An overview of vertical unitized timetabling as a flexible educational strategy for schools
ONE OF THE common responses to requests for flexible progression in secondary or high schools is "the timetable won't permit it". Subject acceleration can become extremely disruptive when the subject in question is not timetabled in the same time-slots for the two years in question. One option is for the accelerant to undertake an independent learning approach to the course, but this may not suit all accelerants, all courses, and involves additional supervision workloads by teachers.
Requiring such special arrangements it is not surprising that students, parents, and teachers may be wary of proceeding with what may well be the most appropriate educational provision. Additionally there is also the "cost" to the student of being seen to be differently treated, especially if there have been few precedents.
One option that has emerged in some high schools is a shift to a vertical unitised curriculum, which overcomes many of these problems of timetabling and of accelerated students being made unnecessarily conspicuous.
Vertical class grouping relaxes the expectation that students learn in a lock-step progression of classes of the same chronological age. Instead, students of different ages can be grouped together on other more appropriate factors (such as learning styles, learning rates, previous knowledge or interests).
Unitised timetabling involves splitting the normal curriculum subject areas into smaller units that can be taken separately. Such a dissection could be on the basis of work components within the curriculum description of a subject for the year, or more creatively into subject core components and peripheral extension units, including into interdisciplinary areas (such as, for example, the mathematics of music) joining two of more curriculum areas together.
These two strategies are being combined in many high schools to avoid many of the timetabling constraints which normally obstruct flexible student-based learning and progression (Sanderson High School 1993). This vertical unitised timetabling involves:
- unitising the curriculum into term or semester length units with some (say 50%) being core units that form a continuing course sequence in the curriculum area
- