When I was in college I envied friends at colleges with “Jan Terms.” From my vantage point at a ponderous, grad school-ridden university, these four-week terms looked pretty appealing, great examples of nimble, student-interested-based programs that could happen in smaller liberal arts colleges to make education fresh and exciting. Jan Terms, or mini-terms of any sort, were what could happen in colleges where students knew where their professors lived in the town and could run into them, with their families, at the store. They were times when students and faculty could embark on intensive explorations of shared passions in an immersive spirit of fellowship and relatively low stakes.
At the college level and among those secondary schools that also adopted the practice, mini-terms pretty much went the way of the dodo as education shook off the impulses of the Seventies and became more “serious.” In a few places they held on and even remained beloved and important segments of the academic program, but for the most part the weight of “coverage” and its evil twin, standardized testing, drove idiosyncratic approaches to learning out of the students’ high school programs, at least until senior year and electives after the pressures of SAT Subject Test and at least some AP exams have passed.
But the mini-term is having something of a revival, with more and more schools expressing interest and making inquiries on various listservs and Twitter chats. There seems to be some interest in breaking up the calendar to make space for deeper explorations of single topics or approaches.
I think I know why this is, and I am very much of two minds about it—not approval and disapproval, but rather strong approval and a sort of dismay tempered by optimism.
In the last few years there has been a revival, or an enthusiastic reappraisal, of the idea of “project-based learning,” especially in the form of design thinking. Great projects, and really deep design thinking, are, like the old Jan Terms, immersive experiences, hard to chop up into 55- or 70-minute chunks distributed throughout a week. Ideally these are undertaken full time, and often they are accompanied by an element of “making” that requires its own commitment of time to design, prototype, and improve.
There is enormous peer pressure these days on schools, especially independent schools, to embrace “PBL” (which I prefer to call “PjBL” to distinguish it from Problem-Based Learning, which I learned as a structured case-study-like approach to analysis and which often is lumped, confusingly, under the PBL tag with its project-based cousin), “maker culture,” and design thinking. Oftentimes the umbrella under which these fall also shelters STEM and STEAM as well as some of our other enthusiasms of the moment: entrepreneurship, global education, community engagement….
In the listserv queries about mini-terms one can hear the echoes of the central question at curriculum committee meetings in which these new concepts are being discussed: How is a school supposed to incorporate these amorphous, insistently good ideas into a curriculum rigidly segmented by discipline and already tidily packed and parceled into daily doses? If we must sacrifice coverage, how best to do this without inconveniencing or riling up anxious faculty?
The frequent answer, of course, is to peel out two or three weeks in which the school can devote most of the academic days to this kind of “non-traditional” (and what I bet some really cynical teachers call “non-academic”) work. Crank up the design lab, clear the maker space, and lay in pounds of new filament for the 3-D printer! Sign the kids up for the “global education” trip to Belgium or Costa Rica! Prepare for the internship project with our sister school in the urban core! The school has figured out how to make time for these self-evidently worthy enterprises without totally exploding the curriculum or the schedule; maybe language classes even run as usual, an hour of normalcy in what are otherwise days of unfamiliar openness and energy focused on goals less clear and concrete than reading Chapter 16 or diagramming the Krebs Cycle.
Often enough, the mini-term takes place when educators allow themselves to subscribe to the convenient fiction that “you can’t really get anything done, then, anyhow”: the interval between Thanksgiving and December breaks, the last weeks of May, the weeks just preceding spring break. We surrender to the basement-level expectation that these periods are “write-offs” anyway, although of course they should not and do not have to be. Check the timing, if you don’t believe me, of the national “Hour of Code,” another brief and highly worthy excursion away from the traditional and into the future.
As great as these programs and ideas are, however, there’s something a little disheartening about the resurgence of mini-terms. They are at least partly an admission that project-based learning, design thinking, global education, coding, and the rest are simply too hard to incorporate into the life and work of the “regular” classroom, that their principles are, for the moment, too difficult for teachers to grasp and adapt into their daily practice.
Well, everything has to start somewhere. I happen to have worked for many years in a school that has made a practice of figuring out ways to incorporate good ideas “across the curriculum,” most recently and famously computer programming. The faculty are enthusiastic early adopters who, by intentional hiring and frequent training, tend not to be overwhelmed by trying to figure out how to make social justice a part of Algebra II or design thinking a part of tenth-grade English. It’s a pretty great model and a fascinating place to work, but it’s not a model that can be bottled for instant consumption by every school. But the mini-term, I like to think, is a great first step for schools.
In my perfect world, mini-terms open the door to a sea-change in the way schools do their work. They are test beds for innovative(!) practices that will soon wriggle their way into those 55-minute lessons and even start breaking down barriers between disciplines. In time, the new methods and approaches of mini-terms may unseat King Coverage and lead the way toward the reign of skills and habits of mind (or mindsets, if you will) as the central subject of educators’ work. Real (if rare) experience says that you can actually teach project-based Algebra II or design thinking-informed Honors English or even global-aware Chemistry, once you have internalized the methods and the goals and freed yourself from the domination of “coverage.”
Thus, my hope is that each school now contemplating or embarking on a mini-term system has in mind the larger goal of making the themes and methods of these short-term “events” integral parts of its institutional methods and permanent academic culture. If mini-terms must have a revival, let them absolutely not be a place to which good ideas and exciting, engaging practices are relegated in order to preserve the same-old, same-old.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)