Friday, June 26, 2015

Idea #3: Think Differently About Time

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the third of an undetermined number of blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (The first was Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank; the second was Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It).) Warning - this will be extremely long, somewhat rambly, and very narrative/descriptive.

Name of Administrator,

In my previous two big ideas I suggested that there were three major areas that needed to be explored: our system/schedule, our curriculum, and our assessment/reporting system. I argued that assessment/reporting and curriculum were fundamental to everything we do, and drive so many of the decisions (and assumptions), and that both needed to be radically rethought. In this post I want to examine the schedule and, more specifically, how we think about time.

As we look at a school day at AHS, here is the typical way we think about time. Formal academic time starts at 7:21 am and lasts until 2:16 pm, with six class periods of 59 minutes each, passing periods of 5 minutes, and 30 minutes for lunch. Beginning at 2:16 pm and lasting until 5:00 pm or so is time for sports practices (and sometimes games) and other after school activities and clubs. Starting around 6:00 pm and lasting until about 10:00 pm is a combination of sporting activities (games), activities (concerts, performances, dances), personal time for students, and some informal academic time (homework, we expect two hours a night Sunday through Thursday). This is for Monday through Friday. On Saturday and Sunday we don't expect any learning to occur, although we have lots of sports and activities on Saturday, and there are those two hours of homework they're supposed to do on Sunday night.

I think there's a huge problem with this view, and it all stems from a simple matter of perspective: we're viewing time from the perspective of the school, of the system, and not from the perspective of the learner. Even the basic concepts of the "school day, " the "school week" and the "school year" are so ingrained in our thinking that we can't see all the assumptions that are baked into those phrases. We are making an implicit assumption that the vast majority of learning happens (and should happen) when kids are at school in a formal academic setting (class), with some additional preparation and reinforcement that can happen in the evening (homework).

But students' lives - and their bodies and brains - are not limited to the artificial constraints of a system designed to mass educate a population to be successful in a factory-dominated society. There are twenty-four hours in a day for a student to learn, why do we keep insisting that the important learning can only happen between 7:21 and 2:16, and can only happen in formal classes? From simply a mathematical perspective, we've consciously decided to limit learning to less than 30% of the day. It gets even worse when you think about the "school week." This learning is expected to happen during just five of the seven days of the calendar week, so from a mathematical perspective we've now limited learning to less than 21% of the hours in a week. And, of course, there's the "school year" - we only expect students to learn during 180 days of the year - so about 14% of the time available to them in a year.

So what if we stopped looking at learning as being defined by the "school" anything? What if instead we looked at - and consciously designed - learning from the perspective of the learner? Each and every learner has twenty-four hours each day, 365 days a year. Why limit learning to 7:21 to 2:16, Monday through Friday, for about 36 weeks each year, and dividing up that time into formal classes where we have predetermined what those learners should learn? What if we designed learning around the needs of the learner instead of around the needs of the system?

Right about now you may be thinking that this all sounds great philosophically (or perhaps not so great), but the reason we have a system is because there's simply no way to efficiently accomplish what I've suggested. While I'll admit that's it's a complicated and most likely messy task, I'm not willing to concede that it's impossible. After all, if we'd been having this conversation a couple of hundred years ago and suggesting the school system we have today, most people would've said that was impossible as well.

And I would also strongly argue that our goal is not necessarily "efficiency", that's a word that only makes sense from a factory-model, system-oriented framework. Our goal is to help our students learn. Our goal is to help our students discover and pursue their passions. Our goal is to meet the needs of our students. If we truly do those three things, we will more "efficiently" meet the needs of society than any one-size-fits-all, standardization system designed to create identical widgets. After all, society only makes sense as a concept if it improves the lives of all the individuals that make up that society. We talk a lot in education about having high expectations for our students, isn't it about time we have some higher expectations for ourselves?

In my last post I talked about one possible vision of what transitioning toward such a viewpoint might look like. Clearly that post still approached the problem from mostly the system's perspective of time, not the learner's, although I think it at least took baby steps in the right direction. Let's try to take more of a birds-eye perspective (or perhaps satellites-camera perspective) of time, learning and scheduling and see what we can come up with.

Each learner has twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week, 365 days in a year (and an increasing number of years - our current system presumes that learning "stops" at age 18 or perhaps 22). That's a blank canvas on which we can co-create a learning experience with our learners, without per-determining the dimensions of the canvas or whether we're using oils or watercolors. There's no reason that it has to start at 7:21 and end at 2:16, Monday through Friday only, for each learner. Let's design it with the goal of creating learners, of helping our students achieve their goals, not the system's goals. Instead of designing it with "the end in mind", with that standardized "end" defined by the system, let's design it with the journey in mind, and the journey is defined by the student (with the help of the community around her).

