A Bell Schedule Without Bells: Redesigning the High School Infrastructure

August 14, 2017

By: Abbie Forbus Everett

If we believe that learners learn in different ways and time frames, it is time to redesign and rebuild our traditional high school schedule.High school education for the masses was born during the Industrial Revolution. In his book “Creative Schools,” Sir Ken Robinson states:

“As in typical factories, high schools and higher education in particular are organized around the division of labor. In high schools, the day is usually segmented into regular chunks of time. When the bell rings, everyone changes task (and often rooms) and starts doing something else instead.”

But… two centuries after the birth of mass public education, we are starting to see a learner-centered paradigm shift.

  • An increasing emphasis on more personalized learning
  • An increasing interest in learner voice
  • A movement toward competency based education
  • Focused exploration as to how technology may support all of the above at scale

These are exciting times folks!

The problem is many high schools that are making the learner-centered paradigm shift are trying to do so within the same traditional infrastructure.

Let’s take a school called “Typical High School” as an example. At Typical High School (THS):

  • Every learner has a load of 6 classes that meet for 90 minutes every other day
  • Every class has about 30 same-aged kids and 1 learning facilitator
  • A bell rings after every class to signal to mass movement

Hmmmm… What if all business meetings were 90 minutes long? What if a mechanic had 90 minutes to repair every car, regardless of the problem? Think about our learners…

  • What if 90 minutes isn’t enough time for a learner?
  • What if 90 minutes is too much?
  • How can we allow learners to access more support and/or learning extension opportunities during the school day?
  • Are 6 “classes” needed for every learner?
  • Is this traditional schedule preparing learners for college and career?

If we believe that learners learn in different ways and time frames, it is time to redesign and rebuild our traditional high school schedule. It’s a linchpin to the success of learner-centered education.

Starting from scratch

We need to build “school” and “classes” around the individual learners. But to do this I urge you to consider the notion that learning doesn’t always have to take place in a school, and that classes don’t have to be organized by subject. We should consider a wide range of learning environments and networks as well as the role of adults to build relationships with learners to guide and support learning.

Here are 2 ways a school might begin to redesign school infrastructures:

  1. Flex Mod Schedule
  2. Asynchronous Schedule

Flex Mod Schedule

Flex Mod is essentially a schedule like you would have in college, but with accountability and a bit of structure added to the time learners have between “classes.” This system was popular in the 1970’s but fizzled out because the technology didn’t exist to be able to keep account of learners efficiently.

In a flex mod schedule, class lengths are designed around the particular needs of each “class” and each learner can determine their course load each semester…it could be 5 classes, it might be 8 classes. A flex mod schedule could work well in large high schools that are trying to personalize for the masses. The term “class” here could mean a course, internship, project-based learning group, etc. that meets regularly at a consistent time each week. The weekly schedule would typically stay consistent for a quarter or a semester length of time.

Two high schools that have both been very successful using flex mod are Wausau West HS in Wausau, Wisconsin, since 1970 and Omaha Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska since 1967.

Asynchronous Schedule

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, asynchronous means “not happening or done at the same time or speed.” This is a truly customized schedule that allows for anywhere, anytime learning to occur. Learners and learning facilitators could schedule time daily, weekly, or in multiple week segments for:

  1. Intensives
  2. Seminars
  3. Advisory
  4. Project-based learning
  5. Workshops
  6. An Internship
  7. Office Hours
  8. Field Trip

Asynchronous Schedule Example:

Yesenia is a 16 year old learner in a health occupations pathway. She meets with her advisor one on one each Monday to plan out how she will learn a set of competencies for the week. On Monday afternoon, Yesenia will attend a workshop on blood borne pathogens at the local Health and Human Services Agency. On Tuesday and Thursday, she will attend her Certified Nursing Assistant field experience at the local nursing home. On Wednesday and Friday mornings this week, Yesenia is working on math competencies with a learning facilitator since she needs more direct instruction in math; in the afternoons she is working with peers and a learning facilitator to finish up a social studies project on the role government plays in the healthcare industry.

As we continue to explore the learner-centered paradigm, let’s continue to question and rethink the schedules and infrastructures that were designed during the Industrial Revolution. Let’s build infrastructures that adjust to the learner rather than the learner adjusting to the infrastructures.


Download KnowledgeWorks' Back-to-School Toolkit to uncover insights from other district and school leaders.Looking for more ideas on making your district student-centered? Download our Get Ready: Back-to-School Culture Toolkit to uncover insights from other district and school leaders.



Abbie Forbus Everett
Director of Teaching and Learning

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