• 05.09.12

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.