Opinion

Want high schoolers to succeed? Stop giving them fifth-grade schedules

Nick Stoneman on how students can plan their own schedules

Frank checked his watch. He had 20 minutes before he needed to head out from his high school to his internship at the local paper and wanted to spend that time checking in with his math teacher. His friend Jill was finishing up a lab before beginning her volunteer work at a senior center. Another friend headed to the school’s recording studio …

High school students ought to manage their own time. But in the typical one-size-fits-all daily schedule known widely as “cells and bells,” students migrate from class to class every 48 minutes. Borne of necessity, cells and bells homogenize education. Complacency is a risk when students have their time managed for them, as are both absenteeism and a lack of engagement.

Having seniors in high school face the same type of schedule each day as that which defines a fifth grader’s day does not make developmental sense, nor offer the kind of preparation teens need for postsecondary education. The prevailing model does not fully develop the skills we know today’s students will need to have to be successful in the rapidly changing world they will enter.

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It is time to transition the high school educational experience to one that prioritizes the development of initiative, independence, innovation, and intellectual curiosity in today’s students.

To this end, we have spent over five years studying, researching, presenting, working with our students, and conversing with academic leaders around the country to develop a program to specifically address our core beliefs that:

  • Schools must make a fundamental shift in the programming provided for students.
  • Teachers must make a fundamental shift in their approach.
  • Students must make a shift from being passive receptacles of information to being active participants and owners of their own education.

Our ScholarShift model works by marrying the best of classroom teaching with the most impactful uses of technology.

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In any given course, a student has a traditional daily schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the student obtains all the content and assignments for each class through a Web page, to include teacher notes, web links to additional resources, videos, and a blog for class discussion. The teacher is in the classroom on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for extra help. We call these “blended courses”.

When taking a full complement of blended courses, a significant amount of time emerges for a student to design and choreograph. Certainly, the student must make a determination over how much time should be allocated to each course, and whether or not the student needs to meet with a teacher. (The teacher can request a meeting as well.) But most importantly, the students make the determination as to where individual academic strengths, weaknesses and interests lie – and these determinations then influence how each student will spend the day.

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Aside from a possible need to see a teacher, the day becomes extended since it is freed up of the so-called cells and bells, allowing students to do classwork whenever they decide. It is this freeing up that opens up significant opportunities for independent studies, internships, service learning projects, and, in the case of our school, time in our innovation center.

The student thus has the chance to explore individualized paths of learning both through the mentorship of the teachers and through their own work, research, and discovery.

We have found our students perform as well or better than their peers in the same courses. They have enhanced time management skills, making their early years in college more impactful. They own their education and bring an engagement to their Tuesday and Thursday classes that far exceeds the typical approach to a five-day class schedule. And, they learn how they learn and, in so doing, discover what they need to do to learn both more effectively and in a more enduring manner.

Responsibility for their scholarship shifts away from the school formatting it for them, as they discover more about themselves as students and as young people. Rather than being vessels filled in classes each day in the “one size fits all” model, they, instead, are deciding what, when and how to do the pouring.

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They leave our high school ready to not just handle the challenges of college and the adult world better than graduates from traditional academic programs, but ready as well to truly embrace the opportunities ahead of them, engage critically with their professors and eventual colleagues, and, ultimately, make an impact on the world.

As with any model, ScholarShift is not perfect. We are continually refining it. Students have to adapt and become comfortable with the discomfort of responsibility. The school has to provide structure in the form of ongoing adult mentorship and guidance to assure all runs smoothly. However, paradoxically, it is this structure that liberates the students, while simultaneously guiding them into adulthood and educational ownership.

We believe this model has the potential to enliven those underwhelmed with high school and launch those who need to be challenged to do more. It has that much potential – almost as much potential as the students it is designed to serve.

Nick Stoneman is president of Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a Minnesota school committed to committed to using blended classes to transform students’ educational experiences as well as developing campuses around the world.

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Nick Stoneman

Nick Stoneman is president of Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a Minnesota school committed to committed to using blended classes to transform students' educational experiences as well as… See Archive

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