I have taught in Florida, Ohio, Vermont, and North Carolina, and everywhere my students have been fascinated with the details of the German culture I share with them whenever a question comes up: “Why are the refrigerators so small in Germany?” – “Do they have animal kill shelters there?” – “Where does your chancellor live?” – “Why do Germans like riding their bikes so much?” – and so on. This hunger for cultural information goes deeper than just curiosity; it is evinced by young people of whom some have never left their state and many, if not most, have never been outside of the United States. As a language instructor, however, I was first and foremost charged with developing learners’ proficiency in the four skills and prioritize accuracy in the target language. Unfortunately, this focus on the mechanics of another language means that standard foreign language education hardly ever leaves the lower rungs of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Learners are asked to remember (memorize vocabulary), understand (grammar rules), and apply (by speaking, reading, writing, and listening). Thus, in between the prerequisite vocabulary and grammar practices, there never seems enough time to develop higher cognitive skills such as analyzing, evaluating, and creating in the target language.
As technology progressed, I created and assigned PowerPoint presentations as homework viewing to provide more background knowledge and used the growing Internet resources to fill in the cultural vacuum that surrounded the German language my students learned from our textbooks. Yes, they read paragraphs here and there about Bürgerämter (municipal citizens registry offices) or Tante-Emma-Läden (mini-markets run by a neighborhood matron), but such tidbits seemed trivial. I wanted my students to compare German and American approaches to larger cultural issues such as public discourses on economic and social divisions, to evaluate the merits or disadvantages of each country’s response, an to incorporate their new-found insights into essays written in German. Alas, there was no time for such deeper thought, even as our world’s rapid globalization started to demand more effective ways to connect with other peoples and the cultures in which they live.
When I discovered flipped learning in 2014, I finally found the answer to my dilemma. All I had to do was move routine grammar explanations and rote language exercises (Bloom’s lower half) out of my classroom into the individual learners’ space to carve out more time for more meaningful and communicative encounters with the German language and culture. Thanks to the momentum generated by assigning inspiring readings as homework, student groups enthusiastically debated each other over stimulating questions – all without even noticing that they were using German to do so. I cannot emphasize enough what a revelation it was to watch my students regularly engage in critical thinking of the highest caliber.
Since those early days of flipping, my German language instruction has evolved to include chapter projects, collaborative learning, and assessments instead of tests. Most excitingly of all, I can now incorporate a chapter-length cultural topic in my lesson plan that allows students to explore an important aspect of German society in great depth. We investigate how German children’s identities are constructed in children’s books, how restaurant-dining is a more transformative than transactional experience, why the crime rate in Germany is so much lower (partial answer: because the educational and vocational systems there allows many more people than here to earn a decent wage and enjoy social prestige), or what communicative goals underlie the German Streitkultur [debate culture]. The framework I use in structuring these lessons borrows from Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) theory (Byram, 1997), in particular one of its five components, namely cross-cultural critical awareness. Such awareness calls for abandoning one’s (often unconscious) ethnocentrism in favor of being open to alternative cultural ways of doing things. In other words, I want my learners to move from remarks such as “It’s weird that you have formal and informal manners of addressing people” to applying the linguistic markers of social distance and emotional closeness because they understand the cultural functions behind them. Once my students have reasoned their way to an answer, I push them harder still, as they are further tasked with comparing the German approach to a given cultural topic with its American counter expression. This encourages them to assess their own culture with different eyes and allows them to evaluate some of its features critically rather than taking them for granted or heedlessly considering them to be a binding norm for all (which is a hallmark of ethnocentric thought).
As a semester progresses, my students become used to cross-culturally analyzing and evaluating a social practice or belief. But there is more to learn. Creating, the highest order of cognitive thought, occurs at the end of each unit, when students reproduce language and culture in tandem: they may write a German-style children’s book, send a letter to the US Surgeon General with German-style tips on improving the American healthcare system, or debate each other on migration and energy independence as if they were in a German pub. This means that learners engage in authentic communication instead of guided practice. They pick the vocabulary they want to use, and because they want to express precise meaning they are eager to employ the correct grammatical structures. But – and here lies the beauty of this teaching approach – they are no longer anxious or nervous about their linguistic production since it serves a greater purpose than merely reproducing a sentence in passive voice or using the proper adjective ending. This decrease in pressure is experienced by many formerly foreign language-shy students as a great relief. Their interest and motivation levels rise as does their academic performance, which in turn positively affects their sense of self-efficacy.
As an instructor, I am obliged to prepare my students for the 21st century. Some of the directions taken in contemporary US politics show that it is more urgent than ever to instill in young people the ability to critically analyze news reports and policies and determine their truth and agendas. The skills necessary to fairly and objectively evaluate anything take time to develop. I would not have this time if it weren’t for flipped learning. Yes, it is very labor-intensive to restructure my old lessons, but I wish that I could share my joy in the results with all colleagues in foreign languages. I have gained so much new knowledge in the process and am energized each day alongside my students.
Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.