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FlexMod Scheduling Redux By Shannon Murray When I started taking classes in educational leadership and administration about 10 years ago, one of my professors said that even if a principal never made any significant organizational or instructional program changes, he or March 2008 Vol. 8, No. 7 (p. 42) she would probably still be on the cutting edge of education twice in his or Printable pdf her career. Lately, when I think of the increasing number of inquiries my former school has received regarding flexible modular scheduling (flex mod), those words ring true. Flex mod—a schedule philosophy and system that has been in place at Wausau West High School in Wausau, WI, for the last 35 years and aligns nicely with current research on student learning—is getting more and more attention from high school administrators across the country. I don’t want to suggest that flex mod scheduling at Wausau West, or anywhere else for that matter, hasn’t evolved over the years, because it has grown to meet the changing needs of the school and the community. But the ideas that led J. Lloyd Trump to rethink the Carnegie unit as it relates to high school scheduling are surfacing again because of the No Child Left Behind Act, increased state graduation credit requirements that are mathematically difficult to achieve under traditional schedules, and recommendations from such publications as Breaking Ranks II that stress the advantages of flexible schedules. It’s generally understood that there are important differences in the way each student learns and that the one-size-fits-all approach does not work well when it comes to teaching and learning. Most educators acknowledge that learning can best occur when it takes place inside and outside the classroom, when it is varied in duration, when it is personalized and connected to the needs of the student, and when students take ownership of it. Creating a learning environment that is individualized, particularly in a formal school setting, can be challenging. Having worked with various scheduling systems during my career, however— including seven- and eight-period schedules and a block schedule—I would argue that a flexible modular schedule, when combined with sound, innovative instructional practices, holds a great deal of promise for student learning. Understanding Flex Mod Flexible modular scheduling was introduced in the late 1960s and grew in popularity with the advent of more- sophisticated computer programs that could facilitate complex scheduling, and only a handful of secondary schools still use it today. The reasons for its decline are varied, but some theorize that limited resources, the complexities of managing a flex mod schedule, and such scheduling alternatives as the block schedule all played a role. The philosophy behind flex mod is very different from the philosophy of many other scheduling systems. Flex mod is built on the belief that instruction and learning can be best accomplished by adjusting class times and structure to meet designated instructional goals. In many high schools, the day is divided into seven or eight periods that typically run for about 50 minutes. In other schools, the day is divided up into four periods of approximately 90 minutes each. At Wausau West the day is divided into 21 periods. These periods are called “mods,” and each mod lasts for 20 minutes. This simple division of the day may not seem that significant, but the instructional implications of such a schedule and the philosophy that goes with it are substantial. Mods can be combined to create classes that last 40–100 minutes and are made up of between 12 and 200 students, depending on the instructional nature of the course. In addition, modular combinations, called “phases,” can be varied for each day of the week to support the instructional goals of the class. In a flex mod system, phases of classes usually fit into one of four categories. In the first phase, large groups of students, as many as 200 at one time, meet to listen to guest speakers, lectures, or other presentations. Meeting in large groups reduces waste by eliminating the need to repeat presentations and creates time for smaller student groupings elsewhere in the schedule. A second category is the medium group or lab phase. Medium groups are made up of far fewer students, usually 20–30, and teachers who are brought together in a setting that is similar to the typical high school classroom. Students in medium groups apply and explore the lessons they learned in the large group. The small group discussion phase, the third category, is the backbone of a flex mod system. In this phase, 12– 15 students participate in indepth discussion and exploration of a subject with a teacher. In this setting, relationships are higher order learning is developed, and the free flow of ideas takes place. The fourth instructional category is unstructured time, or unstructured resource study. During this phase, students participate in independent learning throughout the school. Teachers act as consultants to support students who actively take responsibility for their learning. Students freely choose how to spend their unstructured time, such as obtaining extra help, getting caught up in a class, participating in enrichment activities, or studying independently. Teachers decide what combinations of modules they will use for each of their classes on the basis of their curriculum and the needs of their students. Combinations of phases and time make each class and each day of the week very different for students and teachers. Opportunities and Challenges The basic idea behind flex mod is that the instructional program should drive the schedule, not be driven by it. If implemented well by a committed learning community, the advantages of flexible modular scheduling can greatly outweigh its disadvantages. For example, following are several advantages of Wausau West’s flex mod schedule: Students have the opportunity to take more classes, which enables them to pursue extra electives and make up credits. As a result, student deficiencies are addressed and elective areas are strengthened. Students develop an increased sense of responsibility and time management, which serves them well in higher education settings and the workplace. Through small group phases and the related adviser/advisee program, students can develop strong relationships with peers and adults. The schedule supports learning and instruction and is customized for each subject’s unique needs, which create opportunities for meaningful labs and off-site course work. The schedule is driven by the instructional program, not vice versa. Flex mod offers unique opportunities for team teaching, interdisciplinary classes, and ongoing professional development that draw on the strengths of the staff. On the other hand, Wausau West must deal with the following challenges: Few effective off-the-shelf scheduling software options are available. At Wausau West, a school of about 1,600 students, a master timetable with almost 5,000 individual class phases must be created each school year. Unstructured time leads to unique student accountability and attendance challenges. Some conflicts are allowed in flexible modular scheduling, so two different class phases may overlap a day or two each week. If this happens, teachers and students must work collaboratively to make the necessary accommodations, such as making up the time during unstructured study. Because flex mod is so different from what most adults are familiar with, there is a continual need to educate parents, new teachers, board members, and the community about the value and philosophy behind it. To be effective, flex mod requires rooms for large groups. Because a higher degree of responsibility and ownership for learning are placed on the student in a flex mod system, extra attention and focus need to be given to those students who take advantage of the system. Being a principal in a flex mod school is challenging because flex mod gets the credit and the blame for everything that happens in the school. If the school has 25 valedictorians, a student with a perfect ACT score, and a championship academic quiz team, the school’s success is due to its flex mod schedule because it gives students the opportunity to participate in enrichment activities and numerous advanced courses. If the school’s truancy rate is slightly higher than other area schools or if some students are spotted at the local mall during the school day by a board member, it’s because flex mod lacks the level of accountability that other scheduling systems might have. Right or wrong, these perceptions and the ongoing need to educate the various stakeholders who have these perceptions are part of flex mod. Unmeasurable Benefits It’s difficult to measure the impact on academic achievement that the flex mod schedule has had over the past three decades at Wausau West because when changing student demographics and other criteria are factored in, the school’s academic achievement has been consistent over the years and is in line with similar schools in Wisconsin. Anecdotally, however, there are a number of positives that come from the system, such as high student and parent satisfaction levels. In addition, graduates credit their academic success beyond high school in part to being accustomed to managing “free” time and owning their learning. When talking with alumni about what they cherished most about their high school experience, they invariably mention flex mod. Flex mod scheduling prepares students for life after high school and takes the individual needs of each student into consideration. The system gives young people the chance to learn to manage their time and their learning by choosing where to spend their unstructured time, working cooperatively with other students in small group settings, and working with adults in various environments. The system provides opportunities for curious students to take extra classes to explore unique interests, for career-minded students to take advantage of career center resources and job training opportunities, for college-bound students to take advanced courses, and for late-maturing students to catch up on needed credits. Flex mod is not a perfect system, and it will probably not work in schools that are missing some basic philosophical and material supports that are needed for its success. In the right setting with the right staff, however, and in combination with other sound, researchbased instructional practices, the benefits of flex mod can be significant. PL Shannon Murray (email@example.com) is the principal of Merrill (WI) Senior High School. He is the former associate principal of programming at Wausau West High School in Wausau, WI.
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