Sunday, February 05, 2012

Ideas I'd Like My Future Principal to Consider: The Schedule

We have a problem with time. Specifically, the way we allocate it in schools. As Chris Lehmann points out:
Our schools are structurally dysfunctional places which, therefore, makes teaching and learning much harder than it needs to be, so that teachers -- and students -- have to succeed despite the system, rather than because of it.

As long as high school students have to travel to eight different classes where eight different teachers talk about grading / standards / learning in eight different ways, students will spend far too much trying to figure out the adults instead of figuring out the work. When that happens, too many students will fall through the cracks and fail. If we built schools where there was a common language of teaching and learning and common systems and structures so that kind people of good faith can bring their ideas and creativity and passion to bear within those systems and structures and help kids learn, we will find that more teachers can be the kind of exemplary teachers that Mr. Kristof wants.

As long as there is little to no time in the high school schedule for teachers and students to see and celebrate each others' shared humanity, too many students will feel that school is something that is done to them, that teachers care more about their subjects than they do about the kids. (emphasis mine)
At Arapahoe we have a fairly unique schedule for a high school, we call it the Variable Schedule. It's very similar to a college schedule. Some classes do meet five days a week, but most meet less than that; some MWF, some TR, some four days a week, etc. Let me be clear, there are many, many, many good things about this schedule, not the least of which is that it allows students to explore more areas than a traditional schedule, and it allows students to work one-on-one with teachers during unscheduled hours (or use the media center, or work in groups, or do whatever they need to get done).

Over the years we've become pretty protective of the Variable, as periodically there is pressure to abandon it.

(If you're interested, the two most frequently cited reasons: 1) High school students can't handle the 2-8 unscheduled hours a week we give them, especially with an open campus; 2) Teachers typically teach "only" 20-23 hours a week, which is less than in a traditional schedule.) 

We feel it allows students the flexibility to explore lots of different areas they might not normally get to, it gives them experience dealing with unscheduled time which is invaluable later in college, work and life, and it allows for the opportunity for teachers and students to develop deeper relationships.

I think over the years of defending the Variable we may have lost track of something important: there may be a better way to do things. For most of us, the only types of schedules we really have to compare to are the traditional 6 (or 7 or 8) by 5 schedule, or the block schedule (or minor variations on those two, like rotating days). The traditional 6 by 5 schedule holds very little appeal to us and, while the block schedule is appealing to some folks in some ways, it doesn't appear to be better than what we have.

But here's the thing - those aren't our only options. While the Variable may have been innovative when it was implemented at AHS in 1967, and while it may have served us well for most of the 45 years since, that doesn't mean it's the best option today. The world is significantly different now than it was in 1967, and learning opportunities are significantly different, so shouldn't schools be as well?

So am I proposing a specific schedule? No. I'm proposing that it's time for us to reexamine our purpose and goals in our school and that everything should be on the table, including the schedule. But, for the sake of discussion, here's a schedule that perhaps would break us out of our mindset of Variable, traditional or block scheduling.

What if students went to "regular" classes only in the morning (say 9 am - 12 pm, because certainly we wouldn't have teenagers start at 7:21 am in any logical universe). Then after lunch (I'd suggest more than 30 minutes, think about all the great discussions you have at conferences outside of the sessions), what if students were able to explore something they were passionate about more in-depth? Maybe that's a small class of students interested in the same thing working with a teacher or teachers. Or maybe that's an independent study. Or maybe an internship at a local business or place of learning. Or maybe something online. I don't know what exactly it looks like, but I think it's one (very rough) example of how we need to change our thinking about the possibilities of what school could look like.
Don't you learn the best and the most when you are engaged in something you are passionate about? Why wouldn't we want that for our students?
And, to be sure, even this proposed schedule is still pretty traditional, as it's hard for me to think creatively enough given my lifelong immersion in the traditional idea of what school should look like. Which is why I think we need to do it together, as a school community.

I think our current notions of what school - and school schedules - should look like are hopelessly outdated. As Ira Socol says:
Assignments need to stop having dates on them. Assignments - such as they may be - need to have goals instead. What are you hoping to accomplish? to learn? to create? to build? to know? to demonstrate? to provoke? How do you think you'll get from "here" to "there." What in the world does a date or a time have to do with that? Why would you even begin to interfere with the learning process by limiting the time? I'll explain, because in the industrial process of schooling 70% of a subject "learned" by a specific moment trumps mastery at some other time. Do I really need to explain how ridiculous that is?
Which is why I'd like my future principal to lead us through an examination of what exactly we want for our students, how we would best go about doing that, and what kind of school schedule would best support that. Maybe it turns out that the Variable is the best option (I obviously don't think so, but that doesn't mean it isn't). Or perhaps just tweaking the Variable. But perhaps something radically different, something that makes much more sense for learning in 2012 and beyond, as opposed to schedules created in the 1920's (traditional) or 1967 (our version of the Variable).

