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How ‘flipped classrooms’ are turning the traditional school day upside down

January 9, 2014 at 11:26 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Here’s an idea for improving the learning environment in a low-performing urban school: Stand the traditional classroom model on its head. That’s the experiment under way in a suburban Detroit school.

Jeffrey Brown has the story as part of our American Graduate project, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

MAN: So, you see how they are in the same family.

JEFFREY BROWN: What if you took the traditional school day and flipped it on its head, not literally, of course, but having lessons offered at night at home and homework done by day in the classroom?

That’s the experiment under way at Clintondale High School just outside Detroit, an area still reeling from the economic and social ills of the nearby city. The school serves many low-income families and faces tight budgets and declining enrollment.

MAN: So what’s the number part that I’m going to need for all three?

JEFFREY BROWN: Just three years ago, almost half of Clintondale’s ninth graders were failing math, science and English, and overall school performance was ranked in the lowest 5 percent in Michigan.

Principal Greg Green decided to take a risk.

GREG GREEN, Clintondale High School: Frankly, we weren’t doing very well. And so, you know, we had to make a change. I mean, we were — we were desperate for change.

JEFFREY BROWN: His aha moment came while coaching his 11-year-old son’s baseball team. Having learned to record and post instructional videos for his players to watch outside of practice, he was struck by how much time was then left to focus on individual players on the field.

He saw the educational record starting with the power of videos.

GREG GREEN: Kids can go back and watch them as many times as they want. And then me, as an instructor or expert, I don’t have to redo that all the time. And I can spend my time with the students in class, in actually assisting them. And so if I could do that with 11-year-olds, imagine what we could do with 15- or 16-year-olds doing math.

JEFFREY BROWN: Green went all in, flipping the entire school, urging his staff to rethink the use of technology and how it complements traditional teaching and getting local businesses to help fund the effort.

MAN: The legislative branch makes the laws.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now lectures are recorded and posted online.

MAN: The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.

JEFFREY BROWN: Or teachers can assign outside videos from the popular Khan Academy and TED Talks. Students watch these videos as homework outside of class.

MAN: Why do you say plutonium?

JEFFREY BROWN: In class, students now do what was once considered homework, assignments designed to test learning comprehension. Clintondale teachers say this allows more time for one-on-one help and often encourages students to collaborate in problem-solving.

But English teacher Rob Dameron said it took some convincing.

ROB DAMERON, Clintondale High School: When we first did this, it was funny to look around at staff meeting and look at a lot of staff members, especially the ones that have been here 25, 30 years, and saying, what are you talking about? What’s a blog? You know, what’s a Google Group?

Apostrophe makes a noun show ownership or possession.

ROB DAMERON: For teaching for 20 years, I know what lessons kids are going to have a problem with. But I think, with doing this flipped approach, there’s problems I didn’t even know existed. So you really can’t hide back there in the corner and say, yes, I got it, you know, and then the teacher sees later on, well, no, you really didn’t get it.

JEFFREY BROWN: One problem the school faced head on, students who can’t afford or don’t have access to technology outside of class. They’re given extra time in the school’s media lab.

STUDENT: Segregation before 1954.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taking the technology-driven approach further, some lesson plans are now tailored to have students use the latest trends in social media.

STUDENT: Thanks to the 19th Amendment, us women have the right to vote.

STUDENTS: We deserve the vote. We deserve the vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: Like this project that required constitutional amendments to be summed up in six seconds for the popular Web site Vine. Green says that, taken all together after three years, the flip is paying off.

GREG GREEN: Our ACT gains have shown — doubling the national average as far as ACT gains. State testing, we have had some mixed results on that. And we have also seen an increase in graduation rates to almost 90 percent, and college acceptance rates at 80 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Senior Daryl Wallace Jr. is one example. His grades have risen from a 2.5 GPA as a freshman to 3.5 as a senior. And he says the flip has played a big role. He now watches videos on his cell phone while taking the bus home into a rough section of Detroit, where he lives with his mother and four sisters.

DARYL WALLACE JR., student: I really looked at the videos more because I know I might not have as much time at home, because my sisters are in college and they need the computer so much. I can do it on my phone. And the bus ride is like 30 minutes, so I probably can get like half of my assignment done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Daryl’s mother, Sabrina Young, also likes the flipped model, saying there is only so much she can do to help with traditional homework.

SABRINA YOUNG, mother of Daryl Wallace Jr.: I see algebra, so him doing at school is a plus for him, yes, as well as me, because I just didn’t remember the majority of it.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The popularity of online learning has surged in recent years, and flipped classrooms have started popping up everywhere, from elementary schools to some of the nation’s top universities.

Clintondale is the first U.S. high school to do a total flip.

Harvard’s Justin Reich has been studying the trend and says he is cautiously optimistic.

JUSTIN REICH, Harvard University: What is exciting to me about the flipped classroom is that it gets teachers asking two really important fundamental questions. What are the best ways for me to use my time, especially the very precious time I have in classrooms with my students, and then, what are the kinds of direct instruction that I could provide that could be digitized so people could watch it again?

MAN: You will notice that the last set of notes I gave you were for week five.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Reich says that flipping alone isn’t enough. As with any lesson plan, it all depends on exactly what’s being offered.

JUSTIN REICH: If what we see from the flipped classroom is that we take bad lectures and uninteresting worksheet problems that characterize a lot of the experience that students have in schools, and we simply flip the order of those two things, the odds that we see significant improvement in our schools is pretty low.

WOMAN: And so now we’re going to be taking derivatives with respect to T.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, some individual teachers are experimenting with a flipped classroom on their own. Three years ago, Stacey Roshan flipped her upper-level math classroom at the private Bullis High School outside of Washington, D.C., where students pay up to $35,000 a year in tuition. She says it’s been working for her, but that it might not be for everyone.

STACEY ROSHAN, The Bullis School: I think what is the most important thing is that you really think through what your problem is. I wouldn’t say that because everybody is doing the flipped classroom, it’s cool, you should do the flipped classroom too. My problem was really time, anxiety and perhaps, if I went to another school, I would do things completely differently.

JEFFREY BROWN: One added surprise for Roshan in structuring her class this way is what she learned about the reach of her online lessons.

STACEY ROSHAN: I get thank you letters from students all the time, not even just from the U.S., but overseas too. And that part always amazes me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back at Clintondale, Principal Greg Green’s big experiment is getting a lot of attention. More than 200 educators from around the world have visited the school, trying to draw lessons from the flipped classrooms.

Be sure to follow the American Graduate reporting team on Twitter @NewsHourAmGrad and Facebook.

This story and PBS NewsHour’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.