This article first appeared in Moffly Magazine's 2018-19 Education Guide
By Chris Kolovos
Associate Head of School
What would it look like to build a school schedule that really works for kids? One that takes into account everything that researchers, doctors, and kids are telling us about sleep, stress, and health? And one that creates the space for teachers and students to do the kind of exploratory, authentic, inquiry-based work that we know will serve them well in the 21st century?
Those are the questions that our faculty and students started with last spring. The result of those conversations is an innovative academic schedule, set for rollout in the fall of 2018. Parents, kids, and teachers are excited about the change and it will go a long way to putting the needs of students right at the center.
A little history. Most of us grew up with a middle or high school academic schedule that looks something like this: five academic classes that each meet every day for about 40 minutes, in a day punctuated by bells and starts and stops. We did our homework for all of our classes the night before, and each class stayed in its neat bucket. That system, which has been around for well over a century now, is based as much on the factory system as it is on educational theory.
That model, if it ever did, no longer works for most of our kids.
Stress, Sleep, and Student Health
For one, the expectations on our young people have changed. In many schools, five courses are no longer the norm; as we strive to offer richer course loads and more elective experiences, the day is packed with six, sometimes seven class meetings. We want our kids to learn engineering, coding, environmental science, media literacy, international relations, research, and hands-on independent studies, but in most cases, have not taken anything away. Trying to meet our expectations and feeling the pressure from colleges, students take on heavier loads, which means more homework and fewer breaks in the day.
All the while, the demands outside of school have grown, too. Where a generation ago playing soccer outside of school for a sixth grader may have meant a few hours with a town team at a field in the neighborhood, now it often means several hours a day in a club program, with travel and tournaments over the weekend. For older students, the pressure to fill a college résumé leads to even more specialization outside of school, whether in sports, arts, service, or internships.
The result is a national crisis in student health among our highest-achieving students and at our most demanding schools. With all of these competing pressures on kids, sleep is the first thing to go. Pediatricians and researchers have been telling us for years that adolescents need between eight and 10 hours of sleep per night. Research shows that on average, high schoolers report getting approximately six hours of sleep per night, often less at least one night per week. In a survey of our own students, we found similar results, with seniors reporting an average of six hours of sleep per night, with at least one night that week (a particularly heavy homework night) falling significantly below that six-hour mark. Those numbers are, unfortunately, the new norm across our schools.
And the impact on kids is sobering. The academic literature on the connection between sleep, stress, and emotional and physical health is, and should be, a wake-up call. Researchers studying undergraduates in America’s college and universities (there is excellent work being done by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA and the American College Health Association) report shocking increases in the numbers of students reporting depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Our secondary schools are in a similar position and are responding by, among other things, increasing the resources we devote to mental health support and education for students and parents both. But, by and large, we are not getting to the root of the problem.
That sense among America’s students of being unable to handle the demands on their time has also led to disengagement. Ironically, as we offer the students more and more opportunities academically and outside the classroom, we are making it harder and harder for them to enjoy what they are learning. Students at GFA — in partnership with the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education — have been studying academic stress. One of the findings, based on student focus group data, is that while our students love their subjects and feel connected to their teachers, they often only have time to complete the task in front of them. The result: joy of learning is losing out to the need for completion.
21st Century Learning
There are many things we don’t know about what our students will or will not be doing as they move on into the world. Likely they will be doing jobs that do not currently exist, using technologies and business models that have yet to be invented. But there are some things we can say for sure. Today’s learners are much more likely to be collaborating across networks and long distances, working in diverse teams in a global economy. They will have mountains of data available at their fingertips, placing a premium on their ability to analyze data and distinguish the good from the bad. They will live and work in a world of increasing automation, in an economy that will value most those skills that cannot be done by a robot or computer. And they will inherit local and global challenges that call for systems-based, interdisciplinary, collaborative solutions.
What does this mean for schools? Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in his book Five Minds for the Future, talks about the habits of mind students will need to be capable and constructive members of their futures, not our past. Researcher and writer Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, offers a similar list of six senses critical to success for the next generation. The categories vary from writer to writer, but there is an emerging consensus about what skills and habits kids most need from school: collaboration, creativity, interdisciplinary thinking, synthesis, ethical thinking, empathy, analyzing data, critical thinking, effective communication, and cultural competency.
The problem is not that teachers do not understand these priorities. Or that they do not know how best to help students achieve them. The problem is that our schedules are not designed for that kind of learning.
To build the habit of collaboration, students need the time and space in school to work together on authentic projects, work that is often interrupted by a bell in a 40-minute period. To practice empathy and gain cultural competency, students need to get out of their own communities, both digitally and physically, and engage in meaningful work with new friends and partners; that too is hard, perhaps impossible to do in a traditional class period. Our siloed system of subjects makes true interdisciplinary learning very difficult, leaving students with the false impression that the disciplines are distinct and we miss the opportunity to attack a problem from multiple angles.
We need a new model.
Leveraging what we know from academic literature and from our own experiences, we have crafted more than a new schedule, rather, a new structure of our academic program for the 2018–19 school year, which places the energy and bandwidth of students’ minds at the forefront. We believe this is a major step forward in addressing concerns about student well-being, while at the same time facilitating 21st century learning. Those two things are not in tension. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing.
A Way Forward
Here are some of the key features of our approach:
Sixty-five-minute academic periods in the Middle and Upper schools, which meet three times per week. Those long blocks of time allow for the kinds of hands-on, project-based, engaging work that will build the habits our students will need. And with classes meeting three times per week, rather than four or five, that will reduce the number of classes students have to prepare for each night and bring the homework load to something rigorous, but healthy.
Flexible, open, multi-hour blocks in the middle of the week to allow students and teachers time to get off campus in the interest of service learning, community engagement, research, or whatever other kind of immersive activity we think will help them grow.
More open times during the day for students and faculty to work together outside the classroom, cementing skills and building lifelong relationships.
A late start (9:00 AM) on Thursday mornings, at a point in the week when students are most tired and need to catch up on sleep or work. With faculty meetings scheduled for Thursday mornings, that also frees up more slots in the afternoon for students and teachers to meet for extra help and to build the relationships so critical to learning.
Moving away from a dedicated review and exam period at the end of the year. The most precious time we have is the time teachers spend with kids, but we, like many schools, currently devote roughly two weeks to review and exam time. And the research shows that cramming for an exam has next-to-no impact on deep, long-term learning. Peter Brown makes that case compellingly in his book, Make It Stick, and schools have found the same; in one instance, a school re-administered an exam in September (on which students had earned a B+ average in the late spring). The new average? An F. Our plan is to recapture those class days, while still giving the students the benefit of a culminating experience. There is great value in students having the chance to demonstrate mastery of the core skills and to synthesize what they have learned, which we can do in the normal flow of the school year. And colleges are already moving in the same direction.
We are building in “mini-term” intensive courses, lasting between one and two weeks. During mini-terms, other classes pause, and students explore one topic in depth with a teacher. It is a chance for students and teachers to dive deep into a subject, do some hands-on work, get off campus, engage in place-based learning, and learn in a new way.
These are not all new ideas. Schools around the country and around the world have experimented with directions like this for years, and we have learned from their experience. We are excited about the opportunity to put all of this into practice as part of one reform effort and harness the synergy. Most importantly, we are putting the needs of the students first.