Column: Sounding the alarm on school schedules

Siri Fiske

American schools are raising a generation of dreamers — daydreamers, that is. Fully 10 percent of teenage students say they are “disengaged” and “discouraged” in the classroom.

That’s thanks to the school schedule. Currently, most students shuffle from classroom to classroom with clockwork rigidity, impairing their cognitive development and even compromising their health.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Students taught in flexible learning environments — those that prize field trips and hands-on learning opportunities, for example — benefit from improved problem-solving, critical thinking, and social and leadership skills.

Right now most schools squeeze learning into unforgiving time blocks. With each shift between classes, students lose valuable learning time. And even more time goes to waste as teachers take roll, pass out papers and assign homework.

Once they’ve settled in, students are often subjected to 60- to 90-minute lectures. But most of them will retain just 5 percent of the content teachers impart orally, according to a study from the National Training Laboratories.

Our system’s meticulous adherence to schedules hurts students’ physical health as well. Students usually sit for eight or more hours a day. As a result, they’ve begun experiencing some of the same ill health effects as sedentary adults, including inhibited blood flow and gummy arteries — both precursors to heart disease. Their core strength, balance, hand-eye coordination, eye muscle control, spatial awareness and even emotional maturity also suffer. The school schedule bears no resemblance to the real world, leaving students woefully unprepared for future careers.

Consider how a job would look if it followed the parameters of a school day: Employees would have one hour to work on project A, one hour for project B, and so on — regardless of the effort required for each task. They wouldn’t have any flexible time to attend a last-minute meeting, meet a client or go to a conference. And, all the while, co-workers would sit quietly while completing their work — no interaction allowed.

That’s ridiculous. Yet that’s exactly how students are expected to learn. It’s no wonder most young professionals give their high schools poor marks on preparing them for the workforce.

Fortunately, some innovative schools have demonstrated the promise of a more versatile approach to learning. There, students enjoy the time and freedom to experiment and learn on their own and with peers.

At my Washington D.C.-based Mysa Schools, for example, students arrive any time between 8:30 and 9:30, and spend mornings working on core academics at their own pace, according to their own personalized plan. A video game aficionado might receive a lesson plan that teaches complex math problems via World of Warcraft.

Teachers act as coaches, guiding students to learn through hands-on exploration. And students are encouraged to teach each other to solve real-world issues. Rather than reading aloud from a textbook about the local ecosystem, Mysa students might be prompted to collaborate on a community strategy for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

The Hawken School in Ohio is also using nontraditional scheduling to fuel student learning. The school’s “Intensives” allow high schoolers to study a single subject all day, every day toward the end of each semester. This uninterrupted scheduling lets students cover an entire semester’s worth of material in just three weeks.

Students participating in the entrepreneurship program team up with local startups, listen to problems and spend the semester seeking solutions. At the end of the program, students present their ideas to business leaders — possibly gaining mentors who can help them long after they graduate.

That’s a far better way for students to learn. Students retain three-fourths of what they discover on their own — but retention jumps to 85 percent when they pass on their new knowledge to peers.

Students who learn collaboratively improve their confidence, strengthen their communication skills, become more responsible and are more likely to consider different opinions.

It’s obvious the current educational system, with its suffocating, factory-like schedule, is failing students. It’s time to embrace approaches to education that set students up for real world success.

Siri Fiske is the founder and head of Mysa Schools.