Why Flip The Classroom When We Can Make It Do Cartwheels?

Adding some technology to the educational process is one thing, but truly revolutionary learning experiences take a deeper sort of innovation, which you can see at a program at Duke working for change in Haiti.

We all know what a traditional college classroom looks like: students in rows stare glassy-eyed at the professor who drones on, paying more attention to the equations he’s writing on the board than the students he’s supposed to be teaching. No wonder many are proposing using digital technology to "flip" the classroom. In flipping, students do the homework before class, typically reading course materials or watching videos of lectures online. Class time is spent on individual or small group tutoring, with the lesson plan set by the student, concentrating on areas he didn’t understand.

In some ways, the flipped model is an improvement. Research shows that tailored tutoring is more effective than lectures for understanding, mastery, and retention. But the flipped classroom doesn’t come close to preparing students for the challenges of today’s world and workforce. As progressive educational activist Alfie Kohn notes, great teaching isn’t just about content but motivation and empowerment: Real learning gives you the mental habits, practice, and confidence to know that, in a crisis, you can count on yourself to learn something new. That’s crucial in a world where, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, adults change careers (not just jobs) four to six times or where, as an Australian study predicts, 65% of today’s teens will end up in careers that haven’t even been invented yet. We don’t need to flip the classroom. We need to make it do cartwheels.

In the future, I’ll talk about cheap, easy, low-tech, no-frills ways to make any classroom (or even a stale business meeting) do cartwheels. For now, though, I want to focus on one inspiring example of what higher education aspires to beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower. I know this works because it’s happening just down the hall from me, in the Haiti Lab at Duke University.

The Haiti Lab, directed by historian Laurent Dubois and literary scholar Deborah Jenson, brings together faculty and the students in courses they already teach (i.e. low institutional cost) in a range of fields such as history, law, environmental science, epidemiology, anthropology, religion, global health, and public policy. Students still learn content in class but they bring their specialized learning to the Haiti Lab where they work on collaborative, real-world problems as well as on supplementary skills (ranging from Haitian Creole to data visualization and online tool development for public documentation of their work).

Just having interdisciplinary connectivity across the infamous silos of academe to focus on projects and problems is unusual. But the world-spinning really happens in the Haiti Labs’ partnerships beyond Duke, such as with a Family Health Ministries’ clinic in Leogane, Haiti, that links Duke students with local community health workers. Using Movi for tele-seminars and Blackboard and GoogleDocs for document sharing, the collaboration has also built close ties with Haitian universities trying to maintain their education and research in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake.

The Lab’s public WordPress site for a trilingual Haiti digital library is purposely low on graphics and design to enable quicker access by Haitian partners. These international teams collaborated with faculty and students at Sherbrooke University (Quebec) and kids at Baltimore Friends School on archival work as part of the digital Marronnage archive in Saint-Domingue that brings together the scattered documents of the French transatlantic slave trade. One spectacular archival contribution brought joy to Haiti’s bleakest moment when Duke doctoral student Julia Gaffield, working in the British Museum, found and identified the only known, extant copy of the 1804 Haitian Declaration of Independence.

That’s not all. In 2010, when a cholera outbreak was reported in Haiti, many Haitians insisted the disease had to have been carried to the island by aid workers, because the country had never experienced cholera before. Epidemics are contained by locating their source, rarely a simple matter. It didn’t seem possible that this was an original incidence of cholera. The Haiti Lab got busy: medical researchers and historians, teachers and students, Americans and Haitians worked around the clock, scouring newspapers, journals, and ship records all the way back to 1833, documenting it all in a public Cholera Time Map. They discovered several cholera outbreaks throughout the Caribbean, but none in Haiti. With help from the map, global health officials (including from the UN) were able to act swiftly to isolate the source and curtail the impact of the disease on an already devastated country. Jenson and her fellow Haiti Lab professor Victoria Szabo published the findings in the scientific journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

When you decide to change higher ed with the purpose of changing the world, you aim high. Because of academic freedom—freedom of ideas but also freedom from having to produce an income or a profit—you can achieve what few other investments achieve: a return on our society’s future, not just on quarterly Wall Street reports.

The cartwheeled classroom not only connects text books and classrooms to the real world, but it also inspires, uplifts, and offers the joy of accomplishment. Transformative, connected knowledge isn’t a thing—it’s an action, an accomplishment, a connection that spins your world upside down, then sets you squarely on your feet, eager to whirl again. It’s a paradigm shift.

In the lecture hall next to the Haiti Lab hangs a beautiful illuminated mural in shades of glowing, vibrant gold. Haiti: History Embedded in Amber is a collaborative project directed by artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. Lab members created individual amber-colored resin blocks, with images of memorial objects, art, and remembrances printed on transparencies embedded between the resin layers. In the digital version, you click on a block and its story is revealed, a shining history of a country but also a testimonial to a promising, new form of education.

