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My Flipping Failure

by Richard Thornley on May 22, 2013


Popular YouTube chemistry professor shares lessons learned from his initial attempt at flipped instruction. 

I run a reasonably successful YouTube channel that contains videos for Higher Level International Baccalaureate Chemistry that are used by thousands of kids each day. The head of science, Brian Kahn, even managed to get some of us time off during the week to make them.  I put the favorable reception down to the fact that the course is complete, I have experience actually teaching the material for years, and I have made extensive use of video games to teach with.  Zombies, explosions and aliens have all made appearances. There are even some 3D videos and augmented reality.

Chemistry students have flocked to Richard Thornley’s YouTube videos, but trying to use them to implement a flipped classroom was harder than he expected!


Trying the Flip
Some teachers emailed me that they were using my videos to flip the classroom with success, so I thought I would give it a try.  Stoichiometry is a tricky part of chemistry – in fact I have even been asked if I know how to spell it at one interview!  Nothing in the science produces a bigger gap in ability than this tricky mathematical topic.  So I thought five weeks, five labs and five quizzes to be completed as and when the students decided.

I could then focus on the twenty percent of the kids who need one-on-one tuition and the other kids (who had seen most of the work the year before) would be kept occupied.  Anyone finishing early could get extra credit if they could come up with a creative project with an end-product.

I spent two solid days creating and collating labs that needed minimal supervision in plastic trays, worksheets, handouts, multiple versions of quizzes with answer schemes, polishing videos, reading best practice and checking text books.

A Hard Sell
The first lesson arrived and at most two students knew what a flipped classroom was and none of them was enthused.  They were ready to learn from the teacher in a classroom and it was a hard sell.  I am actually a decent teacher, but I was not going to teach them?  I may even have said “Trust me” at one stage.

The more able students careened through the work at double quick speed but did not seem to understand that they can move on to the next section with no supervision.  It proved impossible for me to break their habit of “returning to teacher” for the next part.  I was a new teacher for most of them doing something new and in hindsight this is obvious.  I did not want to shoo them away – I had only just met them!  I had sixteen times thirty second conversations at the start of each lesson – all different – most not needed.

I had no time to sit with the kids that required help – my attention was always split ten ways.  Some kids found the work boring and two dimensional.  There was also nowhere peaceful for the kids to do the quizzes – and I would forget they were doing these and thus not check for cheating. It did not go well.

After three weeks, nine of nine students who expressed an opinion said make it stop.  Those three weeks were so busy and I felt myself about to lose my temper at times – and not the fake ‘teacher losing temper’ either!

Lessons Learned
I gave a presentation to the entire faculty on the debacle which was greeted by, “Why don’t more people share their failures?” and a tacit agreement to do so. As yet only I have stuck my head above the parapet – I told the unfortunate students that this was my penance.  I apologized to individual parents on parent’s day.

Other teachers here had success with flipping but on closer inspection they had only done a couple of lessons, a cop-out I thought.  But I had clearly bitten off more that I could chew – I should have started smaller like them.  I am tempted to try it again next year with the major modification of self-graded quizzes that do not count and crystal clear explanation of the process.  But I fear that the new students will rebel as the stink of the flip may have permeated down!  If I flipped again would I be doing it to prove I can get it to work or because of my sunk costs or for the benefit of the students or because it is the “in” thing to do – I do not know.

All’s well that ends well and everything worked itself out and no harm was done.  There is plenty of evidence that the flipped classroom works but my advice is to start small scale and with kids where a relationship already exists.  Besides, I actually enjoy teaching stoichiometry – so why would I deny myself that?

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
Have you Flipped your Classroom? How are you Using Class Time?
Measured Results Demonstrate Enhanced Learning Outcomes in the Flipped Classroom
Salman Khan’s Inspiring One World Schoolhouse



is a Chemistry teacher at the United Nations International School in New York City.

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