DODDS-Europe teachers find success with 'flipped classroom' approach

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 12, 2014

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — It’s not a typical math class.

The 30 students in the Ramstein High School blended classroom are in different grades, working toward credit in different courses — Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II.

In one corner, students take a quiz. Others watch an online instructional math video. Some finish homework packets, raise their hands with questions or collaborate with each other.

There are no classroom lectures.

The teacher, Mike Brust, never sits down. For 90 minutes, he moves from one student and topic to the next, grading quizzes, checking work, discussing homework problems, answering questions.

The room is buzzing with energy — and chatter.

“Not only are they on different topics, but they’re on different subjects,” Brust said during a recent class. “I have a lot more gray hair than I used to. It’s pretty crazy.”

Welcome to “flipped mastery,” an innovative approach to learning that a group of Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe teachers in Germany are using to help more students succeed in math.

Flipped learning is a growing trend in U.S. military and stateside classrooms. Students watch their teachers’ video lectures at home and do their “homework” in class.

The idea is to free up class time for active learning. It allows the teacher to provide individualized instruction as students work through problems.

Built into the flipped classroom is the concept of mastery learning.

Instead of progressing through the curriculum in unison, turning in the same daily homework and testing on the same day, students in a “flipped mastery” class work at their own pace, completing a segment or topic in days or weeks.

But students may only progress from one chapter or unit to the next after passing a “mastery check”; If they can’t do quadratic equations, for example, they can’t move on to radicals.

The method puts the responsibility for learning squarely on the students’ shoulders, say the math teachers who piloted the “flipped mastery” program for DODDS-Europe.

“If you don’t want to learn it, that’s OK, but you are not moving on,” said Spencer Bean, a “flipped mastery” math instructor at Ramstein. “So you’re going to learn it and pass, or you’re not going to learn it and fail. It’s so black and white. It’s on them.”

Brust said that’s made a huge difference for students.

“We’ve got way more motivated learners than in the past,” he said. Before, kids resisted coming in for extra help during lunch or before or after school. “We just couldn’t get them in, no matter what we did. Now they want to come in.”

A fateful bus ride

Two of the educators who have adopted “flipped mastery” earned prestigious awards for their traditional math teaching.

In 2010, Baumholder High School teacher Tim Kelly received the presidential award for mathematics and science teaching, the nation’s highest honor.

While in Washington, D.C., to attend the award ceremony, he shared a bus ride with Aaron Sams, a fellow award recipient and a rural Colorado chemistry teacher. Sams and his colleague, Jonathan Bergmann, wrote about their efforts to “flip” their classroom and use mastery learning — or what they called “flipped mastery” — in their book “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day.”

“I had never heard of it before,” Kelly said.

He was intrigued. On returning to Baumholder, he talked it over with Brust and Kaiserslautern High School math teacher Corey Sullivan. “At first we just kind of dismissed it as a crazy idea: ‘Our kids won’t do homework. What makes you think they’re going to watch your video at home?’” Kelly said of the concept of pre-recorded lectures.

But they also figured there was nothing to lose.

“It was a big jump, just because it was new and unknown,” Brust said. “We were frustrated with our results” using more traditional methods.

Students were continuing to fall through the cracks.

“We tried lots of things — we tried project-based learning; we tried cooperative groups,” Kelly said. “The bottom line is, we would get students that were not prepared. They come to your classroom ... they don’t know things they should know already. Then we expect them to learn algebra at a higher level. It just wasn’t happening; they weren’t doing the work. They were confused.”

The 'algebros'

What sold the teachers on “flipped mastery” was the “mastery.”

“That’s the key component that actually drives it; they have to master it or they cannot move on,” Kelly said. “And that takes a lot of ‘my student doesn’t do homework’ away. You have to do the work or you’re just stagnant.”

Kelly, Brust and Sullivan — who call themselves the Algebros — divided up the first units in Algebra I and hunkered down over spring break in 2011 to prepare a pilot program in “flipped mastery” math during the fourth quarter at their respective schools.

The administration at Baumholder was supportive, Kelly said.

“It kind of helps a little if you win a presidential award,” Kelly said. “You can go, ‘Listen, I want to do this.’ We made sure that if something wasn’t right, we were really quick to fix it.”

The approach also has been widely accepted by the DODDS-Europe leaders.

“We’re always excited about educational innovation, especially one that works well for kids,” said Terry Greene, DODDS-Europe deputy director for curriculum, instruction and assessment.

And “flipped mastery” math seems to be working well.

“I’ve seen some absolute great teaching going on, and I’ve seen kids excited about math,” she said. Education is about “trying different strategies to engage kids and increase their learning.”

The Algebros’ collaboration enabled them to flip more quickly than if they were working alone, with their classes sharing videos and materials. Each unit takes from 60 to 80 hours to complete, a process that includes recording and uploading a series of 12- to-15-minute video lectures and putting together hundreds of packets of practice problems, answer keys and corrective assignments for each lesson, as well as “mastery checks” and tests.

Everything is available on the Algebros’ website except the assessments, which are aligned to Department of Defense Education Activity standards, Kelly said.

After flipping Algebra I, they did the same for geometry, and are now finalizing Algebra II. Along the way they picked up Bean, the fourth Algebro, who this year teaches flipped mastery Algebra II at Ramstein and is beginning to flip pre-calculus classes with Brust.

Bean, who used to teach across the hall from Kelly at Baumholder, earned the presidential award in math and science in 2011. He initially had strong doubts about the merits of “flipped mastery” math.

“I just don’t see this working for the kids who already struggle,” he remembered thinking at the time. “How are they possibly going to be motivated to do anything?”

But he was curious. He would frequently observe Kelly’s room, and he talked to his daughter, who was in Kelly’s class.

