As school communities ponder what new COVID-induced practices they should maintain post-pandemic, high on the list should be a variant of hybrid learning for high schoolers.
No, I’m certainly not advocating for teachers to teach remote and in-person students at the same time, nor am I necessarily advocating for students to learn from home a couple days a week.
Many schools should explore something that made sense pre-pandemic as well: flipping the school day.
The wisdom behind flipping the school day should be even clearer now for a number of high schoolers and their parents who experienced liberation from what is often an excruciatingly early school start time for adolescents, alongside the opportunities for enriched learning that stem from not being tethered to a physical campus.
In a flipped school day, as I wrote previously, students would start their day later—say 9 a.m.—by reporting to a workplace in their community, which they could rotate every semester or year.
After working half a day, the students would then break for lunch and head to school to do their extracurricular activities and work on projects with their fellow students.
Finally, in the evenings, students would take their classes online from home when their parents are more likely to be at home. They wouldn’t have homework per se, as work would simply be woven into their online-learning experiences, as well as their projects with their fellow students and potentially the projects they are tackling while on site at a workplace in the morning.
To add specificity to this vision, students should take only one to two online courses at a time so that they can focus deeply on what they are learning without distraction, not have work that stretches on too late such that it cuts into their sleep, and so they can attain mastery before they move on to other courses.
Each course would last roughly a month, such that over the course of a year students could take a full course load but not be overburdened. Plus, with less chance for conflicts in work prioritization between classes, students could delve more deeply into projects for the courses that integrate with their afternoon on-campus work or the work they are doing in the morning in a workplace.
Alternatively, if students took two courses at a time, the classes could be done in an interdisciplinary way so that students could dig into meaty projects that have them learning the content in the context of something more meaningful.
The benefits of this approach are clear.
The schedules would align with adolescent circadian rhythms. It would be both more in line with the research around when teenagers should wake up and start their days and also more in line with research that suggests students tend to perform better in courses that meet later in the day. This would likely have both academic and health benefits.
There would be more opportunities for deep engagement in course work. As Michael Petrilli has observed, “students only learn when they are focused, engaged and putting in effort. Yet surveys have long shown that teenagers spend most of their day bored, zoned out, and only pretending to listen. For many students—especially the most motivated ones—they’d be better off, not to mention happier, if they spent much more of their time reading, writing and completing projects than going through the motions in our industrial-style schools.”
Students would also have more chances to learn about potential careers, build their social capital and forge connections with mentors outside of school, and to build their passions. This is all critical given that, according to our research in “Choosing College,” a large number of students leave high school without a strong sense of purpose or passion, which contributes to them making sub-par college choices that often results in dropping out with debt.
Big Picture Learning schools helps illustrate the opportunities that arise with more engaged students working outside of schools as part of their formal learning. As one student at a Big Picture Learning school in Nashville, Dayvon, said, “I have friends who want to be veterinarians, OBGYNs, orthodontists, and the fact that they actually get to work in an orthodontist office or actually go to a vet clinic is very engaging. Then they actually say, hey, I’m doing this exhibition, and I’m going to focus on what I want to learn you get to support them and say ‘I’m here for you’ and ‘I support everything you’re doing.’ And when you get that same love back it drives you, like hey, I can actually do this.”
Another Big Picture Learning student in San Diego, Izzy Fitzgerald, told me that, unlike Dayvon and some of his friends, she didn’t yet know what she wanted to do with her future, but her school allows her to build an understanding of herself and the different pathways that exist. “There’s so many different opportunities that the school provides for me to investigate every single one. And that’s really what drives me because I am a little indecisive so it really just shows me, hey, you don’t really want to do that, or that’s a little too scary, or oh don’t go into being a doctor, you don’t like blood. Different things like that. I think that’s a lot of students as well, we just don’t know yet. So that we get to experience every single thing, [which] is really amazing.”
If schools creatively stagger schedules to meet different student scheduling needs, there also exists the potential for health and cost benefits by having de-densified school buildings that can be better utilized over the course of a day and year.
And finally, it will also better prepare high school students for college and the world of work, as it will create a scaffolded and intentional approach to releasing them into the “real world” and help build their habits of success in the form of time management, agency, and executive function.
In short, flipping the school day is an idea worth trying, especially after so many high schools have shed their traditional schedules over the last year and have the opportunity to create a more compelling, engaging, and beneficial experience for many more students.