Written by Dr. Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
Dr. McGregor is Deputy Head of School at UWC ISAK Japan. He also teaches History.
Like a mosquito petrified in amber, there are schools that try to preserve themselves in a fixed state of orthodoxy. Such schools often believe their identity is rooted in continuity: these are the traditions that define us, they must not change; these are the outcomes that define us, they must not change. Continuity is not without value of course. It provides school communities with stability and clarity, and both these concepts help students to learn. However, continuity without agility, adaptability or the capacity to improvise is akin to holding one’s breath. You may have filled your lungs with sweet, precious air. You may feel confident and strong in the beginning that you could maintain this state forever. You may even break breath-holding records. But ultimately you are going to collapse unless you learn how to breathe.
In other words, continuity can preserve the values that give us purpose, but we also need to learn how to change too. Continuity and change are not binary poles. Rather, they exist in an interdependent relationship. For instance, the UWC movement is committed to the value of environmental stewardship. When I was a child in the 1980s, this value existed in my local context, and it was measured by the slogan ‘Keep Britain Tidy’. British children we encouraged to help the environment by putting their rubbish in bins. In the 1990s, we were equally committed to environmental stewardship but we started to recognise that putting rubbish in landfill sites was part of the problem and not part of the solution. As such, we started to talk about recycling. The value of environmental stewardship remained constant, but what it meant to live that value well changed with the advent of new information and understanding.
Here at UWC ISAK Japan we want to preserve the values, quirks and oddities that help define our identity, but we are also committed to agility, experimentation and change. For example, this year we have introduced a new weekly schedule. We want to continue individualised, small group learning. We want also to continue a schedule that enables students to move around the campus, never spending too long sat in one place. However, last year, we began increasingly to feel that our students were ricocheting all over the place, and this was having a detrimental effect on their academic performance and their wellbeing. Last year, our schedule meant that students would be sat in either 50 minute or 100 minute classes. This in turn meant that on any given day, a student might be catapulted through seven different classes plus clubs, activities, assemblies and meetings. This was exhausting for them. To exacerbate the matter, the same schedule also meant that student might have a day where they sit through extraordinarily lengthy classes. This too was exhausting, but for very different reasons.
So we thought deeply about how to improve this schedule without losing the features that made it distinct. This year, we have switched from a schedule of seven 50 minutes periods (some of which became double, 100 minute periods) per day to a block schedule of five 80 minute periods per day. Hang on, you might say. Doesn’t this mean your teaching day will now be longer? You are right, dear reader, our teaching day is indeed now an extra 30 minutes in length under our new schedule. So what are the benefits of this change, if the purpose was to reduce exhaustion? Instead of bouncing between 50 and 100 minute classes, classes either too short or too long, students will now have the predictable consistency of 80 minutes lessons each and every time. This length has been carefully calibrated to maximise a teacher’s ability to teach through diverse activities and to enable students time and space to think and express themselves. This means the learning should be richer in those 80 minute sessions and the teaching conducted at a much more even-tempered rhythm. Moreover, though we finish the teaching day a little later, students will actually have fewer classes per day. Part of the student tiredness we encountered last year was in fact less about the length of the day and more about the number of intellectual transitions students had to perform during the day. With any luck, our new schedule provides for better, more measured learning during a better, more balanced day.
If our students lives are less intense, they will be less exhausted. Less exhaustion should translate to our students enjoying better wellbeing. And if they enjoy better wellbeing, they’ll doubtless increase their capacity to learn. In schools, such as in life, the easy thing to do would be to ignore the evidence that suggests your system is not working. The simple thing to do would be to blame the individual for their problems or concerns. But the right thing to do is to learn how to change. That way, we can continue to find new ways to be the same kind, responsive, imaginative community that strive deeply to be.