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Can Flex Time Support Student Agency?

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By Rob Schwartz, Partner at Silicon Schools Fund, with Brian Greenberg, CEO, and Caitrin Wright, Partner, also of Silicon Schools Fund

My son started sixth grade this year and it was not the typical middle school transition. His new school uses the Summit Learning Platform, so he spends about an hour a day at school and another half hour at home working independently through playlists crafted by his teachers to learn core knowledge. He spends the rest of the day at school applying that knowledge through projects. This is a big change for our entire family. As parents, we value the autonomy and the agency he is building, but we also worry about whether he is being held accountable for using that time as effectively as he could to learn all that he needs.

Interestingly, in my professional life, I work at Silicon Schools Fund and get to see schools all over the Bay Area wrestling with a very similar challenge--how do you foster autonomy in students while still holding them accountable for ambitious learning targets? Nowhere is this question more apparent than during "flex time"--a portion of the school day or week where students work mostly independently, usually using an online platform or program. We are seeing a growing number of schools betting on flex time with significant instructional minutes devoted in the range of 15-90 minutes per day. They believe and we hope flex time is a great structure with lots of potential to unlock student learning and motivation. The approach to flex time is varied and most struggle to balance between how loose or tight to be in order to promote agency and still hold students accountable for learning. The same hopes and worries I have for my son's education are front and center in these schools for their teachers, administrators, and parents.

The Goldilocks' Classroom Conundrum

In a "Not Compliant Enough Classroom," student engagement is spiky or non-existent. There are moments of silence, but generally loud noise levels peaking at times to the point of distraction. At any given time somewhere between 30 and 80 percent of the students appear to be engaged with their learning, while other students are clearly off task as they freely roam around the classroom. About a quarter of the students are just cranking through their work, ignoring everything around them. When asked about their goal, most students do not have any response but say they should be "doing their work."

In a "Too Compliant Classroom," students are almost completely quiet for the entire period. Students seem to make adequate progress (as evidenced by trackers on the wall and in their binders) - 3 percent completion of the software a week to reach a year-end goal. But when asked what their goal is, students just intone, "3 percent progress this week" and have little idea as to why they are doing the work or how it connects with the rest of their schoolwork and learning. We believe this may be a good starting point for a flex time classroom, and this type of environment can be valuable at times but will not provide the autonomy for students to have ownership over their learning.

In a "Just Right Classroom," there is a steady, low din of noise with students moving between working independently, consulting with other students, and conferencing with adults. There is a balance between online and offline activities and those activities appear to be reinforcing each other. When asked what their goal is, students say something like, "I want to master a specific concept, so I'm completing these tasks to do that" or "I am behind in U.S. history so prioritizing those tasks.

This "Just Right Classroom" approaches the right balance of student ownership with learner accountability as evidenced by student focus, progress, and buy-in. How do "Just Right Classrooms" get it right? I wonder whether it is easier to start from the "Too Compliant Classroom" and gradually release teacher accountability to foster student agency, or to start from the "Not Compliant Enough Classroom" then work to foster responsibility and accountability? There is also a larger question as to how learning is measured in any of these classrooms that we are not yet ready to address. 

The Challenge Ahead: When successfully implemented, we think there is real potential in the use of flex time to promote student agency so much so that we have begun to form hypotheses about what makes for a successful implementation. These hypotheses include:

  • A set of systems, structures, protocols, tools, and/or trackers that help students and teachers monitor progress and guide decision-making. This includes systems for goal-setting and tracking, earned autonomy, and appropriate pacing
  • Students capture online learning through off-line tools they refer back to regularly such as scratch paper for math or Cornell notes to capture key points from online resources.
  • The adults in the room are purposeful in their actions and show evidence of thoughtful planning of what they are doing
  • Schools are clear on the set of instructional moves the adults should be utilizing during flex time (e.g. weekly goal-setting and monitoring conversations, targeted small group instruction, whole-class monitoring and correction, etc.)
  • Positive student-adult, adult-adult, and student-student relationships have been intentionally fostered and serve as a key lever for a strong culture where students are engaged and carry a sense of urgency in their work

Additionally, we have a number of questions that we are also curious about:

  • How does the use of physical space and room layout impact class culture and student productivity?
  • Does the work in flex time need to be linked directly to work in other classes or can the independent online learning be more freestanding?
  • What is the appropriate noise level to enable collaboration and freedom without negatively impacting learning?
  • Should students be able to listen to music while working?
  • When and how often is it ideal for teachers to employ 'whole-class disruptions' to the independent learning time?

Going to class on flex time: We have launched a deep dive into what makes flex time effective and how schools can be better supported in implementation.  As we better understand what successful implementation of flex time looks like, we hope to isolate specific practices and be able to share models for implementation. We are engaged in a series of classroom observations and interviews with teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, and students to learn about protocols and processes that are working or are needed, better understand how classroom culture is set and reinforced, and uncover tools/trackers being used while collecting data on implementation and student learning.


This is the first in a three-part series on flex time. The second blog will focus on what we are learning from observing flex time classrooms in action. The third post will outline how schools can be most successful in implementing a flex time policy that strikes the right balance of promoting student agency and maximizing student learning.

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