Digging deeper into Flex-mod (part 2)

In my last post, I explored some of the less obvious consequences of using a flexible modular (flex-mod) schedule, with the view of how it would affect student schedules. In this post, I will run through an example of how a flex-mod schedule is made to deepen our understanding of how it works and give some perspectives on the trade-offs involved.

Throughout the post I will use ASFM as an example, so let’s start with a few statistics about the school that will be useful.

  • ASFM’s school week comprises 33 hours including instruction, passing time and breaks.
  • Of this time, teachers instruct 20 hours of class. (5 periods out of 7)
  • Class sizes average somewhere from 20 – 24 students, so let’s say a teacher averages 110 students.

A flex-mod schedule breaks the school week into chunks of time (called “mods”) intended to be smaller than the class size to increase flexibility. At the schools we visited, we saw 15-minute, 20-minute and 30-minute mod lengths; for the purposes of this post I will use 20-minute mods, or three mods per hour. This means that each class will start and end on the :00, :20 or :40. It also means that ASFM’s week will have 33 x 3 = 99 mods. Let’s arbitrarily add 20 minutes to our week and call it 100 mods / week. Of these 100 mods / week, teachers are instructing for 20 x 3 = 60 mods / week.

According to the schools we visited, the creation of a flex-mod schedule is quite a distributed process. Here’s how it works:

  1. The teachers for each course (with the approval of their department head) decide on the structure of the course, i.e. how much large-group, lab (medium group) and small-group time will happen in each week.
  2. The scheduling committee (usually admin and department heads) schedules large-group instruction based on availability of facilities.
  3. Once large-group times are locked in for each course, each department has a meeting to schedule their lab and small-group time.
  4. Admin check the schedules and start filling in student schedules. If a department’s schedule is creating problems filling student schedules, admin work with that department to improve their schedule.
  5. Admin (or counsellors or homeroom teachers depending on the school) work to massage individual student schedules with many conflicts.
  6. Some conflicts which cannot be fixed stay in the student schedules, and are dealt with by that student. See my previous post for how that might work.

At this point, you’re probably thinking “Wow! Teachers and departments get so much input into the schedule!” This is true. Teachers (working in their departments) determine the structure of a course: how long classes are, how much large-group vs. small-group instruction, etc. Teachers also to a large extent can determine their own schedules, though again working in their departments to balance out course offerings. However, there are some mathematical realities which constrain the choices teachers have to make, so let’s play around with some numbers to demonstrate this.

Let’s imagine you’re an ASFM teacher with 5 classes and 110 students. For simplicity, we’ll assume that all your classes have the same structure. First, fill in the number of mods per large group, medium and small group that you want for each class. These should add up to 11 mods, or 220 minutes of instruction (minus passing time). This is a slight reduction of instructional time as explained in my previous post. Next, fill in the number of sections that you will be teaching for each part of the class, based on the number of students you want in each section. Play around with the numbers a bit to try to get your class sizes to where you want them while keeping your instructional mods under 60.

Large group Medium group Small group Total
Student mods per week ≈ 11
× Sections offered
Teacher mods per week ≈ 60
Class size

Not easy, is it? I found when I first plugged my “best-case” scenario in that I was teaching 85 mods in total… far more than the 60 mods in my current instructional load, and close to the entire 100-mod week. Obviously, I would need to make some tradeoffs: larger class sizes or more large-group instruction, for example, in order just to not increase my teaching load.

Another consideration to a teacher’s schedule under flex-mod is that students need somewhere to go in their unscheduled mods. As I wrote before, in the Wisconsin schools we visited each department ran a resource centre staffed full time by the teachers in the department. These were larger schools with departments of around 15 teachers; ASFM is a smaller school and my math department, for example only has 7 teachers in high school. Even assuming we can get some help from Support Services, we can figure that each teacher would need to schedule 10 mods (more than three hours / week) in the resource centre. I’d figure that some but not all of that time should come out of instructional time, which leaves us with even fewer than 60 mods to play with in a teacher schedule.

My conclusion here? Flex-mod does some amazing things that many teachers don’t even dream of: it places the design of the weekly schedule in the hands of teachers and departments, allows the design choices to be based on the needs of each subject rather than an all-dictating schedule, and can allow for small, personalized discussion groups to meet with a teacher. However, it isn’t a silver bullet of scheduling, and schools that want to use flex-mod must either increase their staff or prepare them for the tradeoffs that must take place.