24/7/365 Schooling

Can we use the calendar differently?

I’d like to bring up a topic that, while maybe a hot potato topic, is certainly worth thinking about and discussing. For the most part, most school systems in the U.S. follow a similar yearly calendar: school starts in early fall/late summer (Aug or Sept), we take a long 2-3 week holiday break during the end of December and early January, we have a spring break in March or April, and we end in late May or June for a 2-month summer break. School starts some time between 7am and 8am and we go until 2pm or 3pm. Extra help, sports practices and games, and play practice and performances are all after school and into the evening. This is basically true for all levels of education in the U.S. even at the college level.

I’d like you to think about the yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily schedule of a typical school year. I submit that it is time we look at making not just subtle, but dramatic changes to not necessarily how we educate students, but when we educate them. And when we think about that, there are many opportunities which come out of that discussion, if we are just willing to think out of the box.
In a world of instant access and immediate feedback, it does not make sense that we limit ourselves by the traditional clock and calendar, when every other aspect of life is not limited.
Probably one of the first things we should do is completely abandon our system of school holidays. (Woah. Did he just say what I think he said? But that would be going against the status quo. Why would anyone do that? That would involve change! What we’ve got is working ok now, right? I mean I got through school and I turned out ok. Why change?) Especially in a world in which religion, economics, business, family priorities, weather, culture, expectations, and personal preference are so varied, perhaps a different model can fit better. There was a time when it made sense that school followed a calendar that synced up with the farming & agriculture calendar. After all, it was a major part of the economy and many people were involved with that. There are a variety of possibilities that might incorporate that same 24/7/365 world I mentioned before.
There is evidence which suggests that our current model of a daily schedule does not fit the best time of day for learning for students. For example is the 8am-10am starting time slot of any value for middle school and elementary school aged kids? It’s certainly convenient, but is is smart?

We find many M-F 9-5 business people spending a few hours here and there on a weekend, or weekday evening catching up on work, corresponding to some emails, or working (without typical distractions) on current projects…why not take that same attitude and apply it to education. Why not have classes which are offered in the evening, on a Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon, or during the summer. It would allow students to be able to take classes they normally could not, or could free up some time during the regular day to focus on other equally important efforts. It would allow business people an opportunity to teach. It opens the doors for an entirely new style of teacher. It would allow many students to be able to maintain a part time job throughout the year—something which many adults agree is a valuable part of growing up. And, it would allow flexiblity with our existing teachers; your classes might be spread out more giving you time during the day to collaborate, research, plan presentations for conferences, keep current in your discipline, visit other schools, and develop higher order curriculum.

Part of the issue is that we still insist on having definite beginnings and endings in a very traditional sense. I also agree that psychologically they are important, but our beginnings and endings tend to be based on grade level only. If you talk with most teachers, many will agree that seldom does age, grade level, maturity, and intellect ever intersect together. So, one possibility is that we base the school model of advancement (at least in part) on progress and demonstration of ability….. as compared to age. Age is simply a measurement of how many days that you have been alive, hardly a system to base a curriculum, learning progression, and an entire school system on. Intelligence, maturity, and problem solving skills are earned and learned through experience and by acquiring understanding. I think there are certainly some places in a system like that where age would play a part, but maybe just not as the primary basis for advancement. I am not suggesting it would be easy to do this, but just that our current model is not the only one. And just because we’ve always done it this way does not mean that we should continue. I realize that there are numerous issues, problems, obstacles, and reasons why altering our model would present. But, maybe that is the exact reason WHY we would consider it in the first place; not because it is easy, but because it would be hard. I’ll argue all day long that even if it is hard, if we as a collective society deem it worthy of that effort, then it is truly worth whatever we go through. Our country has never stepped down from a challenge before…and for a challenge with the potential to make our country better able to compete on the national and international level, why would we not explore this with great energy?
One way we might define a beginning and ending is not by a date on a calendar, but by accomplishing a required set of tasks and demonstrating proficiency, similar to the capstone projects in the I.B. program, but on a more regular and smaller scale throughout the educational process. And we know there are successful models of a system like that; Montessori education has elements of that approach built in to their educational model. The Boy Scout program has a model like this where students work to accomplish a required set of tasks, events, and activities, and when they do, they receive their “badge” and they move on to the next series. There are students of all ages interacting together in both of those internationally proven systems. Not that w would follow them exactly, but we study them and extract what elements fit our school system. Sure, it involves us having to redefine how we administer and offer school, but is that necessarily a bad thing? In a corporation or business, if the current model of success is starting to not meet the needs of the customers, community, and business itself, then the business would determine what model has the most successful chance of success and work towards that.

