It's clear we need to rethink how and where students spend their school days.
By Jody Allard
Most of us went to school five days a week, from around 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for 180 days each year without a second thought. Our days were broken up by subject, with approximately 50 minutes dedicated to each topic. This instructional structure made sense during the Industrial Revolution when students were being trained to work in factories, but it's no longer enough simply to show up on time.
In the early twentieth century, the Carnegie Foundation promoted the Carnegie Unit, also known as the credit hour, to provide clear requirements for the amount of time that students would have to be present in a subject class to progress through high school and earn a diploma. Over time, these standards trickled down to elementary and middle schools, and the time-based metric became cemented in American education.
For more than 100 years, the Carnegie Unit has been embraced by educational institutions from elementary school through college. But today's needs have changed, and the Carnegie Unit no longer applies as a reliable measure of readiness. Educators increasingly complain that it fragments knowledge into chunks of time, emphasizing time spent learning rather than providing a true measure of learning or knowledge acquired or mastered, which makes it difficult for teachers to give enough emphasis to complex thinking, problem-solving, and interdisciplinary learning across subjects.
Today's marketplace increasingly requires workers to be flexible and agile, while still meeting tight deadlines and high standards — not performing routine tasks in a factory system, punching a timeclock. What if there was a better way to engage students in their education by meeting them where they are at, physically and emotionally, while creating new ideas of what classrooms should be?
The future XQ Super School RISE High aims to be the antithesis of the traditional high school experience. The school plans to be a satellite facility co-located with a social service agency that will meet students where they are. Even the curriculum is designed to be mobile, so students will be able to complete their assignments from any location, at any time. By creating partnerships with social and community services providers, where mini-campuses will be co-located, the future RISE High will try to provide students with robust access to the support services they need to be successful, whether it's counseling, job training, internships, or case management. This innovative approach to education hopes to serve the needs of all students, especially those who have been disenfranchised by traditional educational environments.
"[Future] RISE High was created to exist outside of the traditional confines that have made it harder for some students to access school," says principal Kari Croft. She says the school's commitment to providing education that takes place at a time and location that meet each student's needs allows students to meet other obligations in their lives, such as work, childcare, or social services. "This doesn’t mean that students don’t come to class, it means they come on a schedule that works for them and their needs, and it means teachers get creative in setting up times to meet with students, implementing the use of resources such as FaceTime when necessary," she adds.
Location isn't the only thing schools of the future are re-examining. At XQ Super School Washington Leadership Academy, outdated curriculum is being replaced by a modern approach that deeply integrates academics and technology into every aspect of the student experience — instead of treating technology like a separate subject. Whether coding complex websites focused on American History or writing blogs, educators at Washington Leadership Academy are teaching students to approach learning like a computer scientist, beginning with the user experience and working their way backwards to create solutions.
Future XQ Super School Powderhouse Studios, a high school that will open in 2018 in Somerville, Massachusetts, intends to take their commitment to agile learning even further. There, educators are attempting to re-imagine the student experience by ditching the Carnegie Unit entirely. At Powderhouse Studios, students will attend school year-round to give them the time they need to gain real mastery of the subject matter. They will also learn by doing—forgoing traditional classrooms and working on projects in teams, collaborating directly with project managers, curriculum developers, and social workers—instead of being taught by classroom teachers.
Finland, whose students have risen to the top of the pack since 2000, has taken a different approach to time. There, the emphasis is on a local, flexible curriculum, taught by teachers who have extensive time for planning together and understanding the needs of their students, Students primarily work on projects and receive little to no conventional homework. Young children spend most of their time learning through creative play.
In Finnish schools, it is rare to see a teacher lecturing to a class for 50 minutes. Instead, students work independently or in groups, moving freely through the classroom, asking the teacher questions about their projects, rotating through workshops, or gathering information and research. Finnish educators believe nurturing independence fosters the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills in their students, better preparing them to meet the challenges of today's job market.
Finnish schools haven't always been this successful. In the 1970s, they were failing dismally under a centralized and highly-standardized education approach that wasn't unlike what we have in America today. Over the course of the next 20 years, Finland eliminated the bulk of their national curriculum standards and external tests, shifting to a localized system where highly-trained teachers design their own curriculums and assessment methods. Since then, they have become an international educational powerhouse.
For America to follow in Finland's footsteps would require a massive national shift in how we fund, implement, and assess education. But for our students to compete in a global economy, it's clear we need to rethink how and where they spend their school days.