The flipped classroom isn’t likely to change the world. Energized, connected, engaged, global, informed, dedicated, activist learning just might.

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  • Uncle Bruno

    The US Dept of Labor doesn't track "career" changes.  Where did you get the 4-6 career change figure?

  • Wes Roberts

    Ever since having had the significant privilege of being at a White House briefing on the future of education in early April at the end of the Q Conference, I've been more attuned to what our education needs are globally, and not just in the US of A.  Congratulations to what is being learned in Haiti and shared with the rest of us...thank you!  It's high time we move from too many "lulled to numb" ways of education and value experience in the learning process, experience together across disciplines, to meet and change the needs of our world.  I'm almost 70yo, so physical cartwheels are not my thing...  :-)  ...but this olde soul is turing them inside my mind in celebration of what I've just read.  Keep exploring, discovering and helping us all learn.  Again...thank you!  Our great, great, great, great grandchildren also thank you!!!

  • Cathy Davidson

     Thanks for this lovely comment.   It's tragic to live in a world of digital connection and not include learning in that global enterprise.  We have as much to learn from one another as we have to give one another.

  • Marten Douma

    Flipped classes contra learning cartwheel style [or something like that] is a vals opposition. Flipped classes bring technology outside class, so contact mments can be used for real learning in stead of lecturing.
    @Titaantje [teaching history and elearning in Dutch teacher training college

  • leesean

    Thanks for the article. I am a design educator and will take these references in mind when designing my curriculum.

  • Andrew Bonamici

    Participation in efforts like this should be expected of all undergraduates, especially at research universities. "College Completion" and credentialing through commoditized credit hour instruction are wholly inadequate goals.For another great example of a cartwheel, see the Sustainable Cities Initiative at the University of Oregon (http://sci.uoregon.edu), especially the Sustainable Cities Year (http://sci.uoregon.edu/scy/):"The Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP) is a partnership between SCI and one city in Oregon per academic year in which a number of courses from across the University focus on assisting that city with its sustainability goals and projects."The cities put something on the table, but they get a lot in return:"....Salem, the selection for 2010–11, presented fourteen projects, which tapped Sustainable City Year for an even broader range of resources: twenty-eight courses, twenty-five faculty members, ten departments and programs (including journalism, law, and business management in an increasingly interdisciplinary mix), and 500 or so UO students (devoting 80,000 hours to SCY projects, according to a favorable New York Times story). Portland State also got involved, contributing its expertise in civil and environmental engineering. The agreed-to cost for Salem was $345,000...."source: http://www.oregonquarterly.com... from the Salem year are available at http://sci.uoregon.edu/salem-r... BonamiciUniversity of Oregon Libraries

  • Cathy Davidson

     Thanks so much for this.  I think the UO program is one of the very best in the country and should be a model for others.

  • emilyfoote

    Excellent article.  Thank you for sharing.   Earlier this morning I read a post critiquing massive online open courses (MOOCs) such as Udacity, Coursera and edX.  While I think all are great examples of how the power of technology can even the playing field for all Learners, I agree with the critique I read which noted that we have a lot of progress to make with respect to the Learner's engagement level.  Ms. Davidson's comment attributed to Alfie Kohn that great teaching isn't just about content but about motivation and empowerment struck me as where I think progress in the edtech world should head.  Each of the described cartwheeled classrooms above are incredible examples of empowering and motivating the Learner by connecting the classroom to the real world, crossing disciplines and using technology to collaborate.  Again, thank you for sharing. 

  • Rajan Singh

    Hi Cathy: Here is my (somewhat critical) response to criticism of MOOCs :)

    I agree that lecturing is not the best teaching methodology and we need a lot more innovation  (which is thankfully happening). However, we should remember that all progress happens in steps, and the first step is not a bad thing, just because it falls short of where the second step takes you. By that logic we would call Neils Bohr stupid because he did not give us the formulation of quantum mechanics, which Schrodinger did. 

    I think MOOCs are a great first step, and I am learning more from them than i did during my undergraduate days at India's leading engineering school. MOOCs will one day look horribly outdated (as they should) but i think they have achieved something unimaginable a few years back. I tip my (imaginary) hat to them, to you, and to everyone who is pushing the boundaries of learning. 


  • Cathy Davidson

     Thanks for your comment.   Online education is getting better and better at motivating on a micro level, challenging learners to the next level, but is very poor at motivating those who have no investment or interest in the subject to begin with.   THAT is what a great teacher can do that, so far, online learning cannot.   Games, however, have been powerful motivators for some students in some areas, especially augmented reality games that connect learning to real world problems and real world solutions. 

  • EduPerformance.com

    So true, hope we will soon move on from the industrial revolution's education model to something more participative and rewarding for students !