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Education reform has to start in the 'flipped classroom'

President of MIT Leo Rafael Reif

President of MIT Leo Rafael Reif

Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng has talked in general terms about his version of "education reform". But one crucial aspect of the reform must necessarily begin in the classroom.

A senior official at the ministry, in a recent radio interview, talked about introducing the "flipped classroom" concept for Thai students. He didn't sound very confident about this new model of learning. But it was probably the first time that this method of "reverse teaching" was being considered as part of the country's reform.

What exactly is a "flipped classroom?"

An education expert has defined the concept as a "reversed teaching model that delivers instruction at home through interactive, teacher-created videos and moves 'homework' to the classroom. Moving lectures outside of the classroom allows teachers to spend more one-on-one time with each student. Students have the opportunity to ask questions and work through problems with the guidance of their teachers and the support of their peers - creating a collaborative learning environment."

This obviously is something new and probably alarming for most Thai teachers, who are used to the traditional method of "giving lectures" in the classroom and assigning "homework" for students after the class is over.

But Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, famous for his pledge of "free, world-class education for everyone, anywhere", insists in his book "The One World School House: Education Reimagined" that "flipping the classroom" is in fact the most effective way to enable students to learn.

He says students learn at different rates. Attention spans tend to max out at about 15 minutes. The passive in-class lecture remains the dominant teaching mode, resulting in the majority of students being lost or bored at any given time, even when being taught by a great teacher.

The "flipped classroom" model can be summarised simply as: lecture at home (through watching videos or reading assignments) and "homework" in class. He insists that the use of technology has made a traditionally passive classroom interactive and personal because teachers adopting this teaching method can work with individual students who need help. That means teachers can form personal connections with students and at the same time get real feedback on how well each understands the lessons.

President of MIT Leo Rafael Reif, writing in Time magazine recently, cited a 2011 study co-authored by physics Nobel laureate Carl Wieman at the University of British Columbia that showed the benefits of digital learning: When tested on identical material, students taught through a highly interactive "flipped classroom" approach did nearly twice as well as peers taught via traditional lectures.

He quoted an eminent professor of physics from a peer university as explaining that although he loves lecturing and receives top ratings in student reviews, he had come recently to rethink his entire approach.

"Why? Because testing indicated that many students did not come away from his lecturers ready to apply the concepts he aimed to teach. By contrast, comparable students taught through online exercises - including immediate practice, feedback and reinforcement - retained the concepts better and were better prepared to put them into practice. With so much introductory material moving online, instructors can take time that was previously reserved for lectures and use it to exploit the power of innovative teaching techniques …" the MIT president wrote.

New technology has enabled the "reverse instruction" system to be adopted. This form of blended learning empowers students to learn new content online by watching video lectures wherever they are. What used to be "homework" is now done in class. The teacher's role is thus changed: he doesn't deliver lectures for students to take notes. He provides personalised guidance and interaction with students instead.

Is the Thai education system ready for this reverse learning style? Most students, I am sure, would welcome the change. The flipped classroom offers a new, more exciting way to learn. The problem isn't with the students. It's with teachers, most of whom, I suspect, would find the reversal an uphill task. Many would probably refuse to change for fear that they might lose the students' respect.

But unless changes happen in the classroom, Thailand's education reform will be stuck in the mud for a long, long time to come.


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