The Flexibility Fallacy

Another chapter in Alberta Education’s Inspiring Education saga is centered on an idea that’s advertised as the “Flexibility Enhancement Project.” Minister of Education Gordon Dirks recently met with school board officials across the province and touted the innovation of this particular aspect of the ministry’s High School Redesign initiative, as a component of the overarching Inspiring Education vision, which ostensibly removes students from the chains of a 19th century factory-model of education into an enhanced, progressive standard for the 21st century.

In my last post, I noted my concerns regarding what I deem to be the attempt to dumb-down our world class curricula in core subject areas. Rather than our currently rich, content-based curricula, Inspiring Education proposes that we focus more on “competencies” and “skills” rather than knowledge, along with a host of other shifts that are clearly and obviously geared toward an emphasis on discovery/project-based/student-centered learning. Andrew Old noted in the comments that a curriculum that allows for depth, perhaps at the expense of breadth, may not necessarily be a bad thing, because it allows time for students to practice and to achieve fluency. Further, he pointed out that traditional teaching methods, in fact, better support the acquisition of fluency, and, therefore, fuzzy pedagogical practices would be revealed as ineffective. I wholeheartedly agree with both points, and despite teaching a competency-based curriculum myself, I’ve been able to find ways around some of the vague language. However, Inspiring Education is attempting to cut teachers who largely employ traditional methods off at the knees in other ways, as well, such as through the aforementioned “Flexibility Enhancement Project.” So all that potential extra time for depth is also off the table.

In Alberta, our core curricula are based on the Carnegie model. This means that the outcomes of a given 5-credit high school level subject, grade 10 English, for example, were designed to be taught and learned in 125 instructional hours, over the course of a semester. But now, Alberta Education, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that perhaps not all students need exactly 125 hours. So they’ve removed that requirement from implementing programs of study. Yes – you read that correctly. Nobody in any Alberta high school is mandated to deliver 125 instructional hours of curriculum – at least not in the traditionally effective manner with which we’re all familiar.

What does this mean? It means that many schools have instituted “flexibility,” or “flex” scheduling. The hours in the school day are all still there, but they can be divided quite creatively, culminating in less time in a structured class. This could mean virtually anything, depending on the school. In one high school in Calgary, classes are scheduled in the morning, amounting to only 75 total hours. The remaining time (50 hours) is redistributed by giving students the option of attending “on-demand flex” classes in the afternoon. They can choose to attend or not. In another high school in Edmonton, scheduled instructional time is cut to about 110 hours, to make time in the school day for morning (before scheduled classes) or afternoon (after scheduled classes) “flex” sessions. In another high school, also in Edmonton, “flex blocks” are built into each school day. For a one-hour block each day, students can choose where they want to spend their time, whether getting help in Physics, taking a drop-in Art session, or participating in a fitness activity in the gym. Still other high schools have cut scheduled instructional time by at least 10 hours in order to extend the lunch hour so that students have the option to attend “flex tutorials.” Or not. Attendance is optional. Minister Dirks recently touted the innovation of such endeavors in his visit to a Grande Prairie high school, where teachers and students undoubtedly lauded the success of allowing student-choice and self-direction in education. I’m sure everyone looked very creative and innovative. That seems to be the name of the game: one-upping each other in a race to prove who is further into the 21st century.

There are serious concerns with this project, not the least of which stems from the fact that we’re still, rightly, accountable to a curriculum that was designed with 125 teaching and learning hours in mind. Also, as has been oft-cited, students don’t always know what’s best for their own learning. Within a model of student choice in a self-directed environment, what are the consequences when students do not make beneficial choices?

