I don’t think we have figured out the best way to educate young people. I think we are better than we used to be, but I also think someday we will be better than we are right now. I think it’s absurd to suggest that we have our educational systems and structures so perfectly refined that we can unequivocally say we have arrived at as close to perfection as we will get. Of course we haven’t. Milwaukee Public Schools (my kid’s school district), as recently as three years ago, only graduated two thirds of the Black students on time. To say that the generally accepted format for educating students is functioning without flaws or reaching all kids is ludacris. I’ve spent most of my career in education working with students for whom the traditional system didn’t work. Some of them wouldn’t have been successful in any system, yet many of them could and did do well in a different type of school. I doubt perfection is obtainable for any system or professional structure, but I worry that our lack of willingness to engage in the design process within our schools limits our capacity to move in that direction. We spend considerably more time trying to perfect our involvement within the traditional system than we do dreaming and designing what a better system might be.
Today we finished the latest version of the schedule for Dottke PBL High School (www.dottke.com). I say the latest, because to assume that it will be the last is equally as absurd as saying we have arrived as a society when it comes to educating youth. New constraints will arise and there will be additional needs that have to be met. The thing I love about that process is taking all of the feedback I can get from students, teachers, and school leaders and crafting what I hope to be the best version of a structure that meets all of our needs and as many of our wants as possible.
I think this thing is actually pretty sweet, so here are three highlights. First, not every class is the same length. Science and Math courses run for 90 minutes while humanities seminars run for 60. That was logistically really challenging to create. If every kid had Math or Science at the same time, we could have just made that one period longer, but those courses are spread throughout the day. To accommodate that we built a schedule based on half hour blocks of time. Geometry is 3 half hour blocks of time, US History Seminars are 2 of those blocks, and our Math Design Lab seminar meets daily for one 30 minute block.
In order to allow for that to happen, kids may need to have half hour “filler” courses. To accomplish this, kids default to Advisory when they are not in a class or seminar. Advisory is an open-ended portion of the day where students work on projects for their seminars, create an independent project for the course of their choosing, or do other work on a passion project. They manage their own time and with the help of an Advisory Guide, practice time and project management by actually managing their time and projects. About one third of a student’s day is spent in Advisory and the rest is spent in classes or seminars.
Finally, we’re firm believers that choice creates buy-in. If a student chooses from a list of options, they are more likely to be academically bought into what takes place in the class because they chose to take the course. To increase buy-in and give our students the greatest chance for success we want them choosing their courses. To accomplish this, we built the schedule in such a way that it allows for students to use a little utilized functionality of our data management system called arena scheduling. Arena scheduling operates much like scheduling does at a college. Students quite literally build their own schedule online. Students are given all of the options available to them each quarter through our website. A variety of seminars, which are tailored to themes rather than being homogeneous cookie cutter courses, are posted online along with the time of day and which course numbers the seminars can be taken for. Students access the list of seminars and, using their credit tracking sheets, engage in the scheduling process.
I’m really proud of Dottke’s schedule because it embodies, for me, the idea that we have not arrived in the world of education. Instead we are constantly designing and creating in order to give students access to high quality education that prepares them for life beyond high school. The more we listen, and the more we design, the better product we create.