How one school turned homework on its head with ‘flipped’ instruction

Teachers at Clintondale High School send students home with lectures on video. The next day they tackle what would normally be considered homework together in class. The new model is called a “flippped” classroom and for this school, it seems to be working.

CLINTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Walk the halls of Clintondale High School, just north of Detroit, and the school doesn’t appear out of the ordinary. You’d find the typical smells and the sprawling nondescript interior, as well as the persistent challenges confronting many American public high schools serving mostly low-income students.

Yet, there’s a stark difference in the way instruction is delivered. Clintondale is the nation’s first completely flipped school, meaning teachers record lectures for students to watch online outside of class, and what was once considered homework is now done during classtime, allowing students to work through assignments together and ask teachers for help if they run into questions. In 2010, with more than half of the school’s ninth graders failing math, science and English, principal Greg Green decided to adopt the flipped approach, a blended learning model that also relies heavily on outside videos like the popular Khan Academy and Ted Talks.

“We were desperate for change,” said Green. And, he suggests, change has come.

Clintondale ranked among the worst 5 percent of all schools in the state of Michigan prior to the flip. But since then, the principal says failure rates for students have declined from 52 percent to 19 percent, and standardized test scores have risen steadily.

Local businesses helped fund the instructional overhaul at Clintondale, and students who don’t have access to needed technology or the Internet at home are given extra time to use computer labs and the media center.

Proponents of the flip argue that it allows teachers to spend more one-on-one time with students, and because lectures are mainly recorded and digitized, it removes some of the monotony of repeatedly delivering lessons. Another often-cited benefit of recorded instruction is that it allows students the chance to rewind and watch lessons as many times as necessary to fully grasp them.

Moving away from the traditional model wasn’t an easy sell for some members of the staff at Clintondale. Chris Carpenter, who has utilized the flip in his social studies class for the last few years, said he was initially reluctant to adopting the change.

“At first I was a little bit put off by it,” Carpenter said. “But I soon realized that I was no longer just one teacher to 35 students… but more of a tutor for all 35 students.”

Over the last few years teachers at all levels of education across the U.S. have begun experimenting with the approach. Justin Reich, a fellow at HarvardX, the university’s digital teaching and learning initiative, and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, has been studying the flipped classroom. He is optimistic that the model could force schools to rethink how the precious time between teachers and students is being spent on a daily basis.

However, Reich is also quick to caution that changing only the sequence of how instruction is delivered will likely have little effect on academic achievement. If the instruction is poor, he said, recording it and delivering it to students via video will not likely enhance it.

“I think we know very little about the efficacy of [the flipped classroom] so far,” Reich said, adding that the teachers using these new methods should be given a few years to test what works before judgments are delivered on their merits.

Greg Green recognizes that the flipped classroom might not work for everyone, but he’s pleased it’s now firmly in place at Clintondale.

“We feel we’ve perhaps figured out the structure of the way schools should be set up,” Green said. “And we’re trying to make it an ideal situation for both the learners and the teachers.”

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This story is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.