Further, to Andrew Old’s comment in my previous post, students often attend these various “flex sessions” on an ad-hoc basis. There’s no continuity, and students who sign up for a given teacher’s flex session may not even be students who are enrolled in that teacher’s class. Students who attend flex sessions of teachers other than their own often find the information disconnected from their classroom learning. As well, teachers may not have enough information to gauge students’ prior knowledge and therefore be able to build meaningful lessons; with the student composition changing every day, how can a teacher build on content from one lesson to the next? Another issue is that students are at different levels; depending on how a school structures its “flexibility scheduling,” students from grades 10 to 12, at all the various levels, may attend a given teacher’s flex session. How can a teacher make a meaningful lesson in a vacuum, with different students from day to day, all of whom are at a range of levels and abilities? Ultimately, these “flex” sessions/blocks/periods often become nothing more than study blocks or homework time, if they’re even attended at all, since many schools do not mandate attendance. In those situations, it is the most vulnerable students who are at risk; student “choice” and any subsequent benefit is diminished for those students who are already predisposed to sabotaging their own success through inconsistent attendance. If you were 16 years old, would you choose to attend Math support, video gaming in the atrium, or simply hanging out with your friends over a 75-minute lunch period? And all this is at the expense of the 125 hours of instructional time we know we need in order to adequately address our curricula. So, while Andrew Old’s suggestions that perhaps the opportunity for depth through the streamlining of content may be beneficial, we in Alberta are also being stripped of time, through “flexibility” scheduling, which makes any positive outcome seem very unlikely.

I’m rather certain that parents, for the most part, don’t even know this is happening across schools in Alberta. At the high school level, most reasonable people would assume that instructional time is sacrosanct, and would never be manipulated in this manner. For the many parents who are aware, maybe because their child(ren) attend such schools, they’ve been sold the whole 21st century learning snake oil. You can imagine how this is all spun to sound like it’s offering students so many opportunities to pursue their own educational interests, how it’s breaking down the 19th century factory-model of education, blah, blah, blah. As a veteran teacher who knows the curriculum inside and out, I can tell you that there is absolutely NO benefit to this “flexibility enhancement project.” In fact, the contrary is true; valuable time is being stolen away from students at the expense of their learning opportunities. There is NO evidence to suggest that minimizing structured and scheduled learning time, with a classroom teacher who builds a relationship with his or her students, can possibly add educational value.

Schools have jumped on this “flexibility enhancement project” in such a broad and sweeping manner, with no measure of consistency, that not only is the cart before the horse, it’s run so far off the path that the horse can’t even see the cart. A few schools across the province started implementing “flexibility” scheduling four years ago, but now, many more schools are involved. Those who would advocate for this completely unsupported redesign of the high school schedule are perpetuating a fallacy, or worse yet, they’re engaging in blatant deception.

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6 thoughts on “The Flexibility Fallacy

  1. Arghh. I thought this was going to be one of the few benefits of IE. I was told the standard “why should a child be forced to spend 125 hours if they can get it in 100” line and that “flexibility” was going to be introduced. I thought that this meant that, if a kid was to prove proficient in a subject, they might be able skip some classes and take exams earlier and then have time for personal projects as a kind of reward or that more options would be introduced. Instead they take the time away right off the top and expect all the kids to become proficient in less time?!? I always wondered why this new system needed the curriculum eviscerated and exams to “go away” and I guess it makes sense now… Flexibility is just an euphemism for “no learning”. Everything that comes from these people is an Orwellian doublespeak nightmare. Thanks for bringing this out into the open.

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  2. Thank you so much for your insightful blogs. I so appreciate your words of wisdom from your years of experience.

    I had no idea what the flex time meant until I read your blog. I spoke to a mother today and she said that it is being implemented even at the junior high level in the Breton/Warburg schools. She is seeing terrible consequences as the kids are using the flex time as free time. She is part of the parent council and reports that their schools were forced to implement the flex time scheduling, otherwise they would not receive funding. Is this true?

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    1. Unfortunately, it’s absolutely true. In one school district in Edmonton, all high schools have some version of flex, and in another, many are going down that path as well. It seems like it’s driven by administrators who want to make a name for themselves by pushing the notion of “innovation” as far as possible. All of these Inspiring Ed initiatives sound so nice on paper but in reality, compromise necessary structures that have made for the most effective teaching and learning. Without the time in the classroom to do what we’re trained and paid to do, only students lose.

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