Here's what it comes down to to me. If you were designing a school today, would you design anything even remotely similar to what we have? Would you have 58 minute classes, where we think about Algebra for 58 minutes then, bing, now we go think about grammar then, bing, now we go to Band?
With all the affordances that technology allows us, with our ability to connect with information, ideas, and people inexpensively and easily around the world 24/7/365, with our ability to pursue our passions in way unthinkable for most humans even ten years ago, would you really limit learning in this way?
I would not, which is why I'm hopeful that, as great as the Variable has been, we don't cling blindly to it. I'm hopeful that my future principal will lead our community in a discussion of how to design the best school/learning experience possible for our students in 2012, and then help us get there.


  1. Thanks for this post, Karl. I'm going to pass it along to my administrators.

  2. Hey Karl,
    Have you seen Shawn Cornally's Tedx talk? He proposes an idea similar to yours with 'regular' classes in the morning and more student-initiated thematic learning in the afternoon.

    It might be something to add to your future principal's viewing list?!

  3. I've been kicking around this idea for quite some time as well. I wonder if we should get away from the idea of seat-time and structured attendance all together?

  4. Thanks for the great reflective post, Karl. Some of the questions you ask remind me of a school setup that I saw once during a conference presentation in which the students went to traditional school for half the day, then spent the rest of the time in a special "office" area that afforded them quiet work space, group work spaces, and computers to get done what they needed to. It seemed as though there were more positives than negatives with that model.

    What I feel might be the most dangerous path we could take in education is to try and make the environment as homogenous as possible. It seems as though every few years the corporate world discovers a new way for employees to be productive, and even in long-running innovative business, the culture changes over time. I wonder then if there isn't some value in purposely building in some constraints, roadblocks, and obstacles to overcome. Quite often I find that I'm at my most creative, and more productive, when I'm given certain constraints from district admin, or a charge to stay within a certain budget or limitations.

    That's not to say I think we should be purposely building artificial obstacles just for the sake of creating them, but how can we balance between the ideal learning environment, and the requirements the rest of the world will put upon our students?

  5. What about have no classes and letting students explore their interests naturally, like Sudbury School.

  6. Matt - Yes, I've watched Shawn's Tedx talk. That would certainly be something I would share with my future principal should they be willing.

  7. Thanks Joe, I think there are some great ideas in that link you shared. I struggle with how quickly we can transition from fairly traditional "school" to "no seat time at all." As we've seen in LPS in the past, too much change too quickly doesn't always go over so well.

  8. Ben - I think we have plenty of constraints already (budget, state and federal law, societal expectations, safety, day care, . . . ) - so I don't see that as a huge problem. I think complacency is one of the biggest issues we face at a school like mine.

  9. skrabut - I've looked at Sudbury's stuff before, and I find it very interesting. But I'm not sure that would work at the scale of our school, or with the legal requirements - and budgets - we have. As I said to Joe above, I worry that if we go too "radical" (for lack of a better word), too quickly, we'll crash and burn.

    But, of course, I want to go quickly and fairly radical, which is probably why I'm a bit frustrated :-)

  10. I completely agree with the problems associated with changing too quickly. I certainly think it is something to be done in phases, but it's important to have a complete vision to guide the transition. Maybe start out like the Moorseville Graded School District in North Carolina and then begin the process to de-structure time like Sudbury?

  11. Hi Karl,

    exciting to read that you've already had this schedule for such a long time. I'm working at a relative new school in the Netherlands UniC (, which is working from the same principles.

    I recognize the pressure and see the differences in subjects (math and languages claim more classtime) We're also constantly looking for ways to revise our schedule. I think a skills and interest based schedule is what fits us best. Together with students
    we want to see what would works best.

    I would love to hear how the process turns out in your school. Either through this blog or via more direct methods (email, forum) Is there a place where schools share best practices on this matter? In the Netherlands there is a platform for likeminded schools. But it's at a board level. Not really amongst teachers, where I think real change comes from. You're a prime example of that.

    I'd love to share experiences with American (and international) schools! And I'd love to learn from your school!!

  12. Hey Karl,

    I enjoyed the post and agree with many of the points that both Lehmann and Socol bring to light. A choice of schedule in high school systems would benefit parents and students in many ways. A Variable schedule will allow students to more effectively use time, which is key to learning and studying. It would also help better prepare students for college, because the college schedule is set up basically the same way.