Cross posted at RE:School
In building the Integrated Studies Program (ISP), we considered all aspects of the learning environment. One that stood out significantly was the idea of the 40 minute class period. In a traditional high school setting, students generally meet for roughly 200 minutes per week per class regardless of what is to be learned and regardless of whether the learner is struggling with the material or mastering it readily. No matter what, the 200 minutes are sacred; teachers are forced to create lessons that fit neatly into 40 minute chunks while meeting the needs of all learners in the room.
We rejected the sanctity of the weekly 200 minutes. We reduced formal class time to 20 – 80 minutes per week per content area dependent upon the needs of the learners (ie – support for a large group project, addressing a common misconception as seen in the data, addressing a state standard being neglected by a group of students, labs). We achieved this by adopting a project based approach tied to standards with the standards tied to online learning modules. This allowed everyone to work asynchronously which, in turn, created time for teachers to work more closely, even one to one, with struggling learners for extended periods of time. The more advanced learners could then move ahead without growing frustrated and bored by the pace of the class. We recognized that formal class time is an aspect of, not the entirety of, the learning environment.
By eliminating the constraint of a rigid schedule, we created an environment where students have the autonomy to advocate for their own learning; the students are now participants in the learning rather than recipients of information. In moving the learning to a more asynchronous environment, school is redefined for the student. The classroom is more student driven as opposed to teacher driven b/c the student now gets to decide how and when to move through the curriculum rather than be directed. Students recognized this change quickly, saying “I am no longer held back by my classes” and “I can do my work when I want”. Moving from equal class time to equitable class time causes a significant change in the class environment.
The most noticeable feature of ISP is the 3,500 square foot, freely-configurable room. Around the perimeter are cubicles equipped with desktop computers. Laptops are available for mobile computing. Students may arrange tables and chairs however they see fit. At any given moment, there are students working on and offline, independently or in small groups, and with or without adult direction. There are two conventional classrooms associated with the program where teachers and students perform large group instruction and presentations or work on projects that require a controlled environment outside the main area. The intention of this is to make an immanently flexible space that may be adapted to the needs of the learning community rather than force individuals to adapt to the artificial constraints imposed by the space. Removing the physical barriers between the classrooms allows the faculty to create a cohesive community with a common language and expectations with little expense of effort. It happens naturally because that is what the environment encourages. Isolation breeds inconsistency between classrooms and that isolation no longer existed.
By changing the conditions of the classroom, we changed as teachers in fundamental ways. We developed as professionals at an extraordinary rate. We observed, we collaborated, we provided constant feedback to one another, we held each other accountable, we picked each other up when one of us had an off day. Even the best administration could not have promoted the type of growth that we promoted in each other. The students witnessed all of this and the interpersonal interactions between them improved greatly because of it.
The key to our success is that ISP is classroom driven. We can better meet the individual needs of all children because we are no longer restricted by what are, ultimately, arbitrary structures put in place for managerial convenience. Even though teacher leadership at this depth has a tendency to make those in administration uncomfortable, the feeling can be overcome by each side recognizing that meeting the needs of children is the ultimate goal and meaningful work towards that end is sometimes difficult yet always worthwhile.