Thursday, February 5, 2009

Time is of the essence

I've been a slacker in blogland for a while, but I will plead the usual busy-ness: kickoff to our juniors' college search-apply-choose process, a few days at another school talking about schedule, and a slew of writing for the National Association of Independent Schools on issues managerial and financial. I've got a breather before the next onslaught, which includes arthroscopic knee surgery (so that my two will match) and a presentation on reinvigorating veteran teachers at the end of the month.

My schedule-related travels made me realize again how important is the allocation of time in our schools. Time is the coin of the realm, the most scarce commodity and the most valuable, and those who control time in schools--administrators, the calendar committee, the athletic director--have considerable power over the lives of students and teachers. The curriculum rises and falls by whether the school has a schedule that allows it to be executed, and the collective sanity of the school community is directly related to the amount of balance in the school day, week, term, and year between work and reflection, action and reaction.

For a great many years now I have been a big fan of Grant Wiggins's essay, "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance." The title itself says everything that needs to be said about the issue of scheduling in schools, and yet schools too often seem bent on teaching everything--it's the additive curriculum, with more and more squeezed into at and seldom anything taken out. Competitive independent schools have ramped up graduation requirements, beefed up their AP programs with the extra time required to--let's face it--teach to the test, and sent the message loud and clear that passionate (and time-consuming) commitment to a couple of activities is the route to colleges whose names shine brightest in rear-window decals.

I won't belabor the point, as it has been made time and again, and probably at your school by some of those older teachers who sit at the back of the room during faculty meetings and occasionally screw up the courage to ask if something will be "taken away" now that your school has added this or that to the program. Generally speaking, of course, nothing will be subtracted, rolled back or otherwise removed from the program. This or that period will be shortened, or lengthened, or seized and repurposed, to make the new good thing happen. It will all be fine.

Along with Wiggins, the Coalition of Essential Schools pushes ideas I fancy, including, "Less is more." While it may sound like New Age sophistry, a bogus koan, sometimes we need to remember that it makes sense, even in traditional schools. The problem is that executing this concept involves rethinking the way we do things right at the core level: courses, content, assessments. It involves reimagining how time can be used in schools to accomplish the things we need to do, carving and paring around the sometimes decorative edges--like piling homework on kids as window dressing designed to prove that the school is "rigorous"--and focusing on what matters most of all in the context of the school's essential mission.

It wasn't a bad world back when St. Basalt's required two years of Latin, two years of mathematics (on to trigonometry for the most able), a couple of years of science, and full immersion in European history and English literature, all marinated in the sweat of students whose afternoons were spent in team sports. The content and depth of the courses aside, the foundational transactions in such schools in the old days were very much the same as those of our own era: students developed strong relationships with bright adults who challenged kids to think, write, work, and run as hard as they could and who passed stern but affectionate and usually encouraging judgment upon their efforts. This program, laughably spare as it may seem to us today, produced good and capable people--some of them ourselves, others our parents and grandparents. St. Basalt's teams were competitive, its theatrical productions of Bell, Book, and Candle enjoyable to watch, and its graduates went on to college.

What did the boys and girls of St. Basalt's sixty years ago do with their spare time? Beats me. It's not likely any more of them read for pleasure than our students do today, and with those long afternoons on the field or in the rink they weren't hanging out at the malt shop. They weren't Facebooking, but they were probably socializing and canoodling in ways that wouldn't look unfamiliar in the 21st century.

Somehow, kids both kept themselves busy and managed to eke out an education--in 20th-century skills, I'll grant you--without 60+ period rotating schedule cycles and "co-curricular" courses in everything. Interesting, isn't it, that 21st-century skills, with all the yeasty synergies of collaboration and technology, seem to take so much more time to teach when we just add these elements to what we are already doing?

Because that's just it: we fail to take advantage of the yeasty synergies of technology and our better understanding of how learning happens, and we bury ourselves and our students. Think of all the years since the Advanced Placement Biology examination was instituted and all the new knowledge in that field that had to be taught. A few new findings supplanted older ones, but for the most part the new content amounted to ever-increasing granularity--more and more detail. Word is that the College Board is at last trying to revamp the curriculum to bring the content back to the level of humanly-learnable-in-30-some-weeks.

I'm beginning to sound like one of those "what are we taking away" curmudgeons in the back of the faculty meeting, and I don't mean to. I like a busy day, and I love the idea that in our time we are stretching and challenging our students in new ways and with many new points of view.

But time is of the essence, and I think schools need to consider whether their students and teachers have become victims of the additive curriculum. Whether a school's schedule is a funky block, a complex rotator, or a tried-and-true straight day, it has to meet the needs of the students and of a curriculum that is intentional and humane. If your scheduler has become a contortionist and your community members sprinters, step back and return to first principles: mission, values, goals.

Let time serve the people, rather than the people feel as though they are serving time.

1 comment:

Steve Arrowood said...

Changing school curriculum is a fascinating topic that seems to elicit some pretty heated conversations. So many 'knowers' on what (and how) we should teach kids, and only so many hours in the day, week, semester. As long as it is current as it give students what they will need as they enter college and/or post formal ed, I am for it. Curious, to what degree are you pro-diversity in curriculum from one school to the next?