Consider this schedule: At 8 a.m. you arrive at work. Immediately you are busy with a quick problem needing to be solved. You sit and get to it, but only for about three minutes. You break your focus to stop and receive instruction for the next half hour, before getting to work on another task. There may be a bit of discussion, but you are on task and dedicated.
Just before 9 a.m., you stop again, move to a new office, and start a new task. Your previous hour was spent on accounting, applying math to a problem, then training in more advanced math, then more application. This next hour will be focused on writing. Again, you spend several minutes on a short orienting task, then listen to a lecture, then engage in practice and knowledge transfer. Just before the hour ends, you switch offices again and repeat the entire process, except now the focus is studying your company’s history.
It’s now 11 a.m. You break for a half-hour lunch, then go to your company’s lab for an hour. You repeat the workflow process from this morning, but now you also must perform an experiment. As this hour ends, you again change rooms, change focus, change task, change environment, change peers.
Each of these hourlong periods leaves you with work to do outside the office: four or five math problems, 20 pages of reading, a paragraph to write, 10 new vocabulary words to memorize. Your workday technically ends at 3 p.m., but most days you have some kind of event after work.
You want to stay healthy, but you spend most days sitting the entire time. You walk fewer than 3,000 steps a day on average, so after work you may take up a sport—not a game, usually, but more practice and drill.
We are married to a system that has not been properly re-evaluated for 21st-century capabilities and capacities.
You do all of this every day, Monday through Friday. On weekends you often have work that wasn’t finished during the week. The managers who oversee your various hourly commitments don’t really communicate with each other. Each treats their task as the number-one priority of your life—not merely for that hour, but for the day. Overlapping activity is ignored.
This absurd work schedule is high school. Though the business world would hardly expect adult employees to function in such an environment, this is the daily schedule for young people in America until they graduate (for many, this starts in middle school, so from around age 12 to 18).
The system’s scheduling fails on every possible level. If the goal is productivity, the fractured nature of the tasks undermines efficient product. So much time is spent in transition that very little is accomplished before there is a demand to move on. If the goal is maximum content conveyed, then the system works marginally well, in that students are pretty much bombarded with detail throughout their school day. However, that breadth of content comes at the cost of depth of understanding. The fractured nature of the work, the short amount of time provided, and the speed of change all undermine learning beyond the superficial. It’s shocking, really, that students learn as much as they do.
Teachers are just as constrained by the system as students. Every hour, 20 new people enter our classroom. We must present lessons that are repetitive and consistent, but also varied and engaging—high school students are human beings, after all. (Maybe.) Every week or two or three, we have a major piece of work from each student that demands extra attention. We do this six times a day—up to 180 people each day. We have an hour to prepare for the next day. Our day is often interrupted by one of the endless meetings we must attend. Any assessment or planning we couldn’t finish during the day follows us home.
Imagine if businesses ran on this kind of system. Imagine if proposed changes were met with indifference or hostility.