“I couldn’t believe these kids, who I knew in that community for a long time — and a lot of kids who were very difficult to motivate, behind grade level, and they were for the first time working hard at doing it,” he said.

He was reluctant to revamp his teaching methods, especially on the heels of winning a prestigious teaching award. “ I thought I was doing good stuff. ... I didn’t want to switch, but this blows away the things I was doing in the past.”

Since rolling out “flipped mastery” math, Kelly and his colleagues have seen more A’s and B’s and far fewer D’s and F’s.

After the first year of flipping, the Algebros compared their first semester of “flipped mastery” math to the same first semester a year ago of traditional math. Brust, Sullivan and Kelly had 77 D’s and F’s — out of 265 students — at the end of first semester traditional math during the 2010-2011 school year. The number of D’s and F’s dropped to 29 at the end of the first full semester of flipping in 2011-2012.

“Among all of us, no one failed first semester last year,” Bean said. “We had kids fail second semester because they were so far behind; but in the past we always would have kids fail the first semester, and therefore they can’t go on to the second semester so they … miss an entire year of mathematics credit.”

While D’s and F’s for traditional classes are permanent, that’s not the case with flipped math. If a student fails first semester but makes up the work in the spring, a grade change is entered to reflect the work. A failure in second semester can be made up in summer school or finishing the work in the fall of the following school year.

After failing a semester of geometry in traditional math last year at Kaiserslautern High School, Ramstein junior Mackenzie Van Wert, 17, has since pulled up her grade in Brust’s flipped math class this school year, where she’s repeating geometry.

“My grade is a ton better,” she said, “because I’m able to learn at my own pace and it’s a lot better teaching method, I think.”

She likes that she can rewatch the videos if she doesn’t understand something. “If teachers are teaching in front of a board, you can’t really play that back,” she said. “I would say it has given me a lot more confidence, has made me realize that math is something that I’m not incapable of doing."

Freshman Cade Martinez, new to Baumholder this year, said he prefers flipped math over traditional math “because it better allows me to find where I have trouble at home and actually get help with it at school.”

When Kathy Zdunich’s daughter, Elise, signed up to take flipped Algebra I last year at Baumholder as an eighth grader, she was worried that the class would be self-taught with little teacher interaction. “It proved just the opposite,” she said. “Mr. Kelly was always there to help students and give them one-on-one attention.”

The “flipped mastery” math teachers keep a minimal pacing calendar, with dates by which students should take unit tests. They’re not forced to take those tests if they’re not ready. But if they don’t, their grades will temporarily dip, since a “zero” gets marked down for any missed test dates. The grade will go back up once the student takes the test.

Those zeroes are sometimes harder on the parents, Kelly said. “Sometimes parents will argue, ‘Why is my kid getting a zero? I thought this was at your own pace?’ When you catch up, you get full credit,” Kelly said.

Not for everyone

Ramstein math teacher LaShea Udoaka implemented a “modified flip” for her Algebra I classes.

She uses video lectures and daily mastery checks, but the class progresses together for the most part, she said, with test dates mandatory.

“If they want to move ahead, they can; they can’t be behind,” she said.

She agrees that traditional math instruction wasn’t working for a majority of students. “You have to have interaction,” she said.

But she’s also not convinced that “flipped mastery” is the best method of learning for everyone, either.

“Flipped mastery is great if the student is disciplined enough to say, ‘OK, I’m going to do a section a week … I’m going to take three mastery checks a week to keep myself moving.’”

But students who aren’t self-motivated need other options, she said.

“I will believe that flipped works better when we don’t have the issues that we have at the end of every semester, where you have kids that are so far behind they’re probably not going to finish … and that happens. We don’t know what to do with the kids who are still on Unit 3 and they should be on Unit 6.”

Ramstein junior Jarrett Bloss, 16, a student in Bean’s Algebra II class, said he’s more of a fan of traditional math. He was struggling to make up about two units, after falling behind.

“You learn a lot, because if you don’t pass it the first time, you have to redo it,” he said. “But if you are lazy, like I am, you tend to get behind,” sometimes so far that it can be discouraging, he said. With traditional instruction, you don’t have a choice but “to get it done by a certain time.”

Students who fall behind in “flipped mastery” have the opportunity to pull up their grades, but it may mean extra work. DODEA now requires students to earn four credits of high school-level math to graduate. “Flipped mastery” math students who take more than a year to finish a course will have to double up or enroll in summer school, teachers say.

Not just for numbers

At Baumholder, Heidi Kretz is implementing “flipped mastery” grammar study in her 10th grade language arts and world literature classes.

“I flipped last school year in the second semester, but at that time I started very small. I used podcasts, a grammar handbook and other web sources,” she said. “This year, I’ve begun the process of changing all units over into mini-lesson videos that I created.”

Different teaching approaches she had tried didn’t work. “The students who ‘got it’ were bored, and the students who struggled continued to struggle. At the end of each unit, pass or fail, all moved on,” she said. “What is most appealing to me is that, with a progressive mastery approach ... each student is responsible to master the material before moving on.”

It’s not easy, though, because of the time commitment, she said. “Creating videos, handouts, mastery checks, and corrective assignments takes an inordinate amount of time. Teachers need to be sold on the benefits of mastery learning to make this work; they need to be aware that this approach is more time-intensive than traditional learning.”

The “flipped mastery” math teachers said despite the many extra hours involved in implementing a progressive mastery approach to learning, they would never go back to traditional instruction.

Students “learn when they’re ready,” Brust said. “There’s no wasted time in class. You are working on what you need.”


Jarrett Bloss, right, and Sierrah Simpkins, both juniors at Ramstein High School in Germany, discuss a problem during a a "flipped mastery" algebra class at the school.