News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Three

What the flip is flipped teaching?

I love lecturing. It’s awesome. I get that nervous excitement beforehand, like an actor or musician about to perform – it fires up my imagination – I think of new ways to say the same old thing. And then there is the lecture itself. The whoops of joy as I derive the equation for timber design – the ohhhs and ahhhs as it looks like my worked example has gone horribly wrong only for me to save it at the last minute with a daring leap of engineering logic (change the initial assumptions and post rationalising). And then there is the cheering – the standing ovation – as 2 hours later we come in to land. Everyone having been on an emotional rollercoaster.

Now I know what you are thinking, you think I am joking, but I am not (in fact I very rarely joke as I have a below average sense of humour – as my children like to regularly remind me). I am exaggerating – of course – but in my mind the above is how a perfect timber lecture would go.

And so, when I say “I am not lecturing on my timber unit this year”, it is with a heavy heart – and it’s important that you know that this was a hard decision for me to make, a costly one.

But I have another agenda, a more important one, I really want my students to learn about timber. I believe that the world needs more people who can design not just with steel and concrete – that we need engineers who can do more than just replicate the designs of the past – we need engineers fit for the future who can design with more materials. And however much I love lecturing I believe that by flipping the teaching my students will learn more[1].

Now let’s be clear. There is nothing new about flipped teaching. Back in 1997 when I was a green haired undergraduate studying Civil Engineering I decided to take an option on the philosophy of science. Every week we were required to read a book. And every week we would come not for a lecture but for a debate. Facilitated and led by our ‘lecturer’. The whole thing worked really well. Every week the chapter of the book would convince me that this was indeed the ‘philosophy of science’ only for this philosophical viewpoint to be slowly ripped to shreds over the course of an hours discussion and leaving me wondering why I had been so foolish to believe it in the first place? I would then read the next chapter, the next idea, which would respond to all the arguments from the discussion we had in class, only for that approach to be similarly reduced to rubble in the next discussion. Flipped teaching goes back way further than my own education. And yet in engineering it happens very rarely. We love to lecture.

But lectures are not the best way for people to learn. And so, this year, in ‘the office’ there are no lectures. No derivations. Instead I have gone for a different approach. But before I break this down maybe it would be helpful for me to describe my old approach. It goes like this:

Part 1 – Context

Talk about some projects that relate to the topic for this week for about 20 minutes. This achieves a number of things: It gives the learning some context – students can see why they are doing it. It also gives me, as their teacher, credibility – I have done it. Finally it gives them some technical language and understanding of why we do what we do – it helps them join the ‘community of practice[2]’.     

Part 2 – Theory

Next I reach for the notes. Personally I don’t like to use powerpoint for this I proffer to use a stack of paper, a pencil, and a visualiser and I will explain the theory of what we are doing – effectively teaching them what is already written in the notes. This will typically take place as two blocks of 20 minutes.

Part 3 – Example

Once the technical content has been delivered I will talk through a real example by doing it on the board. This will normally last about 20 minutes. I generally make these up on the spot – asking students for numbers. This way I have to think about what I am doing and as a result I find it easier to explain my thought process to students as I go through the example – it also slows me down (a good thing). But this also has a negative effect, for I find writing things down hard. I will say one thing and my hand will write something different. It used to make maths exams tricky as I would regularly think the right process but write down the wrong number, similarly for students my mistakes can be confusing.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Students are set a number of problems to work through where they build up and extend their understanding of the course materials: – This occurs both in example classes, where I am able to answer questions and discuss the content with them. But also outside of the taught time as students work on their own.

This year I have used the same model in many regards but rather than deliver parts 1-3 in a lecture with part 4 predominantly happening elsewhere I have flipped it (hence the term flipped teaching) so part 4 happens in my teaching environment with parts 2 and 3 occurring elsewhere.

So this is how it (hopefully) works:

Part 1 – Context

I no longer give a 20 minute talk on projects at the start of each week. Instead I have done a few different things:

  1. I have covered the walls with pictures of real projects – to give them a sense of what they are working towards
  2. I have included case studies and inspiring photos of projects in the course notes
  3. I have invited a number of practioners in to give lunch time talks (we used to do these when I was a practicing engineer) on real projects
  4. Finally I have authored books on timber, which I hope gives me credibility without having to talk about my projects

Part 2 – Theory

As mentioned in episode 2[3] I have slowly built up a set of notes which are highly detailed over the last 8 years. So now, rather than effectively read them to the students (and anyone who has witnessed me reading a bedtime story will know that that is a lot more engaging than it sounds – see my BoB lecture for evidence[4]) I let them read them to themselves. It’s that simple.

Every week I have a list of pre-reading which has been there since before the course began so that student can read it in their own time for the whole course.

Part 3 – Example

So the biggest change for me this year has been that I have created a series of worked example videos. These go through the core concepts for each week. There are many advantages to this approach (rather than doing it live in class) students can pause – rewind – re-watch – jump ahead to where they are stuck. And more importantly I don’t make mistakes! The casual feedback from students has been very positive. The down side is that each 15 minute example takes about 1-2 hours to produce. And I need to find a silent location with no interruptions to make them in.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Which brings us to the purpose of all of this. By enabling students to learn about the subject for each week before they arrive at ‘the office’, we can use the working day to apply the information. I have created 4 projects which they will work on over the course of 10 weeks. Each designed to challenge them in a different way. Each designed to build up their engineering understanding. I have also provided a map to show how everything links together.

Having run the office for two weeks it really seems to be going well. Students come ready to learn. As I sit and work on my own projects I listen to the buzz in the room. The hum of conversation. And much of it is around the technical details of timber design. The students are discussing their work together. Working together. And I do get a good and steady stream of questions – but good questions. No one yet has asked me to give a mini lecture. So whilst there is still a long way to go (8 weeks) at this stage it feels like it is working.

Why don’t we all do it

So the obvious question is, why doesn’t everyone do this? The honest answer is for me that it is so much more work. I can see that in the long run, once it is up and running, it will be less work. But if you are time strapped now it is so hard to invest in the future – despite the reward.

I also fear it is more work for students. Not that they will spend longer working – but that it feels harder. That lectures seem easy – information being delivered in accessible bite size chunks and that somehow this is more challenging. And coupled with this, I fear that they won’t love it as much as they love my lectures – that my ratings will drop!

Another challenge is space. Physical space. Working in collaborative groups – with easy circulation and easy access for students and staff to ask question – takes up more space than lines of desks all looking towards the screen. I have been lucky in that I have got a small enough group (36) where it works. But I also understand just how big the space challenge is.

Plus a little bit of me is missing the excitement of standing up and giving a lecture!

Next week’s episode – Space…


[1] G. Gibbs, ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’, http://owww.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/20reasons.html, last accessed 11/10/19

[2] See Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[3] The Office: Episode 2 – https://bilt.online/the-office-episode-two/

[4] ‘How to change the world in three simple steps’ – Jump to minute 11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

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