Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

‘TIS THE SEASON–for Schedule Committees!


Ah, the season has rolled around again. The fall of 2012, with its too-early Thanksgiving and string of less-than-five-day weeks owing to some holidays and, in our neck of the woods, the weather, is drawing to a close, and people are thinking how miserable their schools’ schedules are. The election recedes in memory, snow falls, committees form, and the anxieties attendant to potential change arrive to attenuate the joy of the coming holidays. 

Schedule change, or its prospect, isn’t quite like a visit from Marley’s ghost, but it does involve the same kinds of inevitable dilemmas. Schedules are all about scarce resources and competing priorities, and schedule change done well forces schools and their faculties and leaders to consider the deepest essentials of their being. A new schedule is likely to mean having to reorganize or reallocate pieces of curriculum and maybe even essential elements of our personal pedagogies. We’re usually well aware of the chains we have forged that bind us to certain practices and priorities, but changing behaviors is scary as hell.

The scariest part of schedule change in 2012 is that we all know full well that there are fundamental things about the work we do that seem to be transforming from one thing to another before our eyes, either beyond our control as parts of “the culture” or—more unsettling—because we know that we should be moving our classroom procedures and cultures in very specific ways, even if we don’t know quite how or even why. Technology and social media are changing the meaning of “content,” and the “teacher as coach” or “guide on the side” rhetoric that seemed interesting but comfortably distant when it was largely being spouted by the Coalition of Essential Schools is now becoming a desirable reality in classrooms that are being flipped and flattened as fast as edubloggers can come up with new terms. Design thinking and MOOCs offer models that could turn our whole world inside out, even as we struggle to find ways to hold onto the primal, relational values and “character education” that we insist lie at the center of independent schools’ value proposition. And what if we’re wrong about even that?

An e-list post came through this morning in which a school asks about “scheduling for 21st-century learning” and asserts its position—as it seeks resources—that “everythingis on the table.” This is a statement and position that takes real courage, and I commend it. I also wonder how far everythingwill really extend as schools undertake similar explorations; it’s not going to be just about when we hold rehearsals and who eats lunch when, but about the ways we organize and even conceive of curriculum. In fully design-thinking-driven environments, for example, how exactly will students be “taught”? If integrated, multidisciplinary, collaborative projects come to characterize programs, what, exactly, will classroom space look like, and what will such spaces contain?

I see glimmers as I contemplate the flow of the day at the NuVu program in Cambridge, and when I look at the ways North Shore Country Day is organizing flexible learning spaces. I see a few public school systems playing with slightly later morning starts to accommodate what “research says” about teenage sleep requirements, but we know the cost of later starts for all is paid by kids in extracurriculars—sports or theater—who either have to work later into the evening or rise earlier still for morning practices, nullifying the effect of the “late” start. I take to heart what Grant Wiggins has written about performance as the real outcome of curriculum, but there is essential content that must be learned, somehow. I see the work that organizations like the Online School for Girls are doing to deepen the personal connections within online learning environments, and I have experienced the community-generating power of the “connectivist” MOOC. But I also know how much I can learn from watching a student’s eyes, hands, and feet as we talk about, say, what s/he hopes for in a college.

The “schedule for 21st-century learning” must be not just a vessel that contains time, space, and a regular sequence of curricular acts but in fact a kind of crucible, or apparatus, that will accommodate ongoing, real-time development of whole new ways of doing what we do. There may be, probably should be, consistency in the “envelope” of the day and some essential, climatically rational logic to the organization of the year (and what ever happened to year-round school or those three-months-on, one-month-off ideas that were floating around before the politicians settled on standardized tests as the way to “reform” education?), but everything else probably will need to stay on the table.

We still seem to be in our first stage of lustful, unconditional love with the whole entrepreneur-innovator thing, which I think will have some lasting value unless we throw away the baby (some essential content, skills, and habits of mind) with the bath water (our insistence on imagining that the whole current system is still somehow “industrial” and built around lectures and regimentation). But we’re still a long way from knowing how to turn our schools into, say, kid versions of Google HQ, where play and lots of writing on Idea Paint walls produce extraordinary results and wondrous products. But a 21st-century schedule may have to have room for such a concept.

One school I know well is even in conversation with IDEO—the people who brought us, more or less, design thinking as we know it and whose associated websites are a feast for the innovation-minded—about guiding a schedule revision. How far a school is really willing to go in areas like the length of the school year or the organization of its calendar or its curriculum will be a test of resolve, an innovator’s dilemma of huge proportions in the face of markets—next schools and colleges, prospective families, prospective employees—accustomed to certain norms.

But these norms seem to be wobbling; change is in the air. Schedules as we know them will have to shrug off their chains and learn the lessons, to return to my earlier (and probably labored; forgive me)  metaphor, of Curriculum Future. It’s going to be exciting, and plenty frightening. And so to schedule committees a-forming across the land, I say, God help you, every one.

And if you’re not quite ready to leap completely into the unknown, I offer you here a little slideshow I have been working on to present some realities and caveats in undertaking schedule review and revision:

  1. Amen, my peripatetic friend!

    I was intrigued by the design our colleague at Gill St. Bernard’s (NJ) put forth in The Chronicle’s “Build Your Own College” contest–enormous and liberating (and no doubt terrifying) implications for at least 6-12:

    Not unlike the system used at The Cambridge School of Weston:

    But much bolder still to come, I think. Happy trails–PG

  2. No question, Peter, on my travels and school visits, use of time is the single most misaligned resource we have, and everyone seems to know it. Yet look at how few schools really “put it all on the table”. Perhaps my greatest fear is that schools go though the really tough discussions about time, and then settle for a vanilla change, and think “that is the best we can do.” No, that is the best you are willing to do. Without real change to the silos of subject and time, the rest is going to be lip service driven by adults, not be the needs of the student.