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How this Pandemic Could Change School for the Better

Most of us have mourned what the COVID-19 quarantine has stolen from our teens. Less class time, more screen time, more boredom, and both students and teachers who are uncomfortable with the new normal. Many traditions were removed like sports games, recitals, school plays, proms, and marching bands on Friday nights.

But I’d like to focus for a few minutes on what the pandemic may have given us.

Changing the School Experience for the Better

Years ago, I spoke with author Daniel Pink about what he envisioned school should look like. He described his dream of an entirely different format, which allowed students to explore subjects they were curious about due to more free time. But, alas, Dan told me he didn’t feel like it would ever happen.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, reminds us, “Students only learn when they are focused, engaged and putting in effort. Yet surveys have long shown that teenagers spend most of their day bored, zoned out and only pretending to listen. For many students—especially the most motivated ones—they’d be better off, not to mention happier, if they spent much more of their time reading, writing and completing projects than going through the motions in our industrial-style schools.”

A typical school day is a rote, force-feeding experience where students are consumers of curriculum, usually more passive and disengaged than the teacher is.

Petrilli goes on, “But then something wonderful happens in the lives of teenagers: they go to college and the chains drop away. Their in-person class time drops to 15 hours a week, even with a full course load. Just 3 hours a day! But in return, they’re expected to do loads of independent work, participate in group projects and show up for office hours if they need additional help. In recent years, college students have also been watching some lectures online so class time can be spent on small-group discussions and doing hands-on laboratory work.”

Could it be that this pandemic will make high school more like college?

Half-Time High School and Full-Time Learning

I realize this sounds radical, and it may be we’ll have to completely retrain our students for such a new normal. But what if we created a new scorecard for success? With the fall semester coming next month, what if we embrace a three-hour class day but turn students loose to explore, experiment, and demonstrate they’ve mastered the subject? This could work if we jumped on board with these new realities:

1. Course format can be applied for, allowing some students to remain in a more traditional schedule if needed. Yet, others can opt for more autonomy.

2. Half-time classes are introduced, say between 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Then the remaining time is independent study, allowing students to create their own labs. They can learn online and through experimentation. 

3. Schools would run two shifts a day, conditioning students toward independent exploration and autonomy, hence fostering engagement and ownership. 

4. This format plans for part of the student body to be on campus for a few hours while the other students are at home, allowing for social distancing.

5. This allows for more sleep and learning. When Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina moved the school schedule back, test scores rose significantly. 

6. Guardrails for this format would be to insist students demonstrate they’ve mastered the subject. Trial and error. Advanced Placement classes will incentivize many.

7. Faculty could cast vision for this format, saying it will prepare students for college life, where much more of their time is their own, requiring responsibility.

When Growing Leaders surveyed school administrators, we discovered many are already planning a shift like this. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said they’ll have a blend of virtual and in-person instruction. More than one in three said they plan to alternate days for students to attend classes. In every case, schools will need students to get accustomed to more autonomous learning. While I know it will mean change, I actually believe it could be a welcome change. Let’s embrace it.

8 Comments

  1. Donna Anderson on August 11, 2020 at 8:45 am

    This would be a great idea IF…

    Students would shoulder responsibility without parental intervention. Last year, left to their own devices, the kids just rushed through their online tasks so they could get on with playing video games. There wasn’t any additional learning. There was barely any physical movement! No amount of prodding could get them to understand that what their teachers were giving them for their daily online distance learning was only the bare minimum. Every day it was a constant battle to get them to go above and beyond and actually learn something. I spent more time and energy trying to get then to learn than they did learning.

    And I’m not asking them to memorize history dates or read a classic or print off a Math page and do it. I’m telling them they can learn about anything they want, anything that interests them, even if it’s “how to make youtube videos”. But it was like talking to a brick wall.

    Not this year, though. They’ve already been warned. No learning, no devices. And that includes TV. And if they don’t have devices then they’re going to be missing a lot of ‘school’ this year. These kids are 12 and 14 years old, old enough to understand. And I’m not standing over them all day, every day, to make sure they’re doing something other than blowing up zombies!

    • Terra on August 11, 2020 at 10:59 am

      I agree with your comment fully. Tim’s perspective offers a few assumptions and perhaps he is describing teenagers already evolving their intrinsic motivation. Family dynamics have subscribed to the system, the “recipe” for so long. I also agree their is an opportunity in what is being offered but for many students devices offer distraction, kind of like the potato chip bag, it’s difficult to eat just one! I think in prefer to arrive at the place Tim describes an intrinsic desire needs to be realized and supported for the child. Most parents I speak with aren’t able to let go enough to support this surfacing!

  2. Alvin Lau on August 11, 2020 at 9:32 am

    Ontario is doing some variation of this in our high schools. Those who are independent learners will do this well. Others will require additional support somehow if not in classroom learning.

  3. Jason Williams on August 11, 2020 at 10:40 am

    This is a great idea, but definitely would not work for all students in all communities. In the city I teach, the poverty gap is real and the kids who are least likely to finish their online assignments were often from this group-and the most at risk for illegal behaviors when not in school. These past few months have been rife with youth violence and shootings from kids who were expected to use their at home time ‘wisely.’ So, yes…all for this idea if it works where you live. But for many of us, school is still the best–and safest–place for kids to be.

  4. Jeanne Borders on August 11, 2020 at 10:44 am

    University-Model Schools have been in existence for over 20 years, based on the model described in this article. Cornerstone Prep, in Acworth, GA has been in existence for 17 years with around 500 students. Secondary students come M-W-F and work from home on T-TH. Elementary students come on T-TH and are at home with a parent the other days, following the assignments given by the teacher. This model has proven to be a great preparation for college.

  5. Jasmine Bayliss on August 11, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    Lucas Christian Academy in Lucas, TX is a pioneer of the hybrid model; we’ve been doing school like this for over 20 years. Our students go to school on MWF and the parents are co-teachers on T/Th. In high school, we also offer upper level math and science on Tu/Th. By the time our students graduate, they are prepared to handle a full university course-load and schedule.

    Doing school like this has been a blessing to my family. In the elementary grades, it gave us opportunities to explore my girls’ interests in more depth and to do things that we could do not if they were in school 5 days a week. The visits to zoos and museums, and the service projects together, were an invaluable part of their education.

  6. Oscar Martin on August 19, 2020 at 10:41 am

    With the coronavirus spreading rapidly across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, countries have taken swift and decisive actions to mitigate the development of a full-blown pandemic. In the past two weeks, there have been multiple announcements suspending attendance at schools and universities.

  7. skribbl io on September 8, 2020 at 9:47 pm

    I think this is an issue that a lot of students are concerned about.

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How this Pandemic Could Change School for the Better