What if you flipped the flipped classroom?

When instructors “flip” their classrooms, they generally assign prep work ahead of in-person or virtual meetings. The thinking is that learners can consume lectures as video content; they can master foundational concepts or facts on their own, by reading or watching videos. This frees teaching time for guided work on problem-solving, analysis, and applying learning to various tasks.

Guild Masters Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson, partners at APPLY Synergies, suggest flipping that model one more time: Flip it “application forward,” which Mosher also describes as “flipping after the classroom experience” in a 2016 article, “3 Ways to Flip the Classroom.”

“A lot of people flipped the other way: They flip before. They think of all these things they need to do and provide the learners before they get to class, so that when they come to my room they’re prepared to learn,” Mosher said. “Con [Gottfredson] would say that’s not what it’s about. What it’s all about is what happens after they leave your room.”

What does it mean to flip the classroom application-forward?

Start with critical skills analysis

According to Mosher, Gottfredson coined the term “critical skills analysis” 15 years ago, and, while developing that concept, he “had an epiphany.” When studying critical skills and tasks, instructional designers commonly look at which tasks are “important”; they rank tasks from simple to complex; and they are accustomed to grouping concepts and chunking information. “These are all very familiar words to IDs,” Mosher said, “but Con said there is a missing variable that changes the whole nature of the classroom.” That variable is criticality.

Criticality is measured in terms of the consequences of an error, Mosher said. Gottfredson “has a rubric—a one-to-seven rubric, very specific, bulleted, what is a one, what is a two, what is a three. You can imagine: Ones are totally inconsequential, meaning if I fail, it’s a blip on the screen, I have to look something up; it takes me a couple seconds, and I’m right back where I was before, and frankly, no one but me notices. It doesn’t hurt the company; it doesn’t hurt me,” Mosher explained. “Now a seven? A seven. If you screw up on a seven, people die. Maybe literally. Companies are sued. Customers are lost. So these are things he puts under a seven, right? So then you can imagine that there’s all the things in between.”

Once the task analysis is done and Mosher and Gottfredson know the workflow, the typical day, and the tasks that learners need to perform, they figure out the criticality level of each. “I know all the things you do as an accountant from 8 to 5; I know all the tasks you perform,” he said. “What I don’t know, though, is which of those 35 tasks we’ve identified are the most critical—not ‘important.’ Everything’s important.” Mosher emphasizes that word choice matters here. All of the tasks might be important, he said, but not all have the same consequences if the employee makes a mistake. “If you screw up this task at 9 o’clock, what is the consequence of failure? And if the consequence is a two? Well, guess what? I’m not teaching a two.”

That’s where the critical skills analysis comes in. “Critical skills analysis lets us look through a very clear, practical lens at what the workflow they are going back to is literally like,” Mosher said. It’s about figuring out the toughest tasks a learner will face. “What are things that are scary to fail at on my own, and what are things that I can brush myself off and, with a good support tool, figure out in the context? And from that, I craft my blended classroom workflow solution.

“Once we’re done, and we’ve labeled all these things by this criticality, we theoretically take all the fives, sixes, and sevens—that’s kind of the dividing line—the fives, sixes, or sevens, and that becomes our classroom experience. Now there are some fours that make it for a lot of reasons; it’s not a hard line. But that’s kind of where we divide.”

Why? The consequences of a learner failing at the lower-ranked tasks are minor. The learners could look up what they need in a well-designed job aid—which Mosher and Gottfredson also provide. But the sevens, the sixes, even the fives? Those are worth practicing with the coaching and guidance of the instructor. That is the essence of flipping forward.

Focus on what matters

“What it’s forced me to do is look at the entire experience, and all of the tools of my craft, including the traditional ones, through a very different lens, and therefore, the deliverables have been very different,” Mosher said. The deliverables that he and Gottfredson create are layered tools, based on a pyramid. Employees can quickly find the information they need, presented at the level they need. For the employee looking for a quick refresher on how to fill out a form, it’s the top of the pyramid. A new hire, doing the form for the first time, can start at the base of the pyramid where more context is presented. This approach to eLearning is paired with a face-to-face or virtual-classroom experience that is flipped application-forward.

Gone are the days of weeklong in-person training on how to use a spreadsheet, Mosher said. “Now, if people have an hour to take an eLearning module on Excel, they’re lucky.” Rather than bore learners and fill class time with lectures, this flipped model uses learners’ scarce time with SMEs and instructors to focus on the tasks with the greatest criticality. “Con wants to make that experience, with those people in the room, for the rare time we have left at doing it, as impactful and really optimizing the things that a classroom does best.”

Their approach often gets pushback from clients. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, Bob, you’re skipping material.’ No, no, no. I never use the word ‘skip.’ What I say is, ‘I’m not covering it in this modality of teaching, but I’m covering it brilliantly in my workflow learning tool that I give them,’” he said. “When I made my original design—that’s my promise to my customer, that they’re going to get it covered—it’s all covered. Now the question is, how? And how most effectively? The classroom is a stunning learning environment. Stunning! But it’s really badly used with lecture and PowerPoint slides and all this stuff, because the poor instructor’s trying to get through the 5,000 slides.”

Mosher and Gottfredson know that learners can read or watch that material on their own. Instead, time in the classroom “becomes about understanding, experiencing, struggling with those critical tasks. And then, the other ones are left to be learned in the context of work with the performance support tool. That’s the flipping I describe in that article. It’s flipping application-forward, which is the only place it can ever happen—in the workflow.”