Whenever I speak about education reform, I’m always asked what I think an ideal classroom model would look like. It’s a tough question because it incorporates many complex layers, making it almost impossible to cover in just 5 minutes. So I’ve come up with an idea; why don’t I simply sketch out what it might look like, right here? Of course, that’s all this is, a simple sketch – a work in progress. As I get more feedback and continue to reflect, I’ll update this post to incorporate the (inevitable) changes in this vision.
You’re a 14 year old student named “Derp” who just transferred to Idealist High. Your old school was a traditional school, so this transition is a bit frightening at first. But you were filled with excitement once you learned school doesn’t start until 11AM and only lasts until 4PM. Apparently there are 4 blocks each school day with only 3 different classes… What? Oh cool, your last block of the day is a flex block, meaning you can spend your last hour in any of the three previous classes (whichever remains your choice, based on need for more time or enrichment). You take 6 classes at a time, 3 on the first day, 3 on the second, and they rotate in that manner. (There’s a 15 minute break between classes, and a 30 minute between third and fourth.)
But these classes aren’t like those you’re used to. There are about 20 people in a decently sized room, each seemingly doing their own thing. Some have out laptops, or a stack of books, or headphones and a portable DVD player. You don’t get it: where’s the teacher? Actually there are two teachers, and they’re going around the room checking on each individual student’s progress. They have their collective cache of assignments and tutorials for the students, which the student’s work on at their own rate, while the teachers survey around the room checking progress and engaging students. There’s no common lecture… Or a shared textbook to work out of… The teachers give the students material to study from based on the individual student’s progress, learning style, and strengths. And as the class is composed of students of varying levels, student collaboration is a must!
You also realize that this isn’t a typical Grade 9 math class; there are kids who look a lot younger, and some with full-pledged beards. The official name is “Math H”. You advance here from Math G upon proving yourself proficient in the material, hence why some got here early and others got here late. The idea of “Grade Level” no longer exists; you can take Math H while being in English J or French F. Your progress in each individual class is independent on your other classes, allowing you to enrich yourself in your better subject(s) without compromising where you falter. If you were previously a borderline fail in math, you’re not now held up in your other classes… you can continue math until you’re proficient, and continue excelling in English as you already are.
You can stay in an individual class for however long it takes to prove proficiency to the teacher, whether 3 weeks or 8 months. If you have a steady handle on the material, your teacher may advance you after just a few weeks, allowing you to take the next level rather than being stuck, bored in class. It also allows a slower student to ensure he has a strong understanding before advancing to the next stage.
What’s most radical about this is that the motivation to perform at your best is no longer grades. While a student may not be motivated now to work extra hard to get that additional 10%, working hard means less time in school – a carrot and a stick. Grades lose meaning, once you pass, you’ve passed. To graduate, you may need to complete Math through level J, English through to I, a second language through to F, etc, but you can always go past those levels for true enrichment.
Another change you might have noticed is that there are only 6 subjects a student takes at once. There is a simple rationale to this: if a student spreads themselves too thin, they will only be able to achieve a superficial understanding at any given time. While a student can take many more subjects overall, they can only take 6 at a time. Once they finish English F, they could switch that English block to a required Fine Arts C class, etc. It’s no longer about forcing them to be well-rounded, taking all required classes at once, but allowing them to make those choices and pursue specialized interests.
And finally, perhaps my favorite, is that the school day is shortened to 5 hours, starting at 11AM. Simply put, students can learn better and be more motivated if they aren’t groggy and have time to do things outside of school. While this type of schedule may not be thrilling for parents who want to use school as a babysitting service, if the true purpose of school is for learning and not to simply have your kids watched, then learning must trump convenience. I would also see a transition from traditional summer break to shorter, more abundant breaks throughout the year. For example, if summer break now last 10 weeks, we could add 2-week breaks every three months and still have more time than before. The problem with summer break is it’s too long, acting in conflict with learning and leading to a lack of productivity, while 2 week long bursts provide opportunities to both work and relax.
At what age a student should enter this type of school system remains a bit arbitrary, though. I think at around 10-12 they would be ready to transition to this type of school until they graduate. This would ensure they have a sufficient capacity to read and behave for entry classes.
This post should be controversial and I expect ample criticism. As I said earlier, this is a work in progress and I predict I’ll be making many tweaks and additions. But I hope to dispel criticisms such as “it’s too idealistic”; this label is applied way too much in education reform discussion, often to marginalize what would require actual reform, or change (change is scary, yo). If you do wish to label an element of this as “idealistic”, please be specific and explain. And yes, I know how craaazy it sounds to have 2 teachers to a room of 20 students, but it is doable, especially when the Canadian government spends $28000000 commemorating a war that happened 200 years ago.