As a law professor with nearly 20 years’ experience, Steven Penney remembers clearly when student distraction went from a minor annoyance to a widespread problem. “The moment laptops came into the classroom, everything changed,” says Penney, who teaches at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “Before that, a disengaged student would doodle or pass notes surreptitiously. With laptops, students have infinite possibilities for distraction.”
Three years ago, Penney responded by flipping his classroom—recording his lectures and posting them online for students to watch before class. He would then spend class time helping students apply that knowledge to specific problems and case studies, alone and in groups, with lots of discussion. In this way, classroom flipping is particularly well suited to teaching law.
He’s noticed a definite change for the better. “The miracle of the flip is all the class time it frees up,” Penney says. “It allows me to take the students farther down the path of learning.”
The practice of classroom-flipping has become increasingly widespread among university faculty across many departments, but Penney is a rare bird among law professors. And he learned how to do it from his U of A law faculty colleague Peter Sankoff, the flipped-classroom pioneer in Canadian legal education.
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Breaking with tradition
“I was the first law professor in Canada to flip the classroom,” Sankoff says. “At least that’s what I believe, and I’ve yet to be contradicted on that claim.” Sankoff says there are no more than a dozen law professors in Canada who flip their classrooms. In the United States the practice is more widespread, he says. “But even there it’s surprisingly uncommon.”
Law schools and professors, steeped in prestige and tradition, have been slow to adapt to new ways of teaching. Sankoff started flipping his classroom in 2012 and has since become a champion of the practice. He has spoken about it at a number of conferences, and his website features a number of useful resources explaining how it works. The nature of law is about interacting with people and solving problems, and flipping allows students to spend class time doing exactly that.
Professor Penney adds that students can watch pre-recorded lectures as often as they want until they understand the foundational knowledge of the next class, and arrive ready to participate.
Both educators find flipping to be a more rewarding way to teach. “I tell my colleagues, ‘you’re too gifted to repeat the same lectures year after year,’” says Sankoff. “Record it once, and spend class time doing better things.”
Read more about Professor Penney’s flipped classroom in Top Hat’s new e-book, in which he is one of 13 professors sharing their ideas on how to create a more engaged classroom.