Back in the rebellious 1960s, a program with the unglamorous title of "Flexible Scheduling" was started at Seaholm High School in Birmingham, Mich.
It aspired to three basic goals: individualized instruction, self-direction, and the professionalization of teaching. It was offered as an elective alternative to the traditional program in English and social studies.
Today, Flex, a program that one of its teachers calls "a 34-year-long experiment in education," is going strong. A key reason? Flex frees teachers from four weighty constraints.
Time. Given a three-hour daily block of time, Flex is free to create and re-create itself within a four-year curriculum cycle that includes a year each of American studies, anthropology, Western civilization, and global studies.
Departmentalization. Flex studies are interdisciplinary, and center on thought-provoking questions and high-quality materials. For instance, the anthropology year focuses on the question, "What does it mean to be human?" and encompasses a study of human diversity, Arab and Russian culture, as well as a unit on genocide.
Bureaucracy. The team of Flex teachers is also able to act autonomously to create unity, order materials, and guide the program. Within the American studies year, for instance, a Flex teacher can develop and teach a series of classes on women's history. To do the same thing in the regular curriculum would involve hours of paperwork and committee meetings.
Isolation. The seven Flex teachers work together to create the program, support one another, and work with students. Each day, Flex teachers meet for more than an hour. On grading day, they withdraw to crunch numbers, share anecdotes, and achieve consensus on a grade for each of their 200 students.
What works for the teachers also works for students. Those that elect Flex each year share an identity. They form a school within a school.
A key feature of their program is the seminar. There, students are encouraged to express their own ideas and to challenge one another.
Grade distinctions are tossed out, and students of all levels, ninth through 12th grades, work together in all areas. Student leadership is encouraged and expected, and teaching and learning become one. Students are given an opportunity to pursue individual interests through the elective program within Flex, mini-courses that run concurrently with the core curriculum.
Talented students may even teach electives and conduct seminars. In the American studies year last year, students taught electives on "Catch-22," "On the Road," and McCarthyism. Over the four-year cycle, students and teachers come to know one another very well.
Flex has enjoyed tremendous success, notably in a suburb where parents demand achievement.
By opening up the curriculum rather than narrowing it; giving teachers autonomy rather than guidelines and objectives; allowing students to develop their own sense of direction rather than giving them another standardized test, Flex is one successful attempt to break the stranglehold of weighty constraints in the education environment.
* Marge Rabideau and Peter Shaheen are members of the Flex teaching team at Seaholm High School in Birmingham, Mich.