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Flexible School Schedules – Old Problem, New Solutions

The woes of secondary school scheduling are not unique to contemporary schools attempting Personalized Learning. As early as 1961, former teacher-education leader Robert N. Bush recognized that even for progressive educators, the prospect of altering the traditional high school schedule had become a kind of bugaboo; he acknowledged the real logistical challenges, but encouraged daring whole-school approaches regardless, worrying that “so much now attempted is piecemeal. Valuable as they are, efforts to make the schedule merely a little more flexible fall far short of the mark.” (Bush) Bush proposed using technology—not anachronistically to deliver instruction—but to craft schedules, in order to provide “a genuine flexibility that enhances all pupils’ opportunities, makes more efficient use of staff time, and is financially economical.” 

Even now, many schools beginning to seek flexibility shy away from what we might call “macro-schedule” approaches, for fear of the many logistical hurdles. Some instead begin with classroom-based Personalized Learning (PL) strategies, while others avoid the issue by opting instead for larger, interdisciplinary blocks. However, many schools nationwide (e.g. Big Picture schools, Wasau West HS in WI, Boston Day and Evening Academy, and Linked Learning schools) have dared in the last few decades to find macro-schedule solutions, meaning that peer schools beginning to transform may choose from among several tried-and-true models that provide the “thoroughgoing, bold, across-the-board approach to the whole schedule” that Bush recommended over fifty years ago. All of these approaches can provide flexible, personalized learning pathways for secondary school students, while varying greatly from rather conservative to altogether radical. But the simple availability of such approaches does not entirely solve the problem. 

Schools that endeavor to transform might still be stymied by the same bugaboo that Bush identified, or, alternatively, overwhelmed by the sheer variety of options found today. What I have found lacking, and what educators need, is a starting point. In order to simplify the process of comparing schedule designs, and to provide some fodder for visioning conversations, I created a new infographic that organizes the best-known public secondary school flexible schedule models.         

Lebeauxinfo 01

Click image to enlarge

The infographic acknowledges a continuum of schedule rigidity, even among schools that afford some whole-school approach to Personalized Learning. It deliberately does not rank the options or favor a particular approach, as different options may suit different school communities or schools at different stages of transformations. Of course, any school deciding to redesign its schedule must ultimately bow to legal and logistical constraints, and this tool is accessible by even highly-constrained schools. Even so, the array of choices available might inspire dauntless change leaders to advocate for the autonomies and relaxed regulations that would allow the design team to realize its boldest vision.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Ultimately, even once a school picks its macro-schedule model, it must also conceive of how to use advisory or flex time to personalize the student experience. Students must still be granted voice and choice in populating their own schedules. Moreover, core courses and advisories alike must always move toward student-driven practices to foster agency and other 21st-century skills. These changes all, however, rely on flexibility, which this infographic both encourages and provides.

This starting point jump-starts an exploration of real possibilities and allows change leaders to bypass the belief that a flexible schedule “can’t be done”—a persistent misconception that makes Bush’s article all too timely even now. However divisive scheduling might be for a school’s faculty and community, it must not distract from what is most important and, ultimately, least controversial: every learner deserves the opportunity to learn in a way that meets his or her needs. Whole-school and small-scale reforms must work in tandem to ensure that no constraints, debates, or traditions detract from an educational experience that is truly student-centered.

Bush, R. N. (1961). The problem of a flexible schedule in high school. Educational Leadership, January 1961, 205-208.

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