Flipping Classrooms with Romano Zavaroni

Following graduation in 1989 I rented a tiny, cell-like office in York for £17 a month. My entrepreneurial career had started. But getting to that point (and years later being able to create and grow a company on a global stage) was the result of one man’s inspiration and devotion to flipping classrooms.

Flipping Classrooms Master. Mr Romano Zavaroni
Romano Zavaroni – 83 years young

York St John University had been my undergraduate home for 4 years and I was one of many management students who had fallen under the magical teaching spell of Romano Zavaroni.

But this finely-dressed Italian Scot didn’t ‘teach’ us much. No, that wasn’t him. Romano spent most of his time hosting intensive tutorials and preparing extensive and advance course notes for students – who would then share their new-found wisdom with others.


And when we did, Romano Zavaroni would sit at the back of class scribbling notes, nodding in appreciation of what he saw and occasionally sharing a gravelly Argyll curse. His Einstein-like educational thinking and instinct meant he was decades ahead of his time.

Thirty years (three zero) before the notion of ‘flipping classrooms’ became credible, Romano was at it with gusto. Rather than lecture students, Romano required all who signed up to his courses to plan, prepare and deliver crafted and comprehensive presentations to their peers.

Smart dress, well-researched arguments, communication, creativity, applied theory and time-management were just some of the many skills simultaneously experienced, applied and learned.

His flipping classrooms created so much emotional theatre that many important business and management lessons were instantly hardwired into the mind. The work was strenuous and at times nerve-wracking. But amidst the drama, Romano saw the big picture. Brick by brick, student by student, he laid the foundations for whatever people wanted to do next.

Flipping classrooms and lessons in entrepreneurship

A decade after starting my first business, people were asking me to share my experience and entrepreneurial journey with students in schools, colleges and universities. And one day an invitation arrived from York St John.

Keen to help, I found myself one afternoon in front of a class of 80+ students who were part of a new ‘business and entrepreneurship’ module. Once introduced to a quieting group, the lecturer passed by me and whispered. “This class really appreciate guest speakers who can help them with their entrepreneurial thinking – you are the ‘highlight of the course’.”

For a moment I glowed with a sense of grandeur. But then I looked at the rows of expectant seated faces and questioned what I was about to do. What was the value of asking students to sit passively whilst I regaled my entrepreneurial war stories? If those in the class were like me in any way, they would be bored within 10 minutes – regardless of what I might say.

If I had thought about things more carefully I would have been following Romano’s lead and flipped the classroom so students were involved in some meaningful activity. In the event I did my best. But the experience taught me a powerful lesson that will never leave me.

Passive students don’t learn that well

SimVenture business simulations

The afternoon at York St John University proved to be a pivotal moment and a catalyst for much wider research into how budding entrepreneurs are supported. I discovered that the standard for business start-up training largely involved sitting people around a table for a week and pumping them full of information (nothing had changed since I started out in 1989). Yet even though start-up failure rates were depressingly high, no one was questioning the validity of this traditional model.

For me, self-employment was (and still is) a risk pursuit; and much like the way we train pilots, healthcare experts and military recruits it’s important to provide opportunities for safe authentic practice and failure before doing the real thing. Through these learning opportunities people make informed mistakes, ask more insightful and relevant questions and ultimately are better prepared for reality.

And so in 2002, together with my brother, we started building a business start-up simulation. That product ‘SimVenture Classic’ launched in 2006 and is now used in over 40 countries and in hundreds of universities.

Full circle

Building on the success of SimVenture Classic, the team with which I work also recently launched ‘SimVenture Evolution’. This latest on-line technology allows people to create and run a company for up to 10 simulated years; at the same time tutors can monitor progress and communicate with users remotely.

Flipping Classrooms
SimVenture Evolution. The On-line Business Simulation


Inspired 30+ years previous by Romano Zavaroni, this ‘flipping classrooms’ technology puts the student at the heart of the action whilst tutors can watch and work from afar.

On Monday 30th January 2017, I’m delighted to say that York St John University is formally adopting SimVenture Evolution on a large-scale undergraduate course within its Business School.

And the day will be led by Paul Brough Jones who is not only our hugely talented and highly regarded Learning and Development Director, but also a former York St John, Romano Zavaroni student too.


Flipping Classroom Footnote

For more information about the value and impact of flipping classrooms, take a look at this recently published infographic published by Knewton.com

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