The Flipped Classroom: Fertile Ground for Teaching Environmental Education

There's a grassroots movement trending in communities across the country. It started with a handful of tech-savvy pioneers and a few innovative educators. Slowly, it moved in to the mainstream, catching the attention of parents and kids searching for a better way. Forward-thinking businesses and avant-garde entrepreneurs saw the immense, untapped potential and jumped on board. Now, it's cropping up everywhere.


No, people aren't protesting on the city green or picketing the statehouse. But don't be fooled, these demonstrations are no less transformative than the acts of dissent that you read about in the headlines today. Don't worry … the demonstrations that I am referring to are peaceful (far more effective) and available online for participating students. Watch and learn. Once this movement goes viral, it just may change the world.


So what's going on?


An increasing number of educators are experimenting with an innovative learning model using technology to streamline the delivery of subject matter, increasing access to quality curricula and also freeing up valuable classroom time for creativity, experimentation, collaboration, remedial work and further exploration of topics that can help students better understand the world around them and their place within it.


A caveat before I continue … It's not my intention to be overly critical of our current education system. I was raised in a family of educators and know first-hand the positive influence that they have had on their students. But I truly believe this is a topic worth exploring. Here's why …


The world is changing faster than we can understand it. To make matters worse, too many of our children are not receiving the education they need to be personally successful, let alone the information they will need to make a positive contribution to complicated issues of global significance. Salman Kahn, a former hedge fund analyst turned online educator, states in his book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined,


"To be successful in a competitive and interconnected world, we need every mind we have; to solve our common problems regarding relations among peoples and the health of our planet, we need all the talent and imagination we can find. What sense does it make to filter out a percentage of kids so early in the game, to send a message that they have nothing to contribute? What about the late bloomers? What about the possible geniuses who happen to look at the world differently from most of us and may not test well at an early age?"


It is important to realize that the traditional American education system was modeled after the Prussian philosophy of the early 19th century. Among the first countries in the world to introduce tax-funded and mandatory primary education, the Prussians did not create their education system to produce independent and innovative thinkers…quite the opposite. They wanted a uniform population of capable workers prepared to fill the jobs of the early industrial age and to produce loyal and law-abiding citizens with strict instruction in duty, discipline and obedience.


Don't get me wrong. These are all important qualities that should be instilled in our children as part of their education. In truth, the current education model served our nation remarkably well up to this point in time. American democracy has been one of the greatest experiments in human governance that the world has ever seen. I believe our education system played a vital role in unifying our nation of immigrants, while preserving the rich diversity of our individual cultural heritages. It has encouraged us to live peacefully under one system of government through many challenges that could have just as easily divided us. However, as Thomas Jefferson once said:


I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions … But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their …ancestors." - Jefferson to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), July 12, 1816


So, here we are in the 21st century. Human minds have certainly progressed since the time of Thomas Jefferson. Our nation has matured and become more enlightened. Many new discoveries have been made. In fact, Jefferson never could have imagined the transformative power of the Internet, but he certainly left provisions for change when the need arose.  Well, it is no longer a question of when? That time is now. The U.S. education system has already been slipping internationally over the past three decades, according to the Council for Foreign Relations' Renewing America Initiative. The more relevant question is how?


Today, the stage has been set for digital learning. The Internet pervades our society. Social media has been dubbed "the single most disruptive innovation in the history of industrialized civilization". It has changed the way we interact with each other, how we access information and get our daily news, the tools we use to conduct business and shop for consumer goods … even how we express our approval or dissatisfaction with everything from people and popular trends to government policies. However, when it comes to how we educate our children, we are still surprisingly behind the curve.


Fortunately, more and more educators are using technology in their classrooms, but challenges still remain. How do they successfully cover all of the requirements of the Common Core State Standards in the time they have allotted for each subject, and still adequately address students with different abilities and learning styles? Some have suggested extending the school day, or even the school year. However, many legal and logistical obstacles stand in the way of these changes, which may take years to implement. Meanwhile, kids are falling through the cracks year after year. Why not rethink the way we engage students within the existing system to ensure that they assimilate the information more efficiently?


The flipped (or blended learning) classroom is one such alternative where students first study the topic by themselves, typically using video lessons prepared by the teacher or third parties like the Khan Academy, a non-profit educational website created in 2006. In the classroom, students apply the knowledge they learn at home by solving problems, participating in discussions and doing practical work. The teacher has an increased amount of class time to tutor students when they become stuck, rather than lecturing the entire class period. It is also creates an excellent opportunity to incorporate environmental education into the curriculum.


Complementary techniques used in a blended learning environment include differentiated instruction, providing students with different ways to acquire and make sense of ideas. Teachers develop lesson plans and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively regardless of differences in ability. Online resources allow teachers to tailor instruction to student's individual needs, providing real-time measurements of achievement and concept-level proficiency. The flipped classroom structure also allows time for project-based instruction where students first learn the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce real results.


Both of these methods incorporate digital tools to produce high quality, collaborative instruction; refocusing the motivation to learn on the student, promoting a greater depth of understanding of concepts, a broader knowledge base, enhanced communication and leadership skills, increased creativity, and improved writing proficiency.


For most of the students who now populate our schools, the Internet has always been a part of their lives and social media is their preferred method of communication. So it makes sense to reach (and teach) them where they live. Refitting the classroom with innovative technologies is a powerful way to customize the learning experience and promote increased engagement with subject matter, to ensure that all students are prepared to meet the rigorous demands of an ever-changing world.




Education is a powerful instrument of change. Let it be the first tool that we reach for in our arsenal of solutions, when facing life's many challenges."


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Comment by Elizabeth Milli on December 19, 2013 at 12:22pm

Hi Colin. I finally finished the follow-up article to my first "flipped classroom" blog. You mentioned that you were interested in hearing more specifics on how this new education model can enhance EE. As I mentioned in previous comments, I highly recommend the PBS DVD "Growing Greener Schools". I took your advice and have started reading The Nature Principle (I've already read Louv's Nature Deficit Disorder, which took me back to my own childhood experiences in nature and put them in larger perspective, providing inspiration for many writing projects). I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this new post.

Comment by Elizabeth Milli on October 4, 2013 at 4:36am

Yes, the C&NN is a tremendous resource in this regard. I suppose it will take an increasing amount of success stories to realize the goal of universal EE in the classroom. I watched a PBS documentary called Growing Greener Schools, which I found quite inspiring. It features kids, teachers and administrators giving a first-hand account of their experiences. The kid's reactions are the best! They really take pride in their efforts. I put a trailer for the DVD on my Teach Green blog site. It's under the header "Green Schools".

I'll get started on that next article...I'm open for suggestions if you (or anyone) thinks of any.

Comment by Conor McMullan on October 3, 2013 at 9:09pm

I appreciate the response Elizabeth and look forward to reading the 2nd article in the series. We're seeing some positive developments in some of our inner city schools where innovative and community driven initiatives are providing opportunities for less privileged kids to get out and explore the outdoors. 

There is a good range of EE programming taking place in the Metro Vancouver area although I don't believe there's as much coordination at the regional and national level. From what I've seen, the C&NN is making good inroads in this regard and this is encouraging. 

Comment by Elizabeth Milli on October 3, 2013 at 10:19am

Thanks for your input Conor. I probably should have mentioned that this was Part 1 of 2 articles on the Flipped Classroom that I also have posted on my own blog The second in the series will address more specific opportunities for not only EE in the classroom curriculum, but will also leave time for kids to participate in the greening of their schools in general. 

Additionally, I consult for our local Leave No Child Inside in Ohio -US and what I am hearing is that the children who are most deprived of experiences in nature are also children least likely to have the means to get there. So I see this education model as a way to use technology to free up classroom time in order to get these kids outside in some sort of natural setting. Even if it is in a garden in the schoolyard or participating in eco-friendly activities within the classroom. If we can instill a love of nature in the classroom, hopefully it will carry over to other areas of their lives. How is the progress of EE in Canadian classrooms?

Comment by Conor McMullan on October 2, 2013 at 11:01pm

The flipped classroom model certainly provides opportunities for individualizing learning yet I'd be interested in hearing more specifics on how this can help enhance EE.  

While I think many would agree that the most powerful experiences in nature are direct and unmediated (ie. unplugged), this doesn't mean that technology can't be incorporated as a means of supporting and enriching outdoor learning. Providing more opportunities for students to connect with the less known (nature) through the digital realm may aid in building on the idea of the hybrid mind discussed in Louv's The Nature Principle. 

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