Ted Purinton: Flipped Classrooms Put Student Discovery, Learning at Center

Out of 148 African, Asian and Western countries surveyed in the 2013 – 2014 Global Competitiveness Report recently released by the World Economic Forum, Egypt ranked last in terms of the quality of primary education, which experts contend lays the foundation for learning and development in later stages of life. Egypt is in dire need of educational reform, but what direction should this reform take?

“When we think of educational reform, we usually think of systems, programs, structures and plans, and we tend to skip the main component of any reform process –– people,” said Ted Purinton, associate provost for strategic initiatives, associate professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Education.

In the past, Purinton explained, education was looked upon as “knowledge transmission,” whereby an instructor conveys information to students, who take in that knowledge and relay it back through a test, project or assignment. Today, research has produced new insights about pedagogy and student assessment. “Educational systems worldwide, unfortunately, are geared toward ineffective social structures, instructional practices and learning paradigms that are difficult to undo,” said Purinton. “There is an enormous body of knowledge and a vast range of skills to motivate and encourage learning, yet reform strategies continue to be based on limited knowledge of the ways in which students of all ages and ability levels learn and demonstrate skills and knowledge within particular subject domains.”

For educational reform to be effective, teachers should be at the core of the process, affirmed Purinton. Teachers must not only have a solid knowledge base of the subject area they are teaching, but must also understand the cognitive, social and emotional development of students.

Many educational researchers look to the theories of the late Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget’s cognitive development theory stipulates that all children pass through common stages of physical, social and cognitive development, according to their biological maturation at different ages. There are individual differences in the rate at which children progress through the stages, but all children –– no matter where they come from –– pass through these universal stages in the same order: sensorimotor stage (learning through concrete objects), preoperational (introduction of abstract thinking and symbols), concrete operational (ability to hypothesize, deduce and reason) and formal operational (mastery of problem solving).

Even though Piaget’s cognitive development theory was not directly related to education, it has proven effective when researchers apply it to the learning and teaching of students of all ages and the development of educational policy. “Students at different ages think in different ways, so understanding the characteristics of the average, or typical, student at a certain age is very useful for teachers in planning their lessons and setting suitable tasks inside and outside the classroom,” said Purinton. “It allows them to understand students according to the different stages of their growth. If teachers understand the cognitive, social and physical developmental stages that their students experience, they will then be able to tailor and adjust their instructional methods accordingly.”

One of the main tenets of Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory is learner participation. To acquire knowledge, students must engage in active discovery learning through exploration, debate and hands-on experiments. “The teacher’s role should be to facilitate learning, not directly transmit knowledge,” said Purinton. “Teachers need to constantly develop innovative ways that stimulate students, and make the learning process engaging. Rather than listening to a lecture, students often have more success when learning on their own or in groups, with the teacher guiding them through materials and situations that would allow them to explore and discover new things. Often, people believe this diminishes the role of the teacher; but actually, the role of the teacher is even more important in this type of learning, as the guidance becomes the most critical part of the process.”

The issue of “readiness,” or the idea that students can only understand certain concepts at a certain age, also comes into play in Piaget’s theory. “If students have not reached the appropriate stage of cognitive development, it will be difficult for them to understand the concepts at hand, and it is important to understand that cognitive development does not always match age,” said Purinton. “Some students struggle to learn concepts in a particular subject area, and a teacher who understands the potential cognitive misinterpretations can be more effective in the classroom. Even the most brilliant mathematicians, as teachers, for instance, may lead students astray if they don’t understand how students at different cognitive levels misconstrue specific mathematical concepts. Sadly, many teachers across the globe do not know how to reach students who struggle with the age-benchmarked concepts, and we start losing pupils who don’t express their intelligence in the same way that the educational system is structured.”

Teacher training, therefore, should focus on how a certain subject should be taught at a certain developmental level, according to how students mentally process and learn the subject, argued Purinton. “With the current system, it’s not difficult to be a teacher,” he said. “You just need to have a good grasp of the subject and know what you’re talking about. But that shouldn’t be the case. A highly qualified teacher, on the other hand, should constantly ask: What more should I do to meet my students’ needs? Just like a good physician asks a lot of questions to dig deep into a patient’s history, a good teacher needs to know a lot about students’ cognitive development in order to ask the right questions.”

But it’s not just teachers who need to be trained. Parents also need to understand the power of a student-centered approach, where “students don’t depend on their teacher all the time, waiting for instructions, words of approval, correction, advice or praise,” as Leo Jones put it in The Student-Centered Classroom. To do that, flexibility in the curriculum is required, but that is often met with resistance from both students and parents. “Teachers who want to be more engaging and creative face difficulties because parents and students often are confused about such approaches,” explained Purinton. “Parents, often for lack of other information to make appropriate decisions, focus on superficial things when selecting a school, such as the brand name, curriculum, facilities and class size. If you ask a tuition payer which is more important – a good teacher or small class size – they would probably say a small class size. Research has shown, however, that a highly competent teacher with 35 students in class can be much more effective than a moderate teacher with 15 students. And by competent, I mean knowledgeable of not just the subject area, but also students’ cognitive development and subject-specific pedagogical theories.”

One of the new approaches that many parents have tended to be resistant to is the flipped classroom concept, whereby students watch online lectures at home, and discuss the concepts with their peers online and in class, with the instructor’s guidance. This form of experiential learning makes use of educational technology, such as multimedia, hypermedia and virtual reality, which enables students to interact with each other within a three-dimensional environment; of peer teaching, where students initiate and work collaboratively on projects; and of learning through hands-on activities. “Parents are not always willing to pay for what they see as an experiment, even though much research can prove its benefit,” said Purinton. “Because it has not infiltrated educational culture, it is not seen as normal practice.”

Because parents focus on the “superficial” aspects of education, schools are conditioned to enhance these aspects, and since it is often hard to see genuine teacher quality, it becomes less of a priority. “Parents, students and teachers are trapped in a system in which traditional markers, such as GPA, are the main extrinsic motivators,” said Purinton. “The passing of knowledge becomes cemented in this old paradigm of knowledge and cognition, where the focus is on the end product, not the process of learning itself; on finding a job, not on developing lifelong skills. Teachers must be given the responsibility and know-how to make decisions regarding their students’ development. Only then will we achieve the aspirations of our educational systems by equitably developing imaginative leaders and thinkers who can solve the most challenging problems of this world.”