Flipped learning

Andy Bailey offers an alternative approach to teaching language skills effectively

Globalisation and the internet have helped the world to change ever faster and grow ever smaller. We all know that, I think.  However, it also means that in our world of today, clear communication is now more important than ever. It also means that a working, effective knowledge of the English language, as the means of ensuring that global communication, is now an imperative for businesses.

For any organisation with global ambitions this means making sure employees know how to speak English, and speak it well, because it is the international language of business. However, effectively teaching language skills has always been a bit of a challenge – especially when it comes to educating full-time workers who have so many other demands on their time. The business that finds a way to do this well is one that can build a competitive edge in today’s global marketplace.

For over 50 years now my organisation has been providing English language training (alongside other languages and programmes) for people in the workplace. In that time we’ve found that a flipped learning approach works best to help workers develop the language skills they need, quickly and effectively.

Flipped learning turns traditional education on its head by having learners do ‘classwork’ at home and ‘homework’ in the classroom. The benefit, we’ve found, is that this approach lets teachers spend more effective one-on-one time with students, and helps students get support and feedback when they need it most. As a result, learning occurs more easily and in less time.

The need for change in education

Innovation, communication, creativity and collaboration skills are more important than ever in today’s global and uncertain business environment, and employees with flexible, adaptable and creative skillsets will ensure businesses remain competitive no matter what market challenges lay ahead. Helping them to develop and maintain such skills means encouraging them into lifelong learning habits so they can keep up with changing modern work demands. 

Online and information technologies can help with this. Web-based learning and the cloud, for example, enable adult learners to access new information at any time, anywhere far more easily. Virtualisation, simulation, gamification and streaming content now let learners access new, and dare I say it more engaging, classroom-experiences like never before. And they can do so when it’s most convenient, allowing them to proceed at the pace that works best for them. 

The need for better language education
More than ever, lifelong learning is critical for business success, as is having solid communication skills, especially in English. Numerous studies have found that the ability to speak English, the lingua franca of global business, correlates with greater innovation and even higher national GDP. Strong modern communication skills, in other words, contribute to better wellbeing for individuals, companies and nations alike.

Obviously, then, the businesses that can effectively educate their workforces to speak English well are those that are best positioned for success. Flipped learning has proven to be an especially effective way to teach adult employees good English language skills. Why? Let’s begin by taking a closer look at exactly what flipped learning is.

Flipped learning – what is it?

The concept of flipped learning first emerged in the 1990s, gaining acceptance as new technologies like the internet made it ever easier to create and share up-to-date and engaging content with large, virtual audiences. The basic idea involves learners studying new concepts – for example listening to a ‘lecture’ on their own. The classroom, then, becomes a place where students can do ‘homework’ under the supervision of an instructor, who can offer one-on-one help and guidance whenever they need it. This is a model quite different to traditional practices, where new concepts are typically taught by the teacher in the classroom and ‘homework’ time is where those concepts are practiced.

By flipping the traditional approach to classwork and homework, teachers can be on hand when students most need expert support, leading to reduced frustration during the learning process. Rather than having to do exercises and work on their own, without having someone to turn to when questions arise, learners benefit from being able to ask their instructor for help at the moment they encounter an unfamiliar task or challenge.

It’s not really a change in method as much as it’s a change in mindset: instead of focusing on the teacher during classroom lectures and lessons, flipped learning puts the focus on students’ needs, and what works best to help them absorb and retain new material.

Why flipped learning?
For adult learners in the workplace, flipped learning can be especially effective. That’s because they – as well as the instructors – tend to be more pressed for time and are expected to meet multiple other demands in addition to learning.

Employees looking to improve their English skills benefit from flipped learning because they are able to make the most of their classroom time to fine-tune their abilities in relevant, productive ways rather than simply parroting lessons from a textbook. Workplace instructors, meanwhile, can offer more personalised attention according to each learner’s needs, rather than having to focus on rote lessons and lectures.

That’s a far cry from traditional education, which was designed for another age (the industrial revolution) where factory-like classroom instruction, standardised tests and mass-production-type curricula were the rule.

By contrast, a flipped-learning-focused approach like the Minerva Project, a new San Francisco-based university, emphasises independent work, outside-the-class education and one-on-one support to prepare students for lifelong learning and ‘jobs that don’t exist yet.’

Why flipped learning for language learning?
Flipped learning enables workplace teachers to provide their students with more engaging and conversation-led instruction. More routine tasks such as vocabulary lessons and practice exercises, meanwhile, can be handled through online, interactive and on-demand instruction when it’s most convenient for each individual student.

Learners used to a more traditional educational approach might need a bit of help at first to get the greatest benefits from flipped learning. One public school in the US that adopted flipped learning, for instance, found that it helped when teachers spent the first few classroom sessions discussing the approach with students and teaching them how to take effective notes during online lessons.

Flipped learning – real-world results
While it’s been proving its effectiveness for a number of decades now, flipped learning has seen something of a renaissance lately as new technologies like the cloud have made such instruction even easier to deliver on an anywhere, any time basis. Companies can now easily find – or develop on their own – interactive, multimedia content for a wide variety of learners in different business roles, departments or sectors, and can quickly update or revise materials as needed.

This is helping to move adult language education far beyond the one-size-fits-all approach that was all too common (as well as ineffective) in the past. Today’s technology-enabled, often cloud-based, flipped learning curriculum can deliver a more personal form of instruction that’s able to satisfy many different types of learning styles. It can also provide tailor-made education for very specific, even niche, English-language skills.

Flipped learning has shown that it can deliver significant, tangible results. For example, Michigan’s Clintondale High School, which started offering an all-flipped curriculum in 2011, saw the percentage of students failing classes drop from 30 per cent to under 10 per cent after making the switch. The approach has helped the school prevent ‘silent failers’ who tended to avoid seeking extra help in class, and has also boosted the number of students pursuing further education in college.

A University of Delaware study that compared flipped and traditional classrooms for Spanish language education found that students in flipped classes with just two days of classwork a week were just as proficient as those in traditional courses who came to the classroom four times a week. The study also found that teachers reported that students in flipped classes seemed more confident in their spoken language skills.

A 2014 Israeli study on flipped learning found that, ‘The students reported that watching videos between lessons enhanced interest, alleviated boredom, and enriched the learning. To a lesser extent, they reported it increased their involvement in learning, understanding of the learning material, and confidence in their ability to understand it.’


Approaches towards flipped learning and language education are likely to keep evolving as new technologies such as real-time translations and artificial intelligence emerge and advance. However, the flexibility it already provides for today’s adult learners is already helping many businesses develop the workforce skills they need to compete in today’s competitive global environment.The beneficial results that flipped learning can deliver are undeniable. It’s a workplace education approach that’s not only proven but is here to stay. 


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