Finding the perfect schedule

The COVID-19 crisis has hit all of us at Colorado Academy hard in the past few weeks. Amidst so many new developments and adjustments, one big question has carried over from when we were operating more normally: what is the best use of our school time? Accordingly, as soon as we knew we needed to move to a remote learning environment this Spring, one of the first questions we asked was: what kind of schedule will we use?

That schedule question is actually one we consider annually, not just in times of crisis. Time is the most precious commodity anyone has to work with, and schools are no exception. Indeed, maximizing the effective use of time is one of those holy grails everyone in education seeks to find.

The history of scheduling

A decade or so ago, many independent schools evaluated their existing schedules and concluded that significant changes needed to be made in the interest of student learning. Among those desirable changes were longer class periods, rotating class periods so that classes could meet at different times through the week, built-in teacher-student meeting time, and “flex” periods that could accommodate school assemblies or town halls.

Years of educational research supported these moves, and schools were wise to make these adjustments. At Colorado Academy, we restructured our schedule in all three divisions to effect these same changes. In the Upper School, we also sought to reduce the homework load for students. One advantage to the schedule we created several years ago was that teachers could only assign homework for the night before their class met. In our case, that meant homework could occur four days out of six.

The future of scheduling

Now, I am seeing we are on the verge of another educational shift as it relates to scheduling and student time. Much of the educational momentum in recent years revolves around allowing students more flexible time, greater opportunities for deeper learning, and the opportunity to pursue topics of interest. Once again, research supports those concepts. However, those ideas will never gain much traction until and unless we restructure the typical school schedule. Currently, the traditional school days with fixed periods of time per class hamper the sorts of progressive education models that many are advocating.

Thus, I am always open to the idea of “building a better mouse trap” when it comes to schedule. Our REDI Lab program for Juniors—which will expand to Senior year next year—reimagines how schools can use time and space. One of the biggest advantages for students in the program is that they have more dedicated time to spend on a long-term project, as they pull out of certain courses, including, but not limited to, English and math. As a result, they are allowed more leeway to explore and set their own timetables, which sometimes means running into blind alleys. That is more authentic learning.

Still, schools cannot simply set students loose to create their own schedules and chart their own trajectories through a wide-open program. Some do not have the maturity, self-discipline, or the academic foundation to have total agency over their own education. There are balances and compromises to be struck here, and I know we will continue to try to find the right model to do so. I often remind idealistic educators that there is no such thing as a “perfect” schedule. Every choice we make in terms of time comes with both advantages and drawbacks. That is why the holy grail has not yet been found!

In light of the highly unusual set of circumstances we are now encountering, one benefit will be a fresh look at how we structure time and create schedules. We are doing our best to normalize this remote learning situation, while also acknowledging that the traditional structures cannot be totally replicated. We will no doubt learn something new and innovative about scheduling along the way.