As the old adage goes, “If you want to know what someone values, look at their checkbook.” In the realm of education, a parallel sentiment can be expressed: “If you want to know what a school community values, look at their schedule.” More than any other document, the school schedule reveals hidden beliefs, exposing the discrepancies between our professed ideals and the reality of our practices.

As classroom teachers, we’re frequently discussing topics like curriculum development, teaching methodologies, and student engagement strategies. As school leaders, we’re constantly evaluating the efficacy and fidelity of our mission, vision, and core values. The presence and synergy of these conversations and private ruminations are hallmarks of a functional school culture; one that is in active pursuit of offering their students a continually improving education.

Yet, there is one integral component of this pursuit that is often overlooked: the school schedule.

Largely, school schedules are seen as a functional necessity—an organizational tool to manage time and coordinate activities. In fact, because many school schedules are driven by resources and personnel, we rarely question the ways in which a schedule’s design impacts student learning.

The schedule is the hidden powerhouse of a school; silently and implicitly choreographing the pace and rhythm of the school day. However, its influence runs much deeper. In the patterns of a school schedule, you’ll find the most honest traces of what a school community prioritizes and values.

Rethinking the School Schedule

As the Middle School Director at Francis Parker School of Louisville, the schedule is something I began mulling over with a small group of students this past spring

As the students shared their daily routines, their peaks and troughs of energy, and their personal preferences for when they would like to study certain subjects, it struck me how our existing school schedule fell short of delivering on the personalized, progressive, and student-centered mission of our school. It was a sobering realization, but it also presented an exciting opportunity for change.

And, the faculty agreed.

The faculty and I began to see the schedule in a new light. It wasn’t just a logistical necessity—it was a transformative tool. It could be an instrument of change that reflected our commitment to our students, aligned with our values, and furthered our educational goals.

Auditioning the School Schedule

The idea of auditing our school schedule might seem strange at first, but the exercise helped us to excavate and draw attention to points of concordance and discordance between who we claimed to be and who we, in fact, were. In this process, we scrutinized the time allocated to each subject, the breaks between classes, the duration of each class, and even the sequence of subjects. When put together, these variables created a narrative about our values. And, what we found was a story different from the one we thought we were telling.

For instance, we observed that while subjects such as mathematics and language arts had daily slots, our art and music classes were scheduled only biweekly. This raised questions about our stated commitment to a holistic, liberal arts education. Additionally, we discovered that each class period was limited to just 50 minutes. With such a limited time frame, how could we genuinely engage students in hands-on, project-based, and conceptually rigorous learning as we claimed to? Moreover, we spoke all the time about differentiated instruction, but our schedule uniformly dictated to students what classes to attend, when to attend them, and who to learn alongside once there. Is this truly what differentiation should look like?

These findings weren’t easy to digest, but we also couldn’t dispute them. They were made plain through our audit. Although we claimed to be a progressive, student-centered institution focused on educating the whole child, the rigidity of our schedule belied this.

We reimagined our schedule as a flexible, living document that could be adapted to better serve our students and express our commitment to the tenets of a progressive education.

This is how our journey towards a “polymorphic” schedule began.

What is a polymorphic schedule?

What does the word polymorphic mean? Better yet, how does it relate to a school schedule? Well, it sounds like a mouthful, but it’s really quite straightforward.

Just as within a single species, like butterflies or birds, you might see different colors, patterns, or shapes — nature’s way of offering variety within a single species — in a biological and evolutionary sense, polymorphism is defined as the flexibility found within the confines of a framework. In the context of a school schedule, it means that we are providing students with choice about what they’re learning, who they’re learning with, and when they’re learning it, while still being responsive to the familiar and inflexible touch points of a school day, such as start time, recess, lunch, and dismissal.

To illustrate, imagine 8th grader, Kaz Nehoc, starting the week in language arts class alongside 15 of his peers. At the end of the period, a handful of his classmates might switch gears and transition to a second period racial literacy course, whereas Kaz might remain in language arts for a double period, and still others may transition to PE.

At the Francis Parker School of Louisville, our decision to implement a polymorphic schedule was driven by our ambition to align our core values: blending autonomy with accountability and individuality with responsibility. This approach allowed us to more fully realize our commitment to “Wise Freedom” in middle school.

Impact: What are the benefits of a polymorphic schedule?

So, was the juice worth the squeeze? Well, let’s take a look at several of the ways in which a polymorphic schedule has helped us better live our mission, vision, and values:

Flexible Learning:

At its core, a polymorphic schedule is all about flexibility and adaptability. It allows for changes within a broader routine to cater to the diverse needs of our students. This flexible structure creates an academic environment that is responsive to each student’s unique needs, interests, and pace. Consider, for instance, Emma, a math prodigy who tends to be a morning person. A polymorphic schedule could accommodate her peak cognitive performance by scheduling challenging math classes in the morning. Conversely, Max, an art enthusiast, finds his creativity peaks in the afternoon. Under the same schedule, his art classes could be scheduled post-lunch, allowing him to maximize his creative potential. While we still standardize the amount of time that students are required to spend in each subject over the course of a week, it’s the students themselves who are empowered to choose how to allocate their time.

Improved Social Dynamics:

The true beauty of a polymorphic schedule lies in its ability to counteract calcified social dynamics. We’ve all seen how rigid, unchanging class compositions may breed unproductive dynamics. By subtly changing the class compositions throughout the week, we can mitigate these issues, fostering a more diverse and supportive classroom atmosphere where every student feels valued and heard. A polymorphic schedule, by contrast, encourages fluidity in social interactions. Students are exposed to a broader mix of peers, and as the classroom composition shifts, so do the dynamics within it. This constant change can help dilute established cliques and promote more varied interactions. It’s a refreshing shake-up.

Eliminating Biases:

When it comes to students’ academic achievement, we know that little matters more than a teachers’ unconditional belief in their students’ ability. But, we also know that, as educators, we ascribe immutable character traits to classes. Sometimes these are positive, but just as often they aren’t. As such, we might be excited to see Group 1 after lunch, but might dread having Group 2 at the end of the day. One of the benefits of a polymorphic schedule is that it dissolves those implicit biases that inadvertently but unavoidably slip in. By eliminating static sections, we can help teachers eliminate these biases. This means every day gives a fresh start for every student and class. The focus is on the individual student’s growth, not on the collective stereotype of “Group 1” or “Group 2”.

Innovative Pedagogy:

A polymorphic schedule allows us to adapt our teaching methods to the needs of the students in each session. We can move away from thinking of classes as daily events, and instead see them as weekly learning modules. This shift allows for more in-depth and conceptual exploration of subjects. It also promotes instructional techniques such as reciprocal learning, peer feedback, and frequent conferencing. Take a science class, for instance. The week could begin with an engaging lecture on Monday, transition to hands-on experiments on Tuesday and Wednesday, allow for small group discussions to consolidate learning on Thursday, and conclude with individual research time on Friday.

As educators, we all want what is best for students. We see this everyday in classrooms around the world. But we can always work on closing the distance between what we want for students and the program we are delivering.

Although there is no silver bullet to reconcile this gap altogether, a polymorphic schedule can be a useful stepping stone on your journey.

Interested in learning more about the logistics of a polymorphic schedule, but not sure where to start? We offer leadership coaching to help set your school up for success. Check out our leadership coaching offerings and partner with an expert like Dr. Zachary Cohen today!

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