How to Enhance Teaching and Learning at No Extra Cost
Change is hard, even dangerous. Attempts to change the behavior of others or an organization’s deeply entrenched practices will run headlong into active and passive resistance, if not outright hostility.
Acutely aware of the difficulty but confident in the rightness of the cause, we embarked on changing the school’s traditional schedule.
This was no small undertaking. The schedule had been in place since the school’s founding. Various school constituencies had a stake in the current schedule. The prevailing consensus was, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” And arguably, it was not broken; “We were doing just fine, thank you very much.” Classes were full. Faculty and student retention rates routinely stood at 94-95%. We had a 100% college admission rate. The senior class was routinely awarded millions of dollars in college scholarships and our ACT/SAT scores were high and rising across all tested disciplines. Complicating the problem was a lurking skepticism about school “reform.” In the U.S., too many educational fads had come and gone, creating a “this too shall pass” cynicism. This was particularly true concerning “block scheduling,” which carried with it negative connotations, mostly deserved.
So why mess with a good thing? Because, as Jim Collin’s points out, “Good is the enemy of great.” We were good but we were convinced we could do better. The choice before us was clear; we could rest competent and content or press toward our goal of creating a Christ-honoring world-class program that propelled teachers and students to higher levels of achievement. We chose the latter.
I am happy, and frankly relieved, to share that the new schedule has exceeded our expectations. It is an Extended Period (EP) schedule, not a block schedule. This is an important distinction.
What Is an Extended Period Schedule?
The Extended Period Schedule is a hybrid of a traditional schedule with features of block scheduling, but without the drawbacks. Teachers start at 7:30 each day. This new schedule has three components:
- Traditional seven period days on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays
- Two days of Extended Period Instruction (EPI) and
- A late start on Thursdays.
Monday (traditional schedule) 8:00 a.m. 3:00
Tuesday (traditional schedule) 8:00 a.m. 3:00
Wednesday (EPI) 8:00 a.m. 3:00
Thursday late start & (EPI) 9:00 a.m. 3:00
Friday (traditional schedule) 8:00 a.m. 3:00
Why the Change Was Made
We changed the schedule to provide students with more hands-on, active, engaging, and collaborative learning opportunities. Extended periods provide more time for practicing writing and editing skills (essential for college success), for interactive science labs, for learning how to work on collaborative projects (also an essential skill for college and work), and for integrating technology into teaching and learning. Extended periods provide time for more variety, more creative instruction, and more practice resulting in richer learning experiences and deeper learning. In short, extended periods enhance teaching and learning by giving teachers and students time to think, not merely digest information. Students move about and work in teams. And, as our Learning Unleashed program (1:1 computing iPad program) is rolled out, students move from learning to use technology to using technology to learn.
The Extended Period Schedule also includes a late start Thursday. The Thursday late start provides time to train teachers to work in teams to create integrated, creative, and engaging lessons that include the appropriate use of technology. Teachers are also engaged in technology and pedagogical training on Thursday mornings. The late start on Thursday also provides extra time for students to complete homework assignments, work on projects, and study for exams.
How the Change Was Made
Change is hard but not impossible. To increase the likelihood of success and to ensure that the change was systemic and enduring but not cosmetic, we implemented a four-pronged strategy: Education, Communication, Training, and Accountability.
Our first task was to break through a comfortable mindset rooted in academic and geographic isolation. Too often administrators and teachers are isolated from developments in the world. This is particularly problematic for Christian schools where staff and students can be culturally isolated, existing in a marginalized Christian bubble. We may catch a glimpse of world affairs through the news but understanding the deeper implications for our students requires more information and deeper analysis. It requires constant exposure gleaned by “being in the world.”
We began several years ago to heighten the awareness of our faculty about how the world has changed and the implications of those changes for our students. We demonstrated through reviewing international test scores, movies such as Two Million Minutes and quotes from leading industrialists, technologists, and economists that our students now compete against the best students in the best schools anywhere in the world. Here is but one example:
With the ability to make anything anywhere in the world and sell it anywhere else in the world, business firms can ‘cherry pick’ the skilled…wherever they exist in the world. Some third world countries are now making massive investment in basic education. American firms don’t have to hire an American high school graduate if that graduate is not world-class. His or her educational defects are not their problem. Investing to give the necessary market skills to a well-educated Chinese high school graduate may well look like a much more attractive investment (less costly) than having to retrain…a poorly trained American high school graduate.1 (Neef, 1998)
This was not a one time presentation. Multiple presentations in a variety of venues were made over several years. This “set the table” or “set the mindset” for further discussion.
