Flipping Anthropology

back to blog
  • posted byAnne
  • dateFebruary 1, 2013
  • comments5
Flipped Classroom

Next to MOOCs, the most popular term for transforming education in 2012 was the term “flipped classroom.” While no one completely agrees on the specifics, the term generally means that an instructor will “flip instruction” so that face-2-face classroom time is used better to engage the student in an active learning process. So, rather than using class time to lecture and home time to read and do assignments, students learn the background material in advance of class, then solidify that knowledge by doing various exercises and group activities to practice these concepts. The professor acts more as a tutor or facilitator, helping students solve problems, than as a fount of knowledge.

None of this is earth shattering news for anyone who has taught an anthropology seminar where class participation plays a key role and students are expected to have prepared by reading in advance. The instructor in this setting facilitates discussion, rather than lectures, and expertly steers that discussion in a productive direction. Today’s discussions of the flipped classroom, however, seem to differ in two ways. The first is that this methodology is being applied in large lecture settings. The second is that out-of-class preparation is now often done by using either recorded lectures or YouTube videos provided by companies like the Khan Academy or TED-Ed. Add to that the quickly growing number of free lectures available on MOOCs.

According to some boosters, students come out of flipped classrooms having retained significantly more than those coming out of the more traditional lecture model. To others, the love affair with the flip has faded. After all, is watching a video of a lecture any better than being in a lecture, especially if it has to be done outside of class when there are competing priorities?

As far as I can tell, flipping the classroom is just one form of a much less sexy concept: effective course design. Just as the hype around hybrid and online learning has started to fade with the realization that technology on its own will not produce good education, so too will the hype around flipped classrooms. But that leaves us back at trying to determine what effective course design means. While I know that there are as many good course designs as there are good instructors (and there are many, many of those), I imagine that one of the rules of thumb may be to use all elements of the educational experience (classroom time, readings, videos, assignments, activities, etc.) to mutually reinforce one another.

As a publisher of texts for classroom use, I’m interested in knowing how you use readings and texts effectively in the classroom. We know that students tend to not only buy the textbook, but actually read it, if it is worked into the course effectively. But what does that look like for you? Do you base assignments on your readings? Do you use textbooks as a general reference (also known as a security blanket) and then use your lectures to cover the information they will need to know for the exam? Do you assign readings for tutorials or to provoke small group discussions? Do you cover the important concepts in class and assign readings (like ethnographies) to illustrate those concepts? What kinds of books do you value most as support for your teaching? Feel free to leave a comment below or respond to us on Twitter (@TeachingCulture).

Anne Brackenbury, Anthropology Editor


Hide Post Comment
  1. Lindsay Bell says:

    Today I thought of this post. The show Spark on CBC radio did a story on a 12th grade “flipped” classroom.

    Links to the podcast are here:


    The teacher they interviewed was pre-recording lectures and then class time was devoted to working through the materials. She said she felt better able to connect with students this way. The technology piece was new to her, but she seemed positive.

    For the large first and second year courses, expecting readings to be done is tough. I don’t think students aren’t motivated, just when they make priorities, if you don’t have a “check” on them, then they will put their efforts in those classes that do.

    Like Andrew I have done the reading quizzes in tutorial. Those haven’t been super successful for me because then they ask me a million questions beforehand so that they read exactly for what they think the quiz question will be (admittedly, smart). When I teach linguistic anthropology they tend to focus on the minutia because its “hardest” and so they assume that its the most important.

    I have done the reading responses method and it seems to work better for me. I have them put them online 12 hours before class and then I browse them as I do my final preparations. I allow them to do exegesis as that is actually very hard. I don’t allow ‘critique’ as that usually just means the students listing what the author did NOT do… (this is pervasive with my Gender Studies students). They can raise a question or two, but a summary proves challenging. That said, the classes where I have done this, the students all say they end up really liking the class more. It means when we get to discussion, more people know what we are all on about.

    Can I see myself recording lectures and posting them before class? Not so much. Do I wish there was more time for small group work where we wade through challenging theory? Yes. Maybe I need to reconsider my answer to the first question…

    • Anne Brackenbury says:

      Thanks for taking the time to respond Lindsay! The reader response approach is interesting and likely one that fosters greater long-term retention of the material than a quiz. If you were to pre-record your lectures – what role would reading play? Would you ask them to watch the leture AND read something ahead of class? Seems a lot. I like what you have outlined here much better myself. But maybe that’s because I worry that in the flipped classroom there is little room for reading and it all becomes video lectures and edutainment!

      – Anne

  2. Andrew Walsh says:

    Hi Anne,

    Just this year I have gotten back to doing small tutorials with students in a second year “foundations of anthropology” course. Halfway through the term now, and it seems to be working really well — tutorials now make up 1/3 of class time and consist of students discussing pre-circulated questions regarding an assigned set of related readings. I confess, though, that they are working in part due to the fact that students are given a short quiz on the readings they will be discussing at the beginning of each tutorial. As unpopular as they can be with some students, and as much as they can be a pain to grade and manage, reading quizzes really do seem to do the job of ensuring that the students who show up for a tutorial discussion are really ready to go.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks Andrew. Tutorials are yet another time-honoured example of flipping the classroom aren’t they? And you’re not alone in using quizzes to get your students to read. I’ve come across a lot of instructors who do the samet thing. I guess if marks are what motivate the students then quizzes are the incentive they need to read. Is the reading you assign specifically geared to tutorials or do you assign reading as prep for lectures too? How do you work that reading into your lectures and how closely do you expect your textbook to match your own approach to teaching? Does your text reinforce/duplicate what you say in the lecture, or do you assume they have read it, allude briefly to what they were supposed to have read and then launch into anecdotes and examples of those concepts in action? Do you assign ethnographies as a way of bringing the concepts you discuss in class to life? Do you use any good videos, activities, visuals?

  3. Pingback: The Foraging Spectrum - and a spectrum of anthropology blogs | Anthropology Report

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.