The Unexploited Resource: Time
Have you ever wondered why there are so many schedules out there for high schools? I would suggest it is due to efforts by educational leaders to make the most out of the second most precious resource in education. If you are thinking money is the first, think again. Despite what a great many within our own profession would profess, our most precious resource is our people.
Human capital in any organization is often overlooked and even more often not increased through proper investments. This being said, most successful leaders have already figured this out and get the most out of their best by breaking the tradition of allowing your best teachers to teach the most teachable students. There are those leaders out there that realize, you need your best teachers with those hardest to teach.
Time on the other hand, still holds plenty to be exploited if we can just break from the mass production model which has long outlived its usefulness. Gone are the days when there was value to being able to mentally store great quantities of information about a narrow topic and being able to recall it quickly leading to organizational efficiency. Technology now makes these skills unmarketable. Instead we now look at information as the artist looks at clay. As Daniel Pink states in his book "A Whole New Mind," this is the era of creativity.
Creativity is a funny thing in that it requires the integration of skill and information. Not information in nice neat organizational bundles, but rather in webs of inter-connectivity. We know that learning is a social process, but in the industrial model of school, we isolate individuals so we can sort and select them for specific tasks. Unfortunately many of these tasks are no longer done by people and those that are still done by people are not done by people here in this country.
We place value on concepts and skills by their inclusion in the curriculum. However, we do not always allocate time based on importance nor even in varied bundles conducive to acquisition of that particular skill or concept. We measure proficiency in aggregated scores which communicate little and in credits based on seat time. In attempts to better utilize time, we change the length of the allocations, but do little in terms of allocating more time for subjects which require it or even more desirable, different amounts of time for each child beyond elementary school. We have set up curriculum and even schedules based on the average student's rate of learning. We require the same amount of time for most subjects varying a few by length of term rather than length of meeting period. There have been some attempts to move students through the curriculum at a pace conducive to their success, but more energy has been spent on figuring out various ways to break the day up into equal pieces in different ways. Popular methods of organizing time for high schools today include what some call a "traditional" eight or seven period day, where the day is divided into 40-50 minute periods. Each subject in this model gets the same amount of time during the day, but some subjects may get less time by lasting fewer terms. There are a number of variations to this in terms of term length. There are quarters, semesters, trimesters and a number of others I am sure I am leaving out. The other most popular schedules in high schools today are variations of the block schedule. In this model a student is engaged in fewer classes for longer periods of time, but again the day is equally divided into periods or blocks of time.
We had a scheduling model in the 70's that allowed for subjects to vary meeting frequency, meeting length and even left it up to the student as to where they would spend a significant part of their day to get the extra help they needed in the area they needed it. It was called the Flexible Modular Schedule. The day was still broken into periods, but they were very small and courses did not all use the same number of them nor did they all meet every day. The complexity of building such a schedule is why most schools left this model. Today's technology would allow for this type of schedule to be reintroduced. However, we now have a student population that has been told where to go and what to do and has little likelihood of success in managing their time without a great deal of training. Emphasis on a grade, test score or diploma rather than mastery of skills and concepts would deter schools from risking letting students learn the skill of self-management and making decisions about their own time.
We talk about tradition a lot in education. With the infusion of technology, we need to start taking a look at innovation rather than tradition as computer software programs allow for meeting many of the students learning needs in terms of subject matter. It is skills that are still best learned in the context of a classroom filled with other students. One could possibly argue that time management is one of the most vital skills in our adult world today. We desperately need to begin to look at innovative ways to manage one of our most important yet unexploited resources, time. Students need to be part of the process of determining how much time they need to truly master a concept and skill. this will not be the same for all students. My proposal would be to spend less time in structured settings and allow more flexibility for each student to access the help they need when they need it.