“Flipped” Classrooms and Foreign Languages

Here’s an interesting approach to teaching foreign languages written by Pedro Maligo in southerneddesk.org, July 27, 2012:

The “flipped classroom” approach is being increasingly talked about in the contexts of new pedagogies, new education delivery systems, and new ways of restructuring institutional budgets. A May 2012 GPB Southern Education Desk piece by Maura Walz on Georgia teachers “flipping” classrooms provides a good explanation of the approach: before each class meeting, the learners study the material and topics that will be covered when class convenes, and the class period then becomes a time for, mainly, putting into practice and implementing what was studied in advance. Usually the learner’s ability to access, explore, and study is helped by the availability of electronically-delivered materials so much so that the “flipped” idea also relates to the use of new technologies in education.

A couple of other examples of the attention being paid to the exploration of alternative (i.e., these days, electronic) means of delivery and their relation to the “flipped” approach are the current Gates Foundation intent to support “breakthrough” projects to deliver education more broadly and to newer constituencies, and higher education administrators’ not-so-subtle messages to their faculties about the need to re-think their missions, publics, classrooms, and delivery modes.

For someone who works in foreign language education like me, the discussion about “flipped classrooms” brings up two interesting aspects. The first is that for the past 20 years, the field of foreign language education has been using an approach called the “communicative approach” which, among other things, prescribes that under the instructor’s supervision and assistance, class time should be used primarily for students to practice skills and to use the information they will have acquired before class. In other words, we have been “flipping” for some time now. Indeed, the communicative approach became the accepted way of teaching foreign languages at approximately the same time that emerging technologies began to allow for the expansion of teaching materials beyond the textbook.

As a result, publishers started developing complex online platforms that, today, incorporate everything from e-textbooks to all types of non-print media. We direct our students to these platforms for a great number of tasks, asking the students to familiarize themselves with (new) topics and to start reviewing the skills that will later be emphatically practiced in class. Combining the communicative approach with the availability of online platforms, we have been making the most of using class time for actual practice; from the students’ perspective, this enhances their perception of the relevance and applicability of what’s being studied.

The second interesting aspect of the “flipped” foreign language methodology is that the communicative approach is still not being used as much in high school environments as it is in higher education. This is interesting because, as Ms. Walz’s piece accurately conveys, we are used to seeing pedagogical innovations bubble up from K-12 to college almost as if the elementary and secondary levels were the R&D and proving grounds where new ideas can and should be attempted. But in the case of foreign language instruction, we have had more success breaking away from the older approach of teaching grammar (and therefore lecturing more than practicing) at the college level than in high school (where most of foreign language education takes place within K-12).

This, in turn, brings up an equally interesting “marketing” implication as we in the foreign languages make great efforts to educate American youth and their counselors and advisors about the need to study world languages. From a marketing perspective, we struggle to dispel the notion that the foreign language classroom is a boring place where grammar is taught under a lecture format. As a result, we end up having to tackle two interconnected issues: the effort to make people see the importance of studying languages and the perception of the boring classroom. And since many of the counselors and advisors did in fact experience the uninteresting “normative” or grammar teaching approach when they themselves took foreign language in high school or college, they carry that perception with them into their current functions and sometimes tend to pass it on to their advisees—usually as a discreet lack of incentive toward foreign languages when it comes to suggesting courses for students to take.

All this considered, the visibility being given to the “flipped” approach is good news for those of us in the foreign languages. As “flipped” is reported to lead to learning experiences which are interesting, engaging, and rewarding, we know that our own “communicative approach” helps make our classrooms be very much like that.

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