Don't misunderstand me, you couldn't pay me enough to go back to high school, not that I had a traumatic time of it, but I'm just far happier to be on the other side of it now. But now that I'm on the other side looking back in at the different schools around me, I do question if there is a "best" or "ideal" way to learn. I'm all for the "differentiated learning" that is being popularized in school board propaganda, but I also know that catering to students, or parents of students, who are just looking for the easy way out doesn't result in a win for anyone. Now with the great big overhaul that so many educational peers around me are panicking about, I have to wonder if it will really be enough. Yes, no one knows just what the new changes will look like, but given the protests that exist about what I feel are some much needed changes, I wonder if what we're going to find is just an up-dated cover for the same old book.
I could go on for days about every change that I would like to see, but I'll focus this down to one simple thing: schedule. And I don't even mean proclaiming a mass overhaul of every school in the country, province, or even city, but would it really hurt to not have every school be cookie cutter of the same shift sequences?
I moved during my high school years, I went from a traditional semestered system to a linear. Now by linear I don't mean the full year, 1:1 term to break rotation, I mean a system where what you enrolled in in September stays with you until June; yes, all eight courses and all final exams in one foul swoop. Now when I made this transfer, I was freaking out, granted I came in with a full completed semester under my belt, but the notion that you actually had to know all of your subjects by the end of the year was daunting...
and this is where I am seeing the arguments being made: "It's too hard." As Wil Wheaton said, and if he was quoting it from somewhere else then credit that guy, too, "Anything worth doing is hard," and what is the point of teaching students anything if we don't expect them to remember it all by the end of the year? Aren't we supposed to be teaching them the next, more challenging level of all of their subjects when they come back from summer brain-draining vacation? If we're giving students proper understanding, which in my opinion is the root of true education, as opposed to rote memorization, then there shouldn't be anything hard about it come June.
I bring this up because based on the philosophies I've been hearing about creating meaningful learning for our children, entirely support the idea behind linear teaching. In fact, if we knew that all students had all of their core courses at the same time, then how much easier would it be to incorporate cross-curricular and interdisciplinary lessons? Socials and English could easily exist as Humanities, Math and Physics could share large projects as well as student credit, not that it did in my day, but if the world of school is changing would the linear system not embrace these ideas more naturally?
We all want our children to do well on their school work and final exams, and while I won't go into my thoughts about finals for this particular rant, I'm sure that I'm not the only one who strives to see students actually come out of their 12+ years of schooling intelligent, not just "Educated" because they have a piece of paper to prove it - some people hold several pieces of paper that prove nothing but money impressively spent. I'm sure we've all seen the studies that tell us that people do better when they understand how things relate, how to close read and deduce, how to make predictions, how to see correlations, as opposed to : a) Hydrogen b) Iron c) Helium d) None of the Above e) All of the Above. If students come out with understanding, then even those tests of rote learning could be passed with ease, which is another win because it certainly doesn't work the other way around. Will students really get confused about which elements are a noble gas if they have to learn about the French Revolution in the same year? Is that really asking too much of them?
Back to my experience: After my awkward year of transition, I began grade 10 in the same boat as everyone else in my new hometown. It was linear, and despite my protests, I had to take eight courses, full year, plus an extra outside of the timetable, and in my last two years, I took two extra courses outside of the timetable. I did Honours and AP courses, and I'll tell you, it wasn't harder, not actually, it was in no way physically harder. The joy of the linear system is that you didn't have the same class EVERY DAY. And guess what? There were no bits of knowledge that leaked out of my head simply because I had a day to sleep on it. I'd have a day with two core subjects and two electives, more or less, let's say English, Math, French, and Drama. I would have homework in three of those classes. I was a good girl and would usually start that day, and the idea was, without specially sanctioned tutorial blocks, I had all of day 2 to meet up with a teacher to get homework help, plus the morning, lunch, or whatever of the next day. Now, I get it, students are lazy, and even I had lazy days, or forgetful days, in fact, my own poor planning cost me a whole term of Math 12 (Matt 30-1 if you're following from this system), and sometimes you don't use that extra day. Well let me tell you that students who procrastinate will do so no matter what. You can give them all the time in the world or give them the most cut-throat deadline and things will still not get done. Get over it. Move on. The point is that having that extra day gave those who just didn't get it a fighting chance to work through it before it had to be handed in, or before that test.
Also, as someone who was immersed in extra-curricular activities, do you know how much stress is relieved when 3 courses of homework is not due for tomorrow? There is no doubt that students need to be involved outside of textbooks, they need to not have 5 hours of homework a night, and having more than 2 hours to get things done in one evening is a godsend.
So let's say I actually do my homework, go in for help the next day, meanwhile I'm being assigned my next batch of homework: Biology, Chemistry, History, and Computer Studies, once again I have 3 courses for homework, but I've got more than 24 hours to get it done. Plus, since I've got all of my courses laid out, chances are that there's something in that line-up that I'm good at, something that I finish in-class so I don't even have homework so I can work on something else, or maybe that concept I learned in Math directly links to my sciences, or that Chem teacher I hate I may be stuck with for the whole year but at least I can get my Bio teacher to re-teach me what I need to know in a way that makes sense to me, or even my friends who are taking the same class with a different teacher can give me a hand because they have different resources - true story, I was collecting handouts from everyone about moles because I just didn't get it. The subject matter is fresh in everyone's mind because everyone is doing the same things at roughly the same time.
