11.016J | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

The Once and Future City

Instructor Insights

Flipping the Class and Challenging the Students with “A Series of Puzzles”

In this section, Anne Whiston Spirn shares how flipping her classroom “completely changed” students’ experience in 11.016J/4.211J The Once and Future City.

I flipped this course several years ago, taking out the lectures, and it worked really well. The project was made possible by a grant from the MIT Alumni Class Fund. The way I taught the class before, it was jam-packed with lectures. I realized I was spending time in class talking about the material in the readings, illustrated with some further examples, but the students were doing the hardest tasks on their own: making observations, finding a thesis, and constructing an argument. Flipping the class made room for field trips and workshops during class time.

"I don’t give lectures anymore. Instead, I put together a series of of images - mostly maps and photographs - which embody puzzles."
— Anne Whiston Spirn

I worked on the flip over the course of two years. At the end of the first year, I evaluated the results and made revisions, then made more revisions after the second year. Flipping completely changed the class. I don’t give lectures anymore. Instead, I put together a series of images – mostly maps and photographs – which embody puzzles. Depending on the current assignment, the images emphasize different phenomena. But they always consist of puzzles.

Now, instead of lecturing, I’ll project an image on the screen and say, “What pattern do you see here?” Sometimes nobody sees a pattern, so I say, “OK, do you see any anomalies? Does anything stick out or seem odd?” An anomaly is often a clue. And we go from there, asking if the anomalies relate to one another, and what could have caused them. I keep asking questions to help the students look more acutely.

In the very first class, I show them a photograph of a street in Florence, where you can see this curving wall enclosing a garden and a house, and the street itself is curved, with houses on the opposite side. The shape of the curve is quite distinctive. “Do you notice anything odd” I ask. If no one answers, I might ask, “Why do you think this curving wall is here?” “How could we find out?” Then I project an aerial view of the area, and you can see that the streets form an oval pattern. “Do you see anything in this photograph that could give you a clue to the previous image?” And, ultimately, someone will see the oval. “How do you account for that distinct oval shape, so different from the pattern of streets around it?” Sometimes a student will reason it out. Finally, I show them an engraving of ancient Roman amphitheater in Florence. The city grew up around it. The amphitheater is no longer there, and its interior was divided into separate properties, but its trace remains in the structure of the site it once occupied. Then I show them other pictures: an aerial view of Paris where an ancient Roman amphitheater still exists, embedded within a block of buildings and an aerial view of Rome where we see traces of many former amphitheaters. And the wonderful thing is that the example of the amphitheater in Florence came from a former student in the class. She sent me the photograph and the engraving because she knew I would enjoy them.

I go from one series of images to lead the students in, and then I show them other places. We start the first class off like that, to remind students that we’re going to be studying cities from the perspective of how urban form changes over time and what processes drive that change. When we look at Boston, I ask, “What do you see? What can you tell me about the pattern of streets?” We start talking about the structure of the city in terms of its streets, and the fact that once property lines are drawn and land distributed, it’s very difficult to go back. You have streets and sewers and water and power lines, and it’s very difficult to change that infrastructure.

It’s a matter of teaching through a lot of guided looking. I’m modeling for them the kinds of questions I want them to ask. I want them to look for patterns. I want them to look for anomalies, what I call ‘significant detail,’ which are clues to what caused these patterns.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2015
Learning Resource Types
Other Video
Projects with Examples
Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights