Transforming Your School into a True Centre for Learning

by Karl Millsom

Teachers all over the world complain about not having enough time to cover their curricula, but students certainly don’t complain about not having enough time in school. In South Korea, where students often study in a combination of formal and informal institutions for as long as 16 hours a day, these long hours are often attributed as the major cause for the high rate of suicide amongst young people aged 10 to 19. Unless we move in an uncomfortably totalitarian direction then, there are simply no more hours in the day to increase schooling. Adding instructional time is, therefore, a zero sum game, meaning that the only way you’re getting more hours with your students is if another teacher loses hours.

Thus, the only option is to seek an alternative that can solve the problem of too little time without actually requiring more time. How is this possible? By restructuring learning so that your students can continue to learn your subject while they’re not in your classroom.

Something Doesn’t Add Up

While individual teachers overwhelmingly agree that they don’t have enough time to cover everything that their curriculum demands, the six–plus hours a day that students spend in school should be plenty of time for them to learn everything they need. Something, then, seems amiss.

I suggest that the cause for this mismatch in the two perspectives is the insistence on isolating subject matter into separate lessons, delivered by different teachers independent of one another at segmented times throughout the day.

When a teacher has 40 or 90 minutes once or twice a week to deliver her material, it is no wonder that she feels pushed for time. If the content is not covered within that 40 minute session, then the choice has to be between continuing the lesson in the next meeting and postponing the next unit or else moving on to the next unit and resigning to leave the previous unit incomplete.

This doesn’t make much sense though, given that the student will still be in school after that 40 minutes is up and again tomorrow and the next day and so on. When students are in school for 30 hours a week, it seems senseless to limit ourselves to teaching content in no more than 40 minutes per topic.

It takes a Village

Instead of locking our subject teachers into their respective rooms and giving them brief 40-minute visitation slots with their students, what might happen if we allowed teachers and their subjects to roam free, with students interacting with the teachers and their materials in a less scheduled manner.

If teachers were given more chance to collaborate across subjects, working together to create an interconnected learning experience where students learned multiple topics at the same time over varying periods. On this model, teachers from a variety of subjects would work together to design a unit in which the students would learn multiple new things and develop a range of thematically related skills.

For example, the English teacher, Science teacher and History teacher could work together to build a unit where students learned about Shakespeare in the context of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, while also learning about how modern astronomy was founded. This might not be the greatest example (I’m an English teacher, not a Science nor a History teacher) but when you start thinking this way, it really doesn’t take long to see how the Arts are related to Religious studies, which influences History and is in turn tightly entwined with geography, which brings us to the sciences and then to mathematics and so on.

Apart from giving teachers a freer reign over their instructional approach, this would make for much more interesting learning in general and, more narrowly, would help students find interest by association in topics that they might have otherwise found boring in isolation.

Not to mention the real-life application: the truth is that the skills we developed in subject classes in school often don’t exist in similar isolation in adult life. We are required all the time to solve problems and complete tasks that affect multiple areas of life at once, and the solutions we need to generate often require multi-disciplined understanding and skills that were not well developed in school. Upon graduation, for many of us, it becomes our own responsibility to figure out how to use in life the things we learned—or often half-learned for reasons discussed above—in school.

Implementing a Vision

Overhauling your institution, much less your national curriculum, is no mean feat, of course. While I would love to see whole schools structured this way, I don’t expect to see large scale changes any time soon. However, if you agree that this approach to content delivery would benefit both yourself and your students, then there’s really nothing to stop you implementing some of the principles straight away.

Principle #1: Collaboration amongst teachers.

Start by speaking with your colleagues. Get together with other members of your faculty to develop some ideas together. Perhaps start with those faculty members that you know to be more open-minded, progressive and cooperative, and leave the doubting Thomases out for the time being.

Open up your textbooks and lay your syllabuses bare, then work together to identify connections across different subjects. Chances are that they won’t perfectly align without some effort; maybe Unit 4 on the Maths syllabus relates to Unit 9 on the History syllabus and Unit 2 on the Literature syllabus.

Principle #2: Restructured lesson schedules.

This will require one of two things: permission from above or a great deal of subtlety.

In the ideal scenario, you’ll be given the freedom by your head/principal to alter and play with the timetable to best facilitate this interdisciplinary approach. If you are granted such autonomy, then open up your classrooms and break open your timetable and allow your students to choose where they need to be at a given time. Let them move freely between classrooms, the canteen, the library and speak to the teachers they need to as and when they need them.

Set up one-on-one and group student conferences throughout the unit to make sure that you can keep an eye on all students’ progress; hold tutorials on discreet learning points from the unit that students can elect to attend to get a better understanding of the topic at hand; make resources available in the library and online with links and software so that students can take charge of their own learning.

If however you are not so fortunate as to be given such permission, then the alternative is to allow your students to move around to suit their learning needs while still maintaining the appearances of a traditional schedule.

During your Maths period, allow students to be working on an assignment set by their History teacher (which you will of course be aware of as you’ll have all designed the assignments together anyway) or let a student visit their English teacher for some help with the literature component, while also hosting drop-ins from students who need your help.

This way, you can be where you’re supposed to be and your lesson can still bear its formal name, but your students can allocate their time—with your guidance if necessary—more effectively.

Principle #3: Assessments that complement instruction.

It is essential that this model doesn’t lead to neglect of once subject in favour of another and also that the students receive the proper recognition for the things they have mastered along the way.

As with unit planning, design your assessments together with the rest of the faculty involved. Write assessments and set assignments that require students to combine skills and interdisciplinary knowledge to complete. A shift towards project-based learning would be a good fit, for example.

While you’ll be able to administer formal exams if you absolutely need to—many schools and systems continue to insist on this—preferably, allow autonomy on exactly how students approach assessments and assignments. Exactly how they demonstrate their learning can be up to them, as long as they do in fact show what progress they have made—what they know and what they can do. Some students might choose to write something, while others might prefer to make something, and perhaps others still will even want to perform something! Anything goes as long as there is evidence of learning.

Slowly but Surely

The vision is a large and somewhat radical one, and implementing the entire model at once could be quite overwhelming. However, there are many small steps that can be taken to get there eventually.

Perhaps you could simply start by working more closely with the other teachers on your faculty to find links and connections between your subjects. Start making references in your teaching to lessons from other teachers and units in other subjects. When a student asks a question that’s not immediately relevant to your subject or learning objective, instead of brushing it off, refer them to the relevant teacher to follow up.

Small changes like this can make huge improvements to the value of the learning experience, and every small change is one more step in the right direction.

Have you ever tried anything like this? Would you like to? Leave your thoughts, questions and experiences in the comments below.

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