IBL and Flipped Classrooms compared


Last weekend I went to the MAA Michigan meeting to participate in a discussion of “innovative teaching techniques.” The session was organized by Robert Talbert from Grand Valley State University, and the other presenter was Dana Ernst from Northern Arizona University. This was a long trip, but I enjoyed going. It was especially nice to meet Robert in person (as we had only interacted on the internet before) and also to make the acquaintance of his colleague Matt Boelkins. (Dana and Matthew had planned a breakfast to discuss Matt’s open source book Active Calculus, and they graciously allowed me to sit in.)

Earlier today, Robert posted to his blog at the Chronicle some musings on the following question:

Is the modified Moore method an instance of the flipped classroom?

You should probably go read that post for context. Read it: Robert’s blog is good stuff.

I have been thinking about this all day. I am still uncertain about my feelings, partly because I don’t know enough about the “flipped classroom” approach. Anyway, here is my take on the essential similarity.

It seems to me there are great differences between IBL and the flipped classroom, but they have an essential nugget of commonality: to be effective, switch things around to make the students focus their energies on sense-making activities. Certainly, many IBL teachers do this as Moore did, by minimizing the amount of time spent on raw information dissemination from instructor to students. At least, that goes for class time. An important component of running a successful Modified Moore Method/IBL class is getting the sequence of tasks or activities structured _just so_. A great deal of the information transfer is actually buried in the class script. In fact, I want the important ideas to come out of the students work, so I must structure my questions so that
  1. students are eventually led to the ideas they need and come to a full understanding, but
  2. students really do have the experience of having those ideas for themselves.
It feels like a fancy magic trick. You want to give each student exactly what he or she needs to do it for himself or herself, and no more. The first run at this is communicated to the students through the careful choice of questions to answer and conjectures to prove or disprove.
Of course, even in a really strict traditionalist Moore Method style there is time for conversation and discussion, and any time that an instructor participates in this it serves as a vehicle for more information transfer. It is not quite the “this is a fact” kind of transfer, but still that is how it is done.
One Other Thought:

It seems that proponents of flipping a class think about things this way: move the routine information transfer stuff out of the classroom and take class time for rich mathematical activity.

As an IBL instructor, I strive for something a little different: move almost all of the student work out of the classroom, and use class time for discussion. Now, this is a rich mathematical activity. I see it as different, because I hope students spend their time “figuring things out” outside of the classroom, and I use class time for formative assessment and feedback. The whole class takes part in that process, in the open. Students explain and defend their ideas, and we all work on evaluating them and giving constructive feedback. It is a very particular flavor of mathematical activity.