Moving Schools Beyond Binary Choices

Some tweets reveal; and one that caught my eye recently stated, “ We have to deprogram teachers from their own K-12 experience… to create student-centered classrooms.” That tweet was right on target, but another tweet needed to follow that parents also need to be deprogrammed from their own K-12 experience in order to create schools that are more flexible and eliminate time as a barrier for both students who can accelerate and students who can be successful if given more time.   However, even with technology that allows us to break the 20th century modes of delivering teaching and learning, students seem to still experience a ‘one size fits all’ environment for the most part. In many cases, technology is simply used to fit into old systems of “school” that has everyone start and end at the same time of day for 180 days each year for 13 years.

As school districts throughout the country continue studies and debate later starting times for middle and high school students, it is done within a sealed system of reasoning that keeps school days, years and experience markedly similar to what they have always been…save for potentially starting and ending the school day at later times for everyone. Granted, the research does show that older students would generally benefit from later start times, but why do schools continue to create systems in which all students must fit? Why can’t we better leverage technology to create the flexibilities for students to begin and end a school day that personalizes opportunities to connect with their passions and optimizes healthy alternatives? Part of the answers to why it’s more of the same reverts back to the tweet…adults, school staffs and parents are programmed to create and recreate the schools they experienced.

What is problematic in the current local debate is if a change were to be made, that change would still represent the inflexibilities existing within the current starting and ending times. The arguments for not changing times tend to come down to the same arguments for many new programs schools want to consider…increased costs and disruptions to established schedules like after-school extra-curricular activities. When leveraging technology, using time as an example, we should be able to create a system that allows students to start or end their day early or later without associated extra costs or disruptions to established schedules that fall outside the school day.

There are models throughout the country that blend online options with face-to-face instruction to create flexibilities to personalize a student’s learning experience. Those online options can emanate from sources within a face-to-face school environment without increased costs or a disruption to typically difficult scheduling concerns like band or athletics. There are also online alternatives that can complement school schedules and curriculum for students, enabling them to work at a time and pace better aligned to their learning style.

One compelling model for blending a virtual teaching and learning environment with a face-to-face school to create flexibilities and personalization for students is a public online option offered in New Hampshire. The Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) is completing its 10th year and has grown to over 30,000 student enrollments; most who are attending their local middle or high schools and complementing or customizing their opportunities virtually. It is an atypical charter that does not draw funding from the local school districts students attend. Rather, funding comes directly from the NHDOE and New Hampshire students are able to take courses or specific course competencies at no cost to them or their districts.

This blended model has led to a number of collective and individual flexibilities that have allowed schools to make program or curriculum changes that they couldn’t consider previously due to costs or scheduling restrictions. Some examples include:

  • Schools instituting expanded school days allowing students to create a flexible schedule. For instance, schools still had a traditional early start time, but expanding the day allowed students to start later or end earlier if it created a schedule that allowed more sleep; work or internship considerations; or the common issue of eliminating tardiness issues that led to credit/course failures. Many schools made labs available beyond the traditional school day where students could take courses virtually.
  • Schools were able to expand their foreign language options in a number of ways. Some schools provided a wider range of options from Spanish to French to Chinese. Others began offering languages beyond year 4, or could now have students take foreign languages for AP or college credit. Schools now had options not to have to drop subjects like Latin due to declining enrollments.
  • Students are no longer limited to participate in off-campus internships or experiences by more rigid school schedules. If a student has a great opportunity for an internship from 10 to 12 in the morning that conflicted with a required course, he/she could now take that course virtually and engage in the internship.
  • If a student demonstrates course competency and understanding more quickly than the face-to-face class he/she is in, they can take the course virtually to do the course at an appropriate pace. In many cases this has allowed students to take an extra advanced placement or college credit course in that particular subject area. The converse is also true. Students who need more time to succeed can work at a pace that demonstrates a higher level course competency and understanding rather than being restricted to 180 days or a semester. Technology mitigates time restrictions often resulting in limited understanding or low grades that are predictors for less student success going forward.

Any discussion regarding school timeframes, including length of school days or school calendars to raise expectations or performance of students; or starting times to create options for promoting health and safety, should expand beyond the sealed system of thinking and schooling most adults experienced. Just changing a start time still lock in the inflexibilities the current system has maintained for all the generations of adults making these choices for children. Technology integrated correctly allows schools to move beyond the binary choices of ‘either/or’…starting at the current school time or later.  A 21st century conversation should include how schools can leverage technology to provide the plurality of choices that customizes or personalizes a child’s learning experience. Such opportunities exist now and are available to students now to any school or community that can create a vision that moves beyond their own experience.  To paraphrase Gordon Brown, former Chairman of the MIT Faculty cited in a previous post, to be a teacher and a parent you must be a prophet- because we are trying to prepare people for a world thirty to fifty years into the future. This thought should be part of all school change discussions impacting students.

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  1. […] up my last post regarding binary choices decisions made in today’s schools, I had an opportunity to review […]

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