New Designs for School
New Designs for School

We’ve all had the experience of truly purposeful, authentic learning and know how valuable it is. Educators are taking the best of what we know about learning, student support, effective instruction, and interpersonal skill-building to completely reimagine schools so that students experience that kind of purposeful learning all day, every day.

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Many schools are creating “flex time” periods to increase student agency. What makes flex time periods work best?

With all the interest in innovative school models, many schools are creating ‘flex time’ periods during the day for students to increase student agency. We at Silicon Schools Fund and Relay Graduate School of Education set out to understand what makes flex time periods work best and started with a deep dive studying and writing about the topic.

The idea behind flex time is that students can build the skills to work effectively on their own and that through more choice and freedom, students will become more engaged in their learning. In successful schools, we observed students exhibiting agency and working quite independently, which raised the question, “how did these classes reach this place of success?” School leaders and educators suggested that it worked best to begin with more teacher-directed systems and structures and then gradually transfer responsibilities onto students as they demonstrated readiness. The school support structures begin in the foreground and gradually fade into the background.

The result: when educators visit schools that have successfully implemented flex time, they often can’t see the work behind the scenes that went into making them successful. Because the finished product is smooth, and students and teachers know their roles, it can make flex time look easy. When other schools try to replicate this process, they mistakenly jump into a late-stage version of flex time, where students have lots of autonomy; they forget to build up the systems that support such freedoms. Here’s the process behind how schools have designed and launched successful flex time periods.

Getting to Great Flex Time

classroom culture

We’ve seen schools go through four steps on their path towards flex time. These stages are not distinct, but instead work in concert with each other. Like when a child learns to swim, she first puts her face in the water, then blows bubbles, then starts to kick, and then adds arm strokes. When done all together, she is successfully swimming. And the first step in creating flex time is creating the classroom culture.

Stage I: Set the Classroom Culture

Teachers begin with explicit classroom culture and procedures; these classrooms are much more teacher driven at the start. Students learn how to come to attention when asked by the teacher and how to work quietly—essential elements of an effective classroom. Students also learn how to ask for help, what to do when they are stuck, and how to work productively in small groups. In this early stage, teachers are building trust and connection between themselves and students and among the students. Once the norms and procedures for a tight classroom are in place and once positive relationships fuel the culture, teachers have the necessary ingredients to enable the coaching, feedback, and peer-to-peer collaboration that is necessary to move toward a more student-directed approach.

The most effective teachers we observed narrate some of this journey for students, explaining where the class is headed and how the systems they are practicing will give way to much more student autonomy. As students are given more flex time, we see some specific actions taken by teachers to support this autonomy:

Strong whole class openings: When a flex time period begins, the teacher can spend a few minutes setting the tone for the class, having students create a learning target, reminding students of what they are working on, and focusing on any habits or behaviors that might need reinforcement. Openings provide an opportunity to set clear expectations and practice important procedures as well as establish a strong daily culture reset to ensure students maximize their work time once they start working independently.

Effective monitoring: During a flex time period, great teachers make it clear to students that time is sacred and that freedom should be used wisely. Teachers model engagement by actively circulating the room, conferring with students individually or in targeted small groups, and keeping an eye on students to help nudge them back to productivity when needed. These teachers maintain such monitoring even while performing other tasks such as conferencing and small group instruction.

Purposeful use of pen and paper: During flex time, students often use laptops or tablets to learn content or produce products. Even when using digital mediums, we’ve seen teachers successfully implement a paper-based system to support online learning. Some teachers like to have students write notes on paper to reinforce learning, even if the material is on a screen. Other teachers like the paper record as evidence of what students have learned and a quick way to touch base with students on progress. As we give students more freedom, we want to trust them to make good decisions, but we also want to implement systems to keep them engaged and accountable.

Strong whole class closings: A whole class launch at the beginning of a lesson can be powerful; we believe the same is true of whole class conclusions. Teachers can ask students to reflect on their classroom productivity, reinforce noteworthy effort or progress, and remind students of elements they should keep focused on. The learning may mostly be independent during a flex time period, but the social nature of groups makes us believers in the power of launching and concluding briefly together as a class.

Stage II: Developing Good Habits

Once students understand the expectations and systems for independent work time, teachers can begin to teach them the habits required to successfully make the most out of flex time. Setting clear goals, reflecting on progress, making good choices, and self-monitoring their use of time and energy are key habits to be taught and practiced.

