Rethinking School Schedules
In a 2019 Medium post, The Absurd Structure of High School, Bernie Bleske wrote, “I have 20 students entering my classroom every hour. The frenzied pace is failing everyone.” He further adds, “We are married to a system that has not been properly re-evaluated for 21st century capabilities and capacities.” Our yearly school schedule hasn’t changed either: nine months of six hour days stretching from September to June. As Bleske further argues, “If the goal [of school] is maximum content conveyed, the system works marginally well, in that students are pretty much bombarded with detail throughout the day.”
A quick look at the website Unlocking Time offers a variety of scheduling templates. I applaud the writers for thinking through how different schedule strategies may offer students the opportunity to “follow their academic interests or learning needs.” We need a school schedule that maximizes student learning but does not maximize content acquisition. As Yuval Noah Harrari and Russell Brand discuss in their Penguin Talk, The Future of Education, “schools should not be delivering information but helping students build a map of reality.”
Put your student hat on for a moment. Think about the student’s user experience. What schedule works best for their learning, not for our delivery of content?
I recently watched Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are and became deeply interested in third culture kids (TCKs)--so interested, in fact that I reimagined the teenage protagonist in the TV pilot I’m writing. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth van Reken is the bible for TCKs, and it's a fascinating read. Ruth van Reken describes the intersection between the home culture (“first culture”) and host culture (“second culture”) as an interstitial or third culture, comprised of the shared commonalities of those living an internationally mobile lifestyle. Pollock et. al. write, “the TCK frequently builds relationships to all the cultures while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is [often] in relationships to similar backgrounds.” When a TCK leaves one culture and moves to another, they have some time to assimilate to their new culture.
I started to think about TCK culture switching and how it may relate to both school schedules and a student’s user experience. Let’s assume that a student has six forty-minute classes in one day. Each time a student enters a new classroom, they enter a new learning culture. That culture may be defined by the teaching style (discussion, lecture, project-based or challenge-based), the classroom population (mixed grade levels, single grade level, mixed ability), the subject matter, and even the teacher’s personality. Students then need to make six cultural shifts in one day. With all that cultural shifting going on in one day, where is the space for students to learn? We expect them to enter class, “settle down,” shift cultures, engage in learning, and then shift out of that culture.
How does the learning then take precedence over the cultural shifting? We could spend hours trying to hack out the “perfect schedule,” only to uncover problems later on. Instead, we need to shift from a culture of the schedule to a culture of learning.
How do we do that? While participating in an action research project that focuses on self-directed learning, I did a deep dive with students about “how they learn best.” I received a variety of responses but the universal theme was “no one has really asked us before.”
As a teacher, I am also limited by the school schedule. I move in the same blocks of time my students do. I am also required to culture shift multiple times during the day. My culture shifts include extra help sessions, faculty meetings, student support meetings, clubs, advisor, class coverage. The number of culture shifts I make in a day is substantial.
1. Ask your students “how they learn” and “what school schedule would work best for them.” This is their user experience, not ours. They should be part of the conversation.
2. De-silo our courses. Students make a daily trek from class A to class B to class C. Why couldn’t we have a combined physics and data analysis course?
3. Flexibility is the key. Does every student need to be “in class” for forty-five minutes? Could the daily schedule be two three-hour blocks? One block is a three hour lab (I would love this!) and the other block is student-directed learning.
4. Does every student need to be “in school” for six hours a day? Could half the day be spent outside of school? Perhaps students are working at a local non-profit for the morning (think philanthropy, entrepreneurship, social justice, community service) or at the United Nations (I’m in NYC so it’s a natural connection; think global issues, citizenship, SDGs).
5. And finally, eliminate homework (or at least make it meaningful). After students shift through multiple cultures during the day, we then ask them to repeat that process of culture shifting with homework in different disciplines after school.
It’s time to not only shift the culture of the school schedule but to shift the culture of school itself.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)