Here’s one of the biggest lessons we can draw from years of school reform. It’s not what the reform is that matters most. It’s what you do with it. All too many veteran school staff have seen waves of reform wash over them and produce so little change in the end.
Take, for example, the reform of “flipping” classrooms. It’s a very compelling idea: Let students get their lectures at home via videos, textbooks or other means, but spend valuable class time working with them one-on-one with their homework. Yet there’s a lot more to it than that. If done well, the reform will require many teachers to transform what they do in the classroom.
For an example of what the flipped classroom can look like, check out Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post interview with Jonathan Bergmann, a teacher who has become an evangelist for the reform. First, he and a colleague flipped their classrooms. Then they realized that, to give their students one-on-one attention in the classroom, they should allow each student to proceed at his or her pace. That required them to adopt a model where students must show they have mastered one unit before moving forward. Students who don't do well on one test have to try again later—after more work with the material, and with a different test.
So what would a "flipped" classroom look like that failed to fulfill the idea's promise? It may reduce the amount of rote lecture in the classroom, but it could also miss the opportunity for one-on-one teaching. Class-time could become little more than time for "review," with students learning in lock step. Different structure, similar results.
Bergmann's vision goes far beyond structure. It requires a lot more support for teachers. It requires great materials--videos, other kinds of multimedia or text--students can watch at home. It requires measures to ensure that students are actually watching those videos or reading those texts. And it requires a lot more work as teachers move from the "lesson plan" model to the kinds of teaching that adapt to students' individual, and very diverse, needs. Like all school reforms, the "flipped" classroom entails much more than meets the eye.
This is by no means a criticism of the flipped classroom, which could be very powerful, indeed. Yet it is a reminder that, like many of the best reform ideas, it could founder on half-hearted implementation. Our shores are littered with the wrecks of great ideas.
So when we pursue these or other visions of reform (Common Core, anyone?) we have to go whole hog.