The homework gets done. Or it doesn't. But I'll tell you that it had a far better chance with one extra day under my belt than without one. As a teacher, assigning students to do anything at home is frightening, and I don't believe in homework for the sake of homework on the best of days, but even having students not using their time wisely in class makes me nervous because I know that we have to move on to get to that exam in a couple of months and every class has homework due for tomorrow, so I have to decide if I'm taking a day out of my schedule to give them a work period or force them to get it done. Not only would the extra day take some pressure off, but there's another bonus to the linear way...
...drop rotation! Having to teach the same students in the morning, or the same students in last period when they're all antsy for sweet freedom, does not set the best tone for your relationship with them or for their relationship with the subject matter. Yes, the drop schedule was not initially intuitive, but, you know what? you adapt. Humanity's best resource is our ability to adapt and it's sad how little we ask students to acknowledge this. I am not a morning person, never was. As a student, I may have learned at a 50% capacity in the morning. As a teacher, I show up extra early so I can trick myself into believing that it's later in the day than it really is. But students don't often do that part, I certainly didn't, and so my sleepy faced students will always be my sleepy faced students for 3 days out of the week, and my restless afternoon batch will always be my restless afternoon batch.
In my day, if I was having an off day, there was hope that the next class would be better. My morning class would be my end of the day class, then my after lunch class, then my after snack-break class, before inevitably meeting me again in the dreaded morning. All this means is that even I had a fighting chance of getting through Math 3/4's of the time, which isn't bad, while I have students with a 50%-25% chance of being alert for me. In linear land the antsy kid might be mellow in your morning block, the sleepy face might have his eyes open in your afternoon class. Like anything else, there's no guarantees, but a fighting chance is better than nothing.
So why am I reminiscing on my high school experience? Because as someone who is trying to decide what kind of a system I want to put my future school-aged children into, I would like to see options that reflect my beliefs and values, and for as much variety as there is in this major urban center, the linear system is like a foreign word that constantly needs defining, and more than that, defending. We're supposed to be providing differentiated opportunities, so why not this one? Just one school! And yet this is a system that's dying, becoming extinct, and I don't understand why.
That's not true, I do understand why, and I don't agree with it.
Drop rotations: Can't do them because it's too difficult to arrange student timetables. CTS courses, volunteer opportunities, all of these things need be predictable if we want our students to access resources from the larger community. As if a rotating schedule is assigned by throwing darts and can't be put on a calendar.
Final Exams: It's just too much to remember. Then God help them when they've gone a full year without a core subject that they took in September, had to study 8 courses other for winter and fall terms, and try to learn the next level in the following January. Rote memorization is supposed to ingrain information forever, isn't it?
Dropping Courses: If students want to drop a course we'd be limited in our options for allowing rescheduling. You're telling me that it will be the end of the world if a student had no idea that they were going to hate Film Studies? I know, the concern is about Biology vs. Physics, but you know what? semester schools discourage course changes, so it's really no different, and most of those distinctions in subjects don't occur until grade 11, so really, there shouldn't be any surprises about what a course will be like when they've already been exposed to it prior; clearly everything is just going to be a more intense version of what you did the year before. Maybe I'm heartless, but removing important responsible decisions from teenagers because we don't trust them does not prepare them for anything.
Failure: If a student fails then they have to re-do a full year. Or summer school. In fact, my school had a 3 year policy; if you couldn't complete 10,11 and 12 in three years, you had to find yourself a different school. Now I'm not saying that all schools need to take this attitude, but comparing that one to my first high school where it was perfectly acceptable to take two or three victory laps to get your grade 12, I'm sorry, telling kids that it doesn't matter because they can always do it again next semester doesn't get them to do it right the first time through. In my experience, students who continued to fail courses and did not bother with summer school also did not bother to complete high school when alternative options were made available. It wasn't that my school didn't care, it's that it made you really think about the consequences. We had a high completion rate and in my year a graduating class of about 600 walked the stage, which was also not a guarantee just because you entered grade 12 but that's another rant.
Would a linear high school system magically change the world? No, of course not, but has the semester system? Middle Schools, or Junior Highs, operated linearly, as do our Elementary schools. And think about it, aside from University semesters, is anything really semestered? Heck, my best university courses were year long! And even semester courses aren't everyday, you might lecture then lab, or seminar, but you've got hours and days to work independently, with study groups, or drop in for office hours. There's none of this "finish questions 1-50 for tomorrow". Are we really teaching our kids that they only need to know information for four months and then empty their heads like an etch-e-sketch because the exam is over?
Some kids will do well no matter where you put them, they've been brought up to value education and set high standards for themselves. Some kids you could surgically implant the entire contents of world history and they'd flunk because they see no purpose in putting a pen in their hand. There is no catch-all and there never will be, but as a student and as a teacher, I just believe that these amazing philosophies that are trying to get off the ground are going to get stuck in the bushes because we've invested so much in structure. What would a little variety hurt? Heck, I'd be open to an educational system that works exactly like a university from grade 4 onwards, but I get that we like single buildings and 8:00-3:00 patterns so that parents know when and where to place their children and retrieve them. But imagine if we did put a little trust outside of the box. Do experiments ever yield better results when you repeat them en mass?