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Learning at its Best

Assisted Accountability – The True Flipped Classroom

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(Originally posted on the Edunautics blog)

Eric Mazur introduced the flipped classroom to much interest a couple of decades ago. The idea—and a very good one—is that the time we have together in class is precious, and is being totally underutilized by a one-to-many dissemination of information. In the internet age, Mazur thought, why couldn’t we do the lecture outside of class, when homework would normally be done, and “work” with the concepts together, in class, when we had others around us to work with, not to mention the guidance of the expert teacher? Brilliant, no?

But I think there is an even more important flip that needs to follow. It’s flipped accountability. It’s part of a critical need to transform education by shifting the focus away from information and content (the stuff of 200 years ago) and towards skills and mindsets, to fully support development of human capacity.

Why do we need to shift? Two main reasons:

  1. The focus on information is damaging our children through the opportunity cost of what they are missing (see the work of Peter Gray on the criticality of mixed age, free play to fully develop human capacities) and because of the learning principle of “how we teach teaches more than what we teach” (“Do this math because I say so, or else, and how dare you have your own interests”).
  2. You actually learn content better when you are engaging with it as part of individually meaningful and socially relevant context

Before we move on, let’s dispel the myth that you have to sacrifice content in order to learn skills. It’s a false dichotomy that I’ve called out before. It is possible to “learn” content (or memorize, at least) without learning critical skills, but it is not possible to learn critical skills without learning content, and often much more deeply than through other means.

What is flipped accountability?

Special thanks to a colleague and friend, Yeshi Eperjsi, who led me to the term “assisted accountability” for this concept. I’m now using it, but it came from him. Assisted accountability means turning the current and damaging accountability model on its head. Currently, students are accountable to teachers (and parents). In the healthy model, students are accountable to themselves for meeting goals they set, with assistance from teachers and other mentors. Now, we are of course accountable to each other as members of a class, a school, a community…but when it comes to our own learning, we need to be accountable to ourselves. With help.

More on why it’s important

“Normal” accountability models reduce responsibility, shift drive from intrinsic to extrinsic, and decrease deep learning of content. Most students under that model are protesting the relationship deep within themselves, even if they don’t know it, which affects behavior and learning. Even the authority pleasers are not well-served by that relationship, in that it is enabling. Flipping the script to assisted accountability puts responsibility back into the hands of the learner, which allows for the learning of vastly greater lessons than just following directions, anticipating what an authority figure wants, and remembering information. I have innumerable friends who are in the business of coaching mid-career professionals in how to be more creative or innovative, better at building and leading teams and, in ever greater numbers, how to find work that is meaningful and enriching. I contend that if we flipped accountability in education early on, we would have far less of this “remedial education” to do with these later life professionals, because their efforts early on would be more in tune with their own pathway through the world and less in tune with just fitting the mold.

How do we flip accountability…?

We stop making it about cajoling students to do what we think they need and spend more time finding out what their goals are and supporting those. When you do this, you lose the weight of so much time managing discipline and you turn it into a human relationship that is fair. Children are hyper-sensitized to fairness, and when they are constantly servants to a master, it chafes them, causing them to act out. If you lose the impetus for the rebellion, you are left with vastly more energy on both sides of the equation to put into learning together. Do you lose some control over exactly what gets learned exactly when? Absolutely. But remember, if we harken back to the learning principle of “how we teach teaches more than what we teach,” we can see the tradeoff is worth it. Because mass production, assembly line learning dehumanizes, it produces resistance, outwardly and inwardly, requiring exertion of power to force compliance. What lesson are we teaching there? That how you get things done in the world is to use your power over others. That lesson is much more important and powerfully negative than any math, history, or other bit of information they would ostensibly be learning so efficiently.

An example

This seems as good a time as any to introduce a model of education I introduced at Green School in Bali, to show an example of how it might be done. My good friend and collaborator Noan Fesnoux helped shape and run run it. We called it LEAP Academy, for LEAN, ENTREPRENEURIAL, ACTION-BASED, PRODUCT-ORIENTED. It operates as a school-within-a-school and is totally independent of the regular program except where students choose to make use of it, such as taking one or two classes to help meet their goals.

The foundational way of operating in LEAP Academy is that nobody does anything that they do not enlist themselves in. Students enroll in the program out of choice, as do faculty coaches. There is no coercion of any kind. Each coach has about five students that they work with as a team on one or more group projects—with real world benefit— and individually as a personal coach for the student. Students choose what graduation and personal goals they would like to work toward, set targets and milestones, and enter into a co-created contract with their coach about how the coach will support them in meeting their own goals. It’s that simple.

See this video created by a LEAP Academy student about the experience.

You can see from the video that this was for high school age students. What might this look like in younger years? As Peter Gray describes, up until a certain age, and quite possibly for all ages, the ultimate version of flipped accountability may be simply maintaining a safe place for mixed-age free play with lots of opportunity for enrichment, investigation, and support. Even on their own, youngsters in these environments will learn not only what they need to know content-wise about the world (such as the 3 Rs), but even more importantly, they will also learn much of what school is currently teaching out of students, namely how to be nurturing, curious, adaptable, empathetic, knowledgeable of one’s own boundaries, firm in advocating for one’s needs but also understanding of and responsive to other’s needs.

Does all this mean you have to totally dissolve schools as we know them and start over? Well, ideally yes, in my opinion, but short of that there is much we can do in our own classrooms and existing structures to change the accountability model. For an example of how to still study a particular subject and yet maintain an assisted accountability framework, see the post Learning To Learn, by myself and Noan Fesnoux, located over at Eliad Group, my new education transformation consulting group.

A call for patience

Don’t expect changing the accountability model to “work” right away. I’ve seen teachers give freedom to their students and immediately claim the method doesn’t work because the students “went out of control”. As if it proves that’s the nature of children and we need to exert control every minute to prevent it. When students have been shaped and habituated by a pattern of responsiveness and extrinsic motivation during the entirety of their formative years, changing the pattern can be difficult and takes a period of “detoxing” in many cases. What can often occur is for students who have always jumped through hoops well in a normal program to do just as well in this type of environment, but for students who have not done as well, typically, to catch fire after three or four weeks and shock both parents and teachers…and themselves.

About Aaron Eden

What's your Give? I think that is a critical question in everything we do. What value are we creating? The core of my work is educating for a sustainable future. Value-oriented learning. Community-integrated learning. Social entrepreneurship. Emergent, inquiry-driven, entrepreneurial learning. I've spent the last 20 years designing and facilitating face-to-face and online learning experiences and co-creative processes that help individuals and organizations develop the skills and attributes to transform themselves and the world. I have extensive experience in instructional and learning experience design, innovation, and technology spaces.

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