Turning Education Upside Down: Flipping the Classroom and Improving Student Outcomes

Sometimes, even with excellent and dedicated teachers, education just doesn’t work.

Student test scores don’t improve, graduation rates remain stagnant, and college outcomes for under-resourced students lag behind those of their higher-income peers.

When that happens, we have a tendency to do more of what we were already doing — lengthening the school day, extending the school year, offering more classes, increasing extracurricular participation. These solutions may help, but they do not address fundamental problems in our educational approach.

I encountered many of these problems as a school leader at Clintondale High, a financially challenged school just outside of Detroit. Almost three-quarters of our students get free or reduced-price lunch. Year after year, we were seeing high failure rates, low attendance rates, and low engagement rates. Our efforts to help students improve were met with almost no success.

Our system was broken. A fix — one that truly worked — would have to be drastic. I had to ask myself: Do I have the courage to act?

There were many barriers to change, including years of precedent, the need to formulate a new plan, and an imperative to get buy-in from a variety of stakeholders, from teachers and administrators to students and parents.

And then there were personal reasons not to make any dramatic changes: I have a family to look after and a career to maintain. A significant change, which could turn into a spectacular failure, might mean the end of that career.

Risk is sometimes daunting, but for me, it was a simple choice to go for it. Despite all the critics (and their eye rolls), it has been the single greatest and most rewarding decision that I have ever made. The prospect of making a difference in young people’s lives was, after all, the reason I got into education.

Like me, lots of educators come to a career crossroads; and like me, they have to decide how they will handle a challenging situation. There is a moment when we ask ourselves whether we ought to be producers of change. If we decide that we should, then we will aggressively seek out answers to the problems we face. If not, then we will look to others to bring the solutions to us. That is where we so often get stuck.

Genesis of the Flipped Classroom

In my case, I posited that student performance was lagging not because students were unwilling to do their homework, but because they were unable to complete assignments without guidance. If there were a way that students could receive information — which did not require active problem-solving, only active listening — at home, and then do their “homework” in school, where teachers are available to help, then they might learn more effectively. In turn, they would perform better in school and on standardized tests. Eventually, I imagined, their attendance would improve, and their post–high school prospects would too. Giving kids the opportunity truly to learn could be empowering — and it could kick off a virtuous cycle that would repeat itself time and again.

But how would we do it?

Acceptance from Teachers, Students, Parents, and Administrators

When people ask me about this model, they most often wonder how I got an entire group of students to flip their classroom. After all, I was asking all of the ninth-grade teachers, and their students, to take a chance with me — and I was asking parents and administrators to sign on, too. The stakes were high: I knew that if this succeeded, we could try it with larger groups of students — eventually, a whole school, and then many more. But if it failed, everyone would be even more discouraged than before.

It started with my message. I needed to appeal to each group separately. Rather than just making the case that a flipped classroom was beneficial for students (as I thought it would be), I had to show how it helped all of the other stakeholders, too.

For teachers, I had to make sure that I communicated clearly that there were some real advantages for educators to flip their classrooms. For example, teachers could team up with colleagues to create videos for students to watch at home; this work wouldn’t fall entirely onto the shoulders of each individual educator. By using a flipped classroom model, teachers could also better ensure that their students were on track, and that they themselves could be there to assist with any misconceptions. This teaching model allowed teachers to exercise more control over their students’ learning progress. That was the case I made, and luckily, Clintondale teachers agreed.

Next Steps: Implementation

Once we all recognized the need to update our teaching model, we applied for — and got — a grant from TechSmith, which makes screen recording and video editing tools. When we had the software we needed (a program called Camtasia), the implementation process was unexpectedly quick. To our surprise, it took roughly 18 months to turn our entire school into a totally flipped institution, with the engagement of all of our staff. (Schools across the country have since followed suit.)

We made some great discoveries in our adoption process. First, we couldn’t just adopt technology for the sake of having new technology; rather, the technology needed to have a purpose around our specific proposed learning outcomes and workflows. And our curriculum design needed to align with the teaching processes we were establishing. For example, we had to consider serious logistical questions: Does having a smartboard in the classroom mean that a teacher needs to stand at the front of the room lecturing? Does having students in traditional rows promote collaboration? Does using a tablet encourage the development of writing skills?

Likewise, we didn’t want to be dogmatic about the use of video. On the contrary, we recognized that a flipped lesson didn’t have to revolve around — or even include — video. A lecture video is certainly an important part of the flipped classroom model, but the more important component is conceptual: Teachers needed to flip their existing daily routines so they could better support students in the classroom. There are many ways that teachers can “pre-load” students for class the following day (from videos to readings to experiences). However teachers opted to do this, the essential next step was to undertake problem-solving with students during class time.

Evolution

The variety of strategies for “pre-loading” students speaks to another of our learning curves — how the flipped classroom model evolved once we implemented it. In a nutshell, it shifted from being a technology-driven implementation plan to one that prized alignment and pedagogy above all else. In other words, we had to work to ensure that we were using technology in the service of learning, and not adapting how we learned to suit our new technologies.

Teachers and educators began to identify the proper use of technology, and to align it directly with the learning outcomes they sought to achieve. They realized that implementing technology itself was not necessarily the answer to our challenges, but that using technology as a tool to assist them could be. As we have continued to use the flipped model, we work, on an ongoing basis, to ensure that we are using technology to facilitate our intended learning outcomes.

Outcomes

Our strategy has worked. Considering the risk factors we faced (and still face), I think that the results of flipping the classroom have been astonishing. We have seen our graduation rates climb to above 95 percent. (Compare that to the statewide average, which was just under 79 percent in 2014.) What’s more, 80 percent of Clintondale students are going on to attend post-secondary schools. And our rates of disciplining students have decreased by 300 percent.

Students are also earning better grades and test scores. Since we adopted the flipped model, classroom failure rates dropped in some cases by 40 percent, and our overall school failure rates have been below 10 percent for the past four years. Our ACT standardized testing student growth rate has been consistent over the past four years. Also over the past four years, a large majority of our students have exceeded the national ACT growth core subject averages — in some cases, by factors of three and four times the growth rate.

And I hear about the positive effects of flipped classrooms at schools all across the country — from one stellar teacher at Oklahoma’s Norman High School to another trailblazer at Minnesota’s Columbia Heights High School. The model has been adopted at the elementary and middle school levels, as well — and even by some college professors.

This has all been a remarkable process to watch. Ultimately, we feel that our sustainable growth at Clintondale is a result of our alignment across the board — among school leaders, teachers, students, and parents.

Looking Ahead

As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated — and available — we need to be thoughtful about what we want it to do for us in schools. There are lots of Web-based services available, but not all of them align well with our classroom practices. That said, I do feel that if we have online content that is well-organized and collaborative, and we promote communication tools, that will allow for more flexible school situations. Ultimately, I feel that we are going to need one technology-related school toolbox that contains most of our learning and teaching tools.

Education will become as flexible as technologies allow us to be. We will begin to see how algorithms will personalize our educational tracks, and schools will eventually become places to meet and collaborate rather than daily holding tanks. Our latest technology will change how we allow students to interact with our workplaces through internships, and mentorship opportunities (virtual or brick-and-mortar) will allow a global community of leaders to help shape our young people’s lives.

Want to know whether the schools you’re considering have flipped classrooms? Check out their profiles using the Noodle search tool, and ask a question about their curricula.

Questions or feedback? Write to us at [email protected], or leave a comment below.