facilitates the discussion by using more content-directed questions to probe students’ previous knowledge and listen for key terms, such as photosynthesis and plant respiration, that might be introduced by the students that connect to the content material to follow. Then, the instructor might have students work in small teams to build on these questions through a classroom activity that requires the analysis of content materials and a synthesis of an initial understanding in order to build a collective understanding that requires group interaction and conversation. As students engage with and explore the materials in such an activity, they are also activating their critical-thinking skills while employing scientific habits of mind, including active discourse, experimentation, creative problem-solving, and the evaluation of options. As the F2F class comes to a close, the instructor may summarize what was explored and the experiences in which the students were engaged while delivering a small amount of content to lead students to the concepts of photosynthesis and plant respiration.
Then, within the asynchronous online portion to follow for the subsequent session of class, students would be required to interact with primary content to develop explanations for the experiences they had in class and to integrate the required subject matter content. This could be done cooperatively in an online discussion, where groups of students would explore a specific plant and how it gets food to grow or is primarily green in color, then share their results in the next session’s F2F classroom discussion. Students can also explore the content individually, as each learner can work through textual materials, instructional videos, and various low-stakes formative assessments on their own outside of class. This pattern would be repeated in an alternating fashion, with the depth of the experiences and the complexity of the content materials increasing regularly to move students toward mastery of the student learning outcomes associated with the course.
The real benefit of a constructivist flipped classroom is the opportunity for increased cooperative learning and collaborative activities that require both group and individual accountability for learning outcomes (Altemueller & Lindquist, 2017). For example, in an F2F biology activity focusing on the water cycle, a teacher can use a jigsaw technique and assemble small groups that would each focus on one topical aspect that would include precipitation, percolation, transpiration, evaporation, and condensation. Each group would in effect research and report on one of these areas, becoming the experts within the classroom in order to teach others the important facts about their specific water cycle topic. In turn, each individual would be held accountable for content associated with all areas of the water cycle, which could come as a formative assessment such as a quiz or test done online outside of class.
An additional positive aspect within this approach is the peer instruction and feedback that groups can get within such a classroom dynamic, which also allows the teacher to interject content that is conceptually correct. This allows students to share their ideas with others, reflecting and defending their new knowledge while the teacher facilitates the learning process with questioning techniques that lead students toward conceptually correct understandings around the course material (Altemueller & Lindquist, 2017). This process creates an opportunity to utilize informal assessments, including discussions, dialogues about content materials, class polls, and surveys, which can be done primarily in F2F sessions, followed by formative assessments such as quizzes, exams, and classroom reports, at points of needed content assimilation, primarily after the asynchronous sessions. This sequence of methods has also been shown to increase student motivation, especially in the sciences, which leads to heightened persistence and agency (Luo et al., 2019). These habits of mind and practice often lie outside the course material and lend themselves to success in school, as students’ ability to purposefully work toward essential knowledge and skills reinforces a constructivist fundamental principle that learning is an individual responsibility.
Why does this approach need to be done within such a framework to be a constructivist flipped classroom? The answer lies in the positionality that classroom experiences should always lead content delivery and that the experiences anchor the need to understand the content in context. For example, when a person gets a new phone, what is typically the first thing they do? Do they open the box and begin to read the manual to see how the phone operates in a systematic manner? Do they proceed to follow the directions from beginning to end, then feel they are ready to make a call or use another feature of the phone? No, of course not. Most everyone would open up the box containing the phone, plug it in, charge it up, and then start trying to figure out how it works. Most would engage their previous knowledge and experience with other phones to see how it operates and what it can do. Then, they would probably ask friends, family, or colleagues to help them solve an issue or problem they have encountered, an interaction that may also be extended through social media or by looking for a video on YouTube to see if there is a way to better use a function or an application on the phone more purposefully. When all that fails to resolve this dilemma, one might then actually open the directions and read them carefully in order to solve the issue, and the directions would now make sense, as the individual now has a set of experiences, interactions, and explorations that link to their previous knowledge. With a gap clearly identified in personal content understanding, the person can then look to interact with primary content (the directions) to deepen and broaden an understanding of the way the phone works. This is the way students approach solving problems in the real world, yet the process used in education can sometimes be the exact opposite, requiring someone to, in effect, read the directions before ever using a phone. Without a context of experience on which to build new knowledge, additional content will not be effectively integrated into the schema of an individual—or, in other words, the new content knowledge will not fully adhere to someone’s behavior without an experience with which to link it.
As such, once a problem is explored and a person cannot fully understand the next steps to follow, there is a self-directed need for content that maps to the experiences found during exploration. Generally, a person is ready for the content due to the experience in which they have engaged, and terms applicable to specific functions or situations take on new meaning, as they are now presented in a manner connected to a learner’s previous experience. Getting students engaged and exploring concepts will invariably help students master content, and this method should extend beyond purely prescriptive approaches. When students perform authentic tasks that allow them to directly manipulate data, they uncover content that is relevant to the ideas they have been exploring. In the water cycle example, after gathering weather data in teams, students then would have to calculate trends, discuss their results, and justify their solutions within each group. This strategy requires student teams to interact with the content of the lesson, synthesize the data from any provided worksheets, and discuss their collective experience in order to provide logical solutions requiring an analysis of the information. Reasoning and making sense of content in context are critical factors that help students organize their knowledge in ways that enhance the development of conceptually correct understandings (Martin, 2009).
While a “flipped classroom” has become part of the vocabulary of instruction in science education, the approach some educators take in their classrooms does not fundamentally differ from a traditional classroom approach, in that content is often front loaded and classroom instruction is used to do something with that delivered material. A more successful constructivist-based approach to a flipped classroom should lead with F2F interactions in a classroom environment that provide learners with experiences that are designed to actively engage students while allowing them to explore conceptual understanding through practice. The integration of primary content knowledge by the instructor through lecture, video, or course readings should be done following an active classroom session to allow learners to effectively link the content to the experiences they had in school (DeSantis et al., 2015). This content emphasis often is done asynchronously online and outside the classroom, as the students learn to explain and to elaborate on their experiences within the context of new content linked while allowing each student to work at their own pace and access materials as often as needed (Lo & Hew, 2017).
As a pedagogical approach, an effective constructivist flipped science classroom should employ a teaching approach in which experiences always lead the introduction of content knowledge. This process allows for F2F classroom interactions to be highly engaging and interactive and to emphasize critical thinking within the context of active-learning activities. Following such F2F opportunities, students can then explain and elaborate on their learning through interactions outside class with primary content materials delivered asynchronously within an LMS. This method of making a constructivist flipped classroom aligns with the ways students learn and complements the active instructional time by developing “a need to know” driven by the learner, which can result in increased intrinsic motivation within a subject area that can lead to mastery for the learner.
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