G ive a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a year — but what if you give him a how-to-fish video?
It’s no secret that technology has revolutionized education. My English teacher mother is told to emphasize technology in her high school classroom; my eight-year-old brother uses computers for research projects. When that technology seeks to take over actual instruction, though, things can get messy.
Enter Penn’s SAIL program: Structured, Active, in-Learning courses. According to Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning, “SAIL classes begin with the related premises that students benefit from learning by doing and that class time should be used to help students learn to work with material. To that end, class time is built around highly structured activities, in which students work to solve problems, interpret data or evidence or otherwise engage in real practices in the discipline.” In these “flipped” STEM courses, students learn material at home through textbooks or online videos and work through problems in class.
This idea is nothing new. Professor Robin Pemantle, a math professor who teaches active learning classes at Penn, said, “It’s akin to an English class — you come to an English class, you’ve read the book and you’re prepared. It’s like almost any class outside mathematics.”
However, Pemantle noted that there are certain topics on which students require in-person lecturing in order to really understand. “Some topics are very difficult for students to penetrate without me framing them first, but other topics they can plunge in,” he said. If that framing is so essential, then direct instruction should take precedence in the classroom. Furthermore, students in anonymous feedback surveys for the course commented that spending so much time in class without any actual teaching seemed like a waste of time.
For me, that’s the most troubling part of flipped classrooms — the idea that, with all the great faculty Penn has, they don’t spend time teaching. A freshman in an active learning Math 103 course told me that she is required to watch online lectures. Once she is actually in class, her professor puts her into groups and gives them worksheets.
“The professor and TAs walk around to answer questions, but they usually try and make us figure out the answer on our own instead of answering the question directly,” she said. “If you are confused, then it makes figuring things out a lot harder because there is very little teaching involved. It gets frustrating at times.”
Furthermore, so much of the justification for flipped classrooms is the claim that they force students to take initiative. But traditional Penn courses provide that same opportunity: Students take the initiative to go to office hours and meet with professors. I can’t see compromising the key instructional component. If one-on-one instruction is most conducive, then we ought to embrace it. But before students can work through problems, they need to learn how to do them. There’s a crucial step of instruction, and when we boast some of the best faculty in the country, we shouldn’t delegate that instruction to a computer screen. There needs to be a balance.
The one marked upside I can see to flipped courses is that they allow students to develop closer relationships with professors. A friend in an active learning Math 104 course told me that, despite the extra work, she’s glad she took the class — which many people dropped out of at the start of the semester — because she can talk to other people and learn how the teacher wants her to solve problems. But students do have the opportunity to seek out professors for office hours, and a better solution to professor accessibility might be smaller — not flipped — classrooms.
Flipped courses seem like a waste of capital. I understand mixing problem solving classes into an overall course, but students can form study groups on their own. If courses are glorified homework sessions, we’re not taking full advantage of the resources we have at Penn. That includes our professors. There’s a human element necessary in education — and once we lose that, I don’t know how we’ll recov er it.
Dani Blum is a College freshman from Ridgefield, Conn. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Danalyst” usually appears every Tuesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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