Is standardized testing really the best motivator for excellence in education?

In our current system, it seems that no matter what change we talk about making or what needs we have, or what desired outcome we want to work towards, it seems as if our answer to that is always a new version of a( or simply more) standardized test(s). And, so over the last 50 years, we have seen education reform make giant circles over and over again eventually coming back to the same place we when we started.

In the spirit of looking at time and scheduling and, there are some interesting areas where we might see some positive changes.

• Consider a typical day. If I said to any of you that you were going to go to 7 meetings per day every day for a year(many of which you would simply take notes and do worksheets) you would laugh loudly in angry disgust, then kill me. Yet, that’s what we do each and every day for many years of our student’s lives. Is that truly the best we can do? Is there not a better way to use the time we’ve got? There are so many options for us to consider if we can just get ourselves to think outside the standard school model.

• Consider exams. Normal policy calls for each class to offer a 2-3 hour culminating test during a 1 week period at the end of a semester. Doesn’t it make better sense to administer exams at different times, rather than all at once? After all, if they could really focus on one subject area at a time, wouldn’t they study harder deeper, and better? I might even add, that if we were to make every test they take cumulative, then their final exam is really no different that a regular test.

• Consider summertime. Summer school traditionally has been only for those who need remedial work…perhaps it is time to flip that on it’s head and let summer be the time for the normal and even high-achieving students. Schools offer remediation in their schools all summer long, but for students who want to challenge themselves and learn more, we make them pay lots of money and travel far away to attend programs. Shouldn’t our own schools be centers of excellence and achievement for our own students?

• Consider field trips. What if every discipline took field trips throughout the year. Currently, it is not possible , but with an extended year and multiple breaks along the way, trips of all kinds suddenly become not just possible, but probable. Travel, life experience, cultural education, global education can become not just a luxury for a few can become opportunities for many.

• Consider distance education. Perhaps 10 years ago, the idea of distance education, online classes, and even on-line degrees was a joke. Suddenly, with technologies to support those types of efforts, as well as the culture starting to realize that the office and classroom are no longer defined by a Monday-Friday, 8:00 – 5:00 regiment…these ideas make sense.

• Consider family time. Not every family has a schedule which is in sync with the time structure of the school day. Families with moms and dads who work in restaurants, work in retails, are self-employed, travel through the week, work 2nd or 3rd shifts. A school schedule which was spread out more with opportunities throughout the year (not just during long summer breaks) would allow families to have more time together throughout the year.

• Consider PBL (Project-Based Learning). Few teachers disagree that PBL is a great tool for learning The hands-on experience provides a chance for students to “feel” content, not just hear about it and regurgitate information on a test. But, sometimes we are limited in what we can do as struggle to get through material (perhaps in order to prepare students for a standardized test? Sorry, I had to sneak that in). Teachers: think about a schedule which allows you a chance to plan this (even cross-curricular), allows you the chance to let it go long enough for the learning to happen, and allows the students a chance to work together outside of school to get it done. Some of the breaks throughout the year can be academic in nature.

• Consider the summer break. Families with parents in business get no summer break, so having children home for 2+ months is often times a very challenging scenario. For many destinations for family vacations, the summertime is the most crowded, most expensive, most challenging weather.

• I know the nay-sayers are already asking me to provide standardized test score which prove that a year long school year is more effective that the current norm. Sorry, gang. I am proud to say that even if there is (and I am sure there is), I am not going to use it in this argument. Please tell me our motivation is not a multiple choice test. If it is, I’ll ask you not to read the rest of my BLOG, nor anything else I’ve ever written.

• Consider multiple daily schedules. With some much time to accomplish our goal (to lead students through the educational process), schools could even alter the daily schedule throughout the year, for example, maybe in the fall and spring when days are longer, we do one schedule, but during winter months, we alter that with another schedule, and during high heat summer months, we use yet another schedule. In the same spirit of rotating schedules during a standard school day at many schools, a rotating schedule of a higher level might also provide opportunities for us all.

Now, don’t misunderstand what I mean here. I am not talking about suddenly requiring teachers to work longer hours and more days for the same salary. I am not talking about throwing away textbooks and lessons plans. All those hours teachers have spent developing great lessons will finally have better chances of being received like you hoped. I am not necessarily talking about more days in the classroom(although that is probably something we should also look at….however that is NOT part of this BLOG); I am talking about rearranging how and when we have kids in the hallways and classrooms. Have we ever thought about how important time and management of time is? It is not something to be taken lightly. Consider the various sports out there. Competitions range from an hour to many hours in length for a “match”. But, each one is completely different in how (if at all) they structure their time; so the “how and when” their players work is intentional, planned, managed, and taken advantage of. In football, there are four 15-minute quarters—in fact management of time in the last minutes often times decides winning and losing; in soccer, you’ve got two 45-minute halves;

Time is used in many ways in sports

in Greco-Roman wrestling, you’ve got two 3-minute periods, in boxing, you’ve got fifteen 3-minute rounds; in tennis, there is not time at all –it is simply the first person to reach an objective (best of 3 or 5 sets, with lots of opportunities for both players to win and lose throughout the match); in baseball, there is also no time limit, it is also determined by the highest number of accomplishments (runs) that are earned after 9 innings; sumo wrestling bouts tend to last a few seconds but can last for minutes, yet the entire “match” (tournament lasts) 15 days—and even more spectacular…the beginning of each bout is never specified in advance..it is decided by the two competitors meeting eyes and without verbal communication; in basketball, you’ve got four 15-minute quarters; cricket has many forms of time ranging from 2 ½ hours to 5 days. So you see my point, there are dramatically different ways of using time depending on the needs of the situation. Some of the greatest activities do not even have time as a component of the event…wow now there is something to consider….what if students simply advanced to the next level in education when they were ready?
Teachers: think about this: Imagine several multi-week holidays from school; those holidays could be of varying lengths depending on the needs of each community. Camps and other educations activities pop up for students to attend during the off time. Remediation could happen during part of the time off… giving students help WHEN THEY NEED IT, not after the class is finished or have failed the class. Schools could alter how they schedule classes. We could have classes which meet for 2-3 hours per day for a month. For classes which need time to let the material sync in, we stretch those courses over multiple sessions. There could be classes which meet 8 hours a day for a week. We could attract different types of, and more varied teachers, as we open up our schedules to evening and weekends; thus allowing eager business men and women the chance to teach. It also opens up options for teachers and school to make extra money as well. Schools could have staff which are in charge of the off-season holidays, recruiting teachers to teach classes, tutor sessions, lead academic travel excursions, take students to tournaments, lead a touring choir, lead grade-level trips with some power behind them(service oriented , out of comfort zone culturally and physically, not just going to an amusement park). Student council and other student led organizations would actually have time to plan events and learn how to lead. Teachers would actually have time to plan collaborative lessons, inter-disciplinary projects, and exploratory lessons in the midst of their year. Teachers and admin will vouch, once the year starts, it’s nose to the grindstone until you look up in May. Little time to plan something like once the school year starts.

So, whether you agree or disagree with some of the ideas presented here, I beg you to start a discussion with your colleagues and co-workers, family friends, academic leaders, politicians.

There is a different way forward in education.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC

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