Goal setting and progress monitoring: Early on, teachers often set goals for students, usually related to progress over a set amount of time. Teachers frequently have students record their goals in a graphic organizer and track progress. Eventually, the teacher can have students practice setting their own goals, thereby increasing buy-in. Most students aren’t used to daily or weekly goal setting and will need some support, which is why teachers build in time to model good goals, ensure students are accurately tracking progress, and improve students’ ability to figure out what they most need to work on. Teachers often begin individual check-ins (see below) by reviewing and reflecting on student goals.

Modeling and reinforcement: Teachers need to help students learn the habits of self-directed learning such as what to do when stuck, how to use a learning platform or other online resources, and what to do when distracted or when their energy wanes. Teachers often focus on a single learning habit for a stretch of time until it is consistently demonstrated by students—such as note-taking, help-seeking, or studying. Leveraging the whole group opener to model ideal behavior can be effective, as well as having students reflect on how well they accomplished their focus at the end of class. During class time in a flex period, teachers watch for the desired actions (sometimes narrating examples) and offer precise praise when the actions are practiced effectively.

Stage III: Release and Catch

As students show more readiness for independence and small group work, educators have to do the hard step: letting go. Like the moment when a child ventures into the deep end of a swimming pool, students need the chance to figure out how to use a period of time effectively on their own. By that point (based on previous positive reinforcement and redirection), they should know exactly what’s expected of them, have strategies to be successful, and have formed trusting relationships with each other and the adults in the room. The teacher works to intentionally build students’ stamina to sustain their own learning for longer periods of time. At this point, we encourage teachers to interrupt the class as little as possible, instead addressing any issues with individual students while others experiences what it’s like to have uninterrupted time for self-directed learning.

While students work independently, teachers sometimes are left wondering what to do. We’ve seen too many revert to wandering the room, addressing each hand that comes up. Some of the best teachers instead realize that they’re now free to engage in some of the highest impact teaching in the form of individual check-ins and small group instruction.

Individual check-ins: Gradually increasing student autonomy frees teachers up for targeted individualized support. Using data from formative assessments, observations, and student reflections, teachers plan check-ins with each student at least twice per month. During these 3-10 minute interactions, teachers confer with students to deepen relationships, provide coaching on specific cognitive habits, and offer brief content interventions. This is a great time to reflect on student-created goals, help them improve their ability to assess their own progress, and provide targeted support to those who need remediation or the high achievers who wish to push further in their learning.

Small group instruction: Some of the best teaching in flex time settings comes in the form of teachers gathering students around a kidney-shaped table to receive a ‘just in time’ mini-lesson that supports a challenging concept or practices a difficult skill. Teachers obviously have to monitor learning to know when students are ready for such small group instruction, and lessons have to be well-planned and of a shorter duration to be most effective.

Destination: Student Drivers

The goal with flex time is to eventually get students to be able to make good decisions to:

  • Figure out what they need to work on
  • Prioritize their work
  • Set clear targets
  • Work efficiently and independently

Think back to the most earnest of your friends in college, and how they worked independently when in the library. If this is the ‘end state’ of student-driven learning, what is reasonable to expect for elementary, middle, or high school students? It is likely the intermediary step is something akin to student drivers—learners get full control of the steering wheel and gas pedal, but still have a trusted guide in the car, just in case.

Students make most of their decisions in this final stage of self-driven learning. The teacher, however, still explicitly develops classroom culture and trusting relationships with whole class, small group, and individual activities. Students may be exposed to more advanced cognitive habits and tools that promote agency and academic development.

Student-led goal cycle and daily agenda: Goal setting during this stage becomes increasingly student-driven. Students exercise increased ownership by setting ambitious goals for themselves over longer periods of time. They identify the strategies and resources needed to accomplish their goals and track progress. Creating a daily or weekly agenda enables students to manage their time and gives teachers an easy way to quickly know what each student should be working on.

As classrooms evolve from one stage of self-directed learning to the next, students gain more and more agency and autonomy over their learning. Again, in almost every case where this desired state of independence and freedom is reached, schools started off much more tightly controlled and only gradually supported students in taking on more agency. The big shift is that the systems, structures, and routines that start out teacher-driven can gradually fade into the background as students become more autonomous.

We believe that flex time can both help students learn content and support the development of skills that will prove powerful throughout their lives. As one student recently said about their flex time classroom, “I thought this time was just for doing more math, but now I am using the strategies I learned in this class in all of my other classes, and I know it will help me in college.”

If you’re interested in learning more about flex time and piloting supports for teachers in implementing effective student-driven learning, please reach out to Jeff Starr at Relay Graduate School of Education:

Guest Blogger graphic

Rob Schwartz and Jeffrey Starr

Rob Schwartz is a partner at Silicon Schools Fund.

Jeffrey Starr is director of personalized learning at Relay Graduate School of Education.