Communication was sustained, accurate, and careful. The communication that occurred over several years was intentional and followed a logical path. The communication did not start with the end in mind (e.g., Extended Periods), it began with deepening understanding of the fundamentals of Christian education, the place of the Christian school in culture, a deeper understanding of what it means to think Christianly, the shifting context in which our school operates (a globalized, technological, always connected world), an increasingly diverse and competitive educational marketplace (traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, Christian schools, homeschooling, and online schools), the rise of Asia, and the fall of the U.S. from the top-tier of academic performance relative to the rest of the world to the middle or lower tier relative to the industrialized world.
Language was also important. We made a decisive distinction between being “world-class” and being “worldly.” We differentiated between being excellent and being elitist. And, we used terminology that was accurate yet benign. For example, we realized early that many of our teachers and parents would confuse our new schedule with block scheduling. Although the EP schedule had a few elements common with a block schedule, it was not a block in the traditional sense. It was also more than a traditional schedule. What to call it was the question. Although not creative, we choose to call it an “Extended Period” Schedule because that is what it is; it extends the period from approximately 50 minutes to nearly 90 minutes, extending the time teachers have to engage students in deep learning and collaboration. Language is important. It must be accurate while avoiding negative connotations. Because the language we use is important, it must be planned and intentional.
Training and Accountability
Our greatest fear was that teachers would lecture to students for 90 minutes. We knew that if that happened our students would be bored to death, our academic goals would be undercut, and our parents frustrated.
We also knew that habits die hard. The only way to ensure that extended period teaching was more than an elongated lecture, we provided practical training coupled with constant supervision and accountability. We began the training process two years ago by approaching the matter indirectly. With a desire to improve student learning and anticipating an extended period schedule, we devoted two years of training to how the brain learns. The training included books (e.g., How the Brain Learns and teacher written responses to the contents of what they read. We also hired outside experts to train our teachers on the science of how the brain learns AND on how to teach based on this science.
In addition to this foundational training, we also hired four Christian professionals with extensive experience teaching in extended periods from two other Christian schools. They spent two days with our teachers showing them how to create lesson plans and how to teach the effectively in extended periods. This practical “hands-on” training was just “what the doctor ordered.” While the training on brain research laid the pedagogical foundation, this practical “how to” training is what finally created the “mind shift” we were looking for. We noticed a discernible level of “buy in” and even enthusiasm after this training. The theoretical was married with the practical and a new perspective on teaching was conceived. We started out with worldview, the goal of developing a world-class school, and the study of cognitive science and ended up with the creation of actionable lesson plans. We moved from theory to practice, from presentation to application, from “this too shall pass” to “I can and want to do this.”
Training, however, in the absence of accountability is a bit like throwing jello against the wall and hoping it sticks. Notwithstanding initial enthusiasm, most of it slides off to the floor. Training is the same way. To put teachers through a day or even a week of presentations is unfair to them and does not change practice. Practice changes practice. This means that teachers must practice what they are being taught at the time they are being taught and from that point forward. There is no going back. The application of training to teaching is not an option, it is an expectation, a requirement.
This means that teachers must be held accountable to incorporate the training in the classroom. The only way this can be done is through direct observation, the requirement of artifacts to demonstrate application, and through evaluations that measure consistent classroom application of training. Anything short of these measures will result in minimal, spotty change, if any. Without this level of accountability, we foster the “this too shall pass” attitude that plagues so many schools.
On the observation side, the junior and senior high principals and the Director of Curriculum and Instruction (DOCI) spend most of the day on Wednesdays and Thursdays reviewing EP lesson plans and observing every classroom. They offer help and advice but also look for compliance. It has been said that “what gets measured gets done.” While we would love to think that everyone is intrinsically motivated to do what is asked, the truth is that all of us need accountability, administrators no less than teachers and students. If something is worth investing time and money in, it is worth monitoring and evaluating.
Some change can be expensive but most change costs very little in money but a great deal in thought, hard work, and even courage. Aside from the purchase of books and honorariums for our trainers, there is little cost associated with our change to extended periods. But, there is a potentially huge payoff in student engagement and learning. Low cost combined with significant gains in the quality of teaching and learning creates a high Educational Return on Investment (EROI) and increased marginal value for our parents. Everyone benefits.
Although it is too early to have data to measure the results, I can share that all of the anecdotal feedback from students, parents, principals, and teachers has been positive, in fact, more positive than we expected at this early stage. This is a tribute to professional, gracious, and hardworking teachers who deeply care about students and about doing a superior job. It is also attributable to extensive Education, Communication, Training, and Accountability.
Change is hard and risky but it is not impossible. With vision, planning, and hard work, undergirded by prayerfulness and a love for staff and students, we can create change that changes the lives of our students.
What have you changed lately?
Reference: Neef, D. (1998). The knowledge economy. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.