By this point I've either completely lost you, or you're still hanging in there but are thinking, "Okay, but give me some specifics. What does this look like?" I don't know what it looks like. There is no one way that it looks like, or even one hundred ways it looks like. That's what scares us so much. We think we have to have a detailed schedule planned out, that takes us from point A to point B, from start to finish. But we don't, and we have plenty of precedence to base this on. You're a parent - when your kids were born did you have a detailed plan of what their lives were going to look like, from Point A to Point B, from start to finish? Of course not, nor would we want their lives to be like that. So why should their learning look like that?

Now, there are a few semi-specifics that I could suggest as starting points for discussion.

First, and most obviously, is the start time for our "school" day. While I don't think there should be one time for all students, and I don't think formal classes are the only - or even the best - way to learn, I still see a role for some time-bound, scheduled learning activities (and some folks would clearly prefer this). If we are going to have something like this then we should start no earlier than 9 am. I imagine you're as familiar with the research as I am; starting at 7:21 for students aged 14 through 18 makes no sense at all. Starting later will not only improve "academic" performance, but will also cut down on car accidents, reduce suicides and other mental-health issues, and generally improve the well-being of our students. All the reasons that are typically given for why we can't change the start time are either bogus or can easily be addressed (I won't take the time in this post, but would be happy to discuss).

Second, don't think of the "school" day in terms of schedules and classes, but in terms of learning. And that learning shouldn't be divided up into artificial subject areas, with a bell ringing every 59 minutes so we can respond like Pavlov's dogs, conditioned to move to our next "feeding" when we hear the tone. In fact, it doesn't have to be "divided up" at all (although it could be if that made sense for some learners). Instead, we should design each learner's school day to meet their needs. For years we've been required by law to create IEP's for our Special Education students. I'm suggesting we create them for each and every student. Not IEP's as we typically know them, which are too often hoop-jumping paperwork nightmares, but true IEP's, focused on personal learning. I'm not sure how important the name is, but I'd perhaps suggest PLP's - Personal Learning Plans - although I'm still not completely convinced "plan" is the right word either, as that almost presumes a fixed, defined starting point and end goal, a Point A and Point B, but it's a place to start the discussion.

Third, we need to radically redefine the role of "teacher". Our current model presumes subject-matter experts who deliver a pre-defined curriculum to students. Instead, we need master learners, who still probably have some subject-area expertise, but whose focus is on helping learners achieve their goals, not master our subjects. If we redefine this role, it then allows us the freedom to think about "time" and "schedules' very differently.

Fourth, we need to discard the idea that "school" or "learning" only happens when students are at school, in formal learning activities, directed by adults, and only up to the age of 18 or 22. If we truly believe in "lifelong learners," then we need to design our learning experiences with that in mind. It's a continuum of learning, both in terms of what those learning experiences look like, and in terms of when they happen. With extended lifespans (serious researchers have suggested that the first person who will live to 150 has already been born, and that most newborns have a decent chance of living a healthy life to 120), shifting population demographics (by 2060 children will be barely more numerous than any other age group up to 65), and rapidly advancing technology that is changing the face of employment (automation has already dramatically altered the face of employment and is only going to increase in our students' lives), our students are going to have both an extended lifespan to learn and much more "free" time (not spent working for a paycheck) to do it in. We need to discard the idea that time is a scarce quantity - for our students over the evolving course of their lives, it's going to be abundant. What should "high school" look like if many of our students are going to live to 120 and work fewer hours each week?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to include our students when deciding when, how and where their time is spent. We need to fully educate them about what their lives are likely to look like (see the links in the previous paragraph), and have them help design their own path through life. It is no longer good enough (if it ever was), for the time we call "high school" to "prepare" students for the rest of their lives. It needs to be a time for helping students design how they are going to lead their lives. Shouldn't it be focused on helping them decide how they want to live, on defining what a "good life" is? Isn't that so much more important than all the requirements we think are so important in our current high school experience?

We need to think differently about time. We need to view time from the perspective of the learner, not the system, and from the perspective of a life-time of learning, not a school-time of learning. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff.



  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and agree wholeheartedly- time is THE factor that needs to be retooled in modern educational settings. This is because students are just accustomed to letting others dictate what and when they learn. As we could agree the advent of technology, specifically mobile/ broadband connected devices decoupled the need to be at school for learning to occur. This is where I think the power of video instruction really shines through. Being able to interact with class materials anytime/ anywhere allows students to ponder the concepts on their own terms which leads to a more realistic learning experience.

  2. I think this is a great thought. Within my own time in the high school classroom, I often thought that learning my subjects only needed to occur during the assigned class time when really learning does occur at any time and in any place.

  3. I think this is a great thought. Within my own time in the high school classroom, I often thought that learning my subjects only needed to occur during the assigned class time when really learning does occur at any time and in any place.

  4. I enjoyed reading about this idea. I agree that there seems to be such a separation between school time, i.e. "learning time" and the rest of a student's time. I also liked what you said about redefining the role of teachers as master learners, because I think this could change the notion that some students may have the learning is simply absorbing knowledge, and that teaching is only delivering it. I think that, by changing the way we think about school time, students might be more aware that they're also learning before and after school, and that they are learning in different ways (not only by reading, listening, and taking notes), and sometimes, independently.