Flip This Classroom

In February 2008, three teachers at Van Cortlandtville Elementary School, in Mohegan Lake, N.Y., felt a mix of excitement and anxiety as they left for mid-winter break. Over the next week, a group of educational specialists would completely transform their classrooms. When the teachers returned, what would their work areas look like? And how would their students respond academically and behaviorally?

Those teachers, their school and the Lakeland Central School District took a risk that winter. And according to Jacqueline Woodruff-Lewis, Van Cortlandtville principal, it was a risk that paid off. Today, the classrooms do not simply house students. They support a variety of learners (e.g., kinesthetic, tactile, auditory, visual). And they respect the different needs of analytic and global processors. Woodruff-Lewis says, “These learning environments will help our students achieve success as children in the classroom, and as adults in the real world.”

The nine professionals who descended on the Mohegan Lake school included learning specialists, educational architects, interior designers and furniture manufacturers. Their research-based demonstration project aimed to prove their conviction that physical learning environments support student success. They would achieve this by giving new life and purpose to the dated classrooms.

The Origins of Flip
America’s Schoolhouse Council (ASC), a national consortium of educational architects, planners and designers, conceived the demonstration program, dubbed “Flip This Classroom: Learning Environments Matter.” Inspired by the Dunn & Dunn Learning Style Model of Instruction (see Many Brains, Many Styles), Flip This Classroom emphasizes tailoring learning environments based on students’ individual learning strengths and preferences.

The inaugural flip came to Lakeland Central School District through Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre, who studied under Dr. Rita Dunn (1929 – 2009), cofounder of the Dunn and Dunn Model.

Members of ASC received Learning Styles training from Susan Rundle, director of the International Learning Styles Network, and from SIS-USA, a manufacturer of Learning Styles-inspired furniture and accessories. Jim Brady, executive director of ASC, says, “With the Van Cortlandtville flip, we wanted to see how research-driven classroom alterations affected student achievement, behaviors and attitudes.” The flip involved no construction. Rather, it focused on furnishings, floor coverings, presentation and audio systems, outside light control and interior lighting.

Making the Change
When Favre and Woodruff-Lewis introduced the flip, some teachers expressed interest. Others were a little more skeptical. A first, second and fourth grade teachers got the green light for their classrooms. Two of the teachers were in the process of achieving Learning Styles certification with Woodruff-Lewis, and the third had expressed interest in research-based teaching methods.

Favre and Woodruff-Lewis also designated three “partner rooms” whose teachers would observe the students in the flipped rooms. Woodruff-Lewis says, “We wanted the teachers in the partner rooms to have their own “aha” moment, then try some of the Learning Styles strategies themselves.”

Before the flip, students in the three classrooms took Web-based surveys based on the Dunn and Dunn Model. Then, some students sat still and others squirmed — a true testament to the Learning Styles Model — as Susan Rundle and ASC representatives interviewed them. The students discussed their favorite time of the day, their favorite activities and their favorite places. These exercises not only prepared the Flip team for its task, but also familiarized students with their own learning styles.

District maintenance staff prepped the classrooms, located in the 1952 and 1964 portions of the repurposed former high school. They removed all furniture, decorations and window treatments and then painted the walls.

Hailing from all over the U.S., the nine members of the team arrived at Van Cortlandtville. For the next five days, they arranged Learning Styles furniture and installed carpet tiles, new lighting and audio systems. They hung rails on walls for the new learning presentation boards, and set up new window treatments.

The Traditional Classroom No More

The day of reckoning had arrived. The Flip team met with the three teachers to talk about what had happened over the break. Then the team unveiled the flipped classrooms, and according to Woodruff-Lewis, the teachers knew instantly that they had made the right decision. “The classrooms are beautiful,” said Katie Accurso, second grade teacher. “I know we are at the beginning of an exciting new adventure.”

The next week, the students arrived. A cardboard school bus that said, “Move That Bus” stood before their closed classroom doors. The team removed the bus and opened the door. Woodruff-Lewis says, “When the students saw their flipped classrooms, their mouths were on the floor.”

Colorful carpet tiles covered the vinyl composition tile floor. Flexible desks replaced their dated predecessors. Bold beanbag chairs and reclining seats beckoned from different parts of the room. Like giant birds in flight, canvases hovered beneath the ceiling. Special shades allowed teachers to better control daylight and temperature.

Several systems improved the teachers’ ability to present information. For instance, a wall system with sliding whiteboards and tack boards that hang at teacher and student height, enhanced audio equipment that enables the teacher to direct his or her voice to one side of the room, or to the entire room, etc.
“The flipped classrooms offer a variety of environments that cater to every student’s learning preferences,” says Patrick Brosnan, president/CEO of Legat Architects and president of ASC. “While one student might learn best sitting alone at a desk in a bright, quiet space, her classmate might prefer to work on a game board with a couple classmates in a softly lit corner with calming music.” Also, each student has a mobile tray that attaches under desks, and gets stored in a cubby. The trays give students flexibility to move to any area of the room.

Impact on Scores and Behaviors
Woodruff-Lewis saw an immediate and a long-term difference among the test group. “Since the flip, the students are more self-directed, focused and well-behaved.”

Lakeland Central School District’s yearly analysis of student performance substantiates the effectiveness of the flip. Since the New York testing system begins at third grade, the flip analysis focused on the fourth graders in the testing cohort. The year after the flip, the number of them who scored at levels 3 (meeting standards for mastery) and 4 (exceeding standards for mastery) rose from 88 percent to 95 percent (an eight percent increase) in English Language Arts, and from 90 percent to 95 percent (a six percent increase) in math. Additionally, according to teacher Katie Accurso, the new stage system that was part of the flip has improved reading proficiency and fluency among her second graders. Brady says, “By enabling the students to read out loud in front of their peers, the stage sets the tone for self-confidence and leadership.”

Additionally, in analyzing data in the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions Support (PBIS) program, Woodruff-Lewis discovered significantly fewer disciplinary problems among the students in the flip cohort. She says that parents have noticed the same improvements at home.

The flipped classrooms have inspired further changes in Van Cortlandtville Elementary School and beyond. Woodruff-Lewis has kept the community informed through PTA meetings, newsletters and invitations for parents to see the classrooms. “It’s been a tremendous success,” she says. “Parents are even donating bean bags and bulletin boards.” Teachers in the “partner rooms” and other rooms are using their multi-sensory instructional packages and donated items to mirror the flipped classrooms. The flip also motivated the school to develop what Woodruff-Lewis calls “a learning styles recreation room.” Here, two to three classes at any level can take advantage of a variety of seating arrangements, lighting levels and hands-on materials.

Brosnan says, “The purpose of the research was to show how responsive design of interior learning environments can enhance a child’s ability to learn. Multiply that by a generation of learners… the payback is immediate, and the results are long-lasting.”

“Aha” Achieved
When classes in the flipped rooms begin, the teacher typically presents a lesson on one of the SMART Boards. Students then disperse to different areas to work on activities that best support their learning styles. Frequently, the students rearrange the rooms based on the type of work being done. “They’re all learning the same thing,” says Woodruff-Lewis. “Just in different ways. They’re more comfortable because they’re learning the way that they learn best.”

Despite the success of the flip, the thriving Learning Styles program requires more than just a well-equipped classroom. A dedicated administration and faculty are the true impetus. Brady says, “It was the district’s commitment to making a difference by matching learning styles with environment that allowed us to merge best practices in teaching, learning, design and product.”

Woodruff-Lewis and Brady both advise taking “baby steps” with a pilot project when instituting such a major change. Converting a few rooms at a time allows teachers to observe and adapt to the way the new environments affect student learning.

In 2009, Lakeland Central School District was named the first Demonstration Learning Styles District of Excellence by the International Learning Styles Network. “Since the flip, the three teachers have taken their students to new levels,” says Woodruff-Lewis. “And more and more, those on the skeptical side are having their ‘aha’ moments.”

For additional information and photos, see flipthisclassroom.com.

Douglas Ogurek, LEED-AP, writes about architecture and interior design. He can be reached at dogurek@legat.com.