My freshman year in college, I decided to take a SCALE-UP class to fulfill one of my physics requirements. SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies) is a flipped class style that was developed in the NC State Physics Department. I was familiar with this teaching style, since my physics course in high school was similar – you would read outside of class and answer detailed learning objective questions and then come to class prepared to teach your classmates and work on short problems that reinforce what you learned outside of class. I really enjoyed this format and excelled in the two physics classes I took that were taught in this way. Since that experience, I have been an encourager of the flipped classroom to most students that I meet.
The benefits of the flipped classroom are evident: student’s become better problem-solvers and increase their conceptual understanding of the material. Failure rates are reduced, and many students have better attitudes about physics. However, it wasn’t until this past weekend that I considered that there may be a flip side to flipped classrooms. I saw a tweet from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of Particle Physics and Cosmology at the University of New Hampshire. She linked to an article titled “When You Love Physics, But Physics Doesn’t Love You”.
The post detailed the account of Anna Perry, a person who left their physics department because the structure failed to let them be their authentic self. They mention struggles that many have faced – learning that it’s easier just to be quiet than to try and be yourself. While some people can push through this in face-to-face classroom settings, it becomes harder when you enter a flipped classroom setting and are forced to complete group work with your peers in order to learn – a group whose behavior, they note, already feels discriminatory. They recounts their experience (emphasis mine):
Each day in class I was either talked over, having my knowledge discredited, or left to do all the work by myself. By the end of the first week I was so upset that I completely shut down during class. I was trying so hard to fit into this picture of a perfect class that works and learns together, but my classmates did not feel a similar pressure. After all, the professor laughed at their jokes and modeled similar behavior of the quirky, culturally incompetent scientist that we all think of when we think of physicists. Playing into these stereotypes earns you laughs and friendships; deconstructing these stereotypes for the sexist, racist messages they are earns you disapproving silence and stares. Even choosing not to constantly validate my classmates’ behavior with laughs and smiles was enough for them to stop talking to me. Being exposed to this behavior every day was soul-crushing. When I was supposed to be learning crucial concepts that would build the foundation of my physics career, I was breaking down and trying not to let everyone see I was crying.
Their attempts to discuss this problem with their professor were mostly ignored or “mansplained” away. Their professor told them they needed to learn to work in groups and didn’t understand why it was so difficult to work in an environment where they felt uncomfortable. Ultimately, Anna chose to switch their major to a department that listens to, values, and respects them. They conclude with the following:
There is inequality in our society and there is inequality on this campus. There is a silent conflict between the members of our classrooms, whether we are aware of that or not. Unless a professor actively works to dismantle this inequality within their classroom, they are reproducing it. I do not leave my identity at the door of the physics classroom. I carry it with me—whether I want to or not—when I interact with my peers, when I listen to my professor speak, when I read the textbook. I am a political being because I live in a world that politicizes my gender, my race, my looks, my socioeconomic status. Society likes to ignore this, and thus we let asymmetrical power dynamics continue to thrive. Professors ignoring this results in more of the same.
I was treated as a student with deficits, a student ill-equipped to become a physicist. Professors that do this fail to realize that the problem is not the students, but rather the schooling process. I do not require some special form of instruction; my experience highlights fundamental flaws in the ways we set up our classrooms. If my classmates do not work respectfully, I shouldn’t have to quietly endure while waiting around for them to behave differently.
And, if a teacher isn’t modeling this respect, they are never going to change anyway.
While this isn’t to say that all flipped classrooms are bad, I would urge all of us to consider the environment in which we are placing our students. This is something I hadn’t even considered until a few days ago, and I’m sure there are lots of professors who may be teaching a flipped class right now and not have considered how social phenomena impact how comfortable students feel in their classes. Research exists (check out this Resource Letter linked by Prescod-Weinstein in a later tweet on Active Learning in Physics) on how to teach in flipped or collaborative classrooms properly, and it needs to involve an awareness of social identities and a commitment to respect, inclusion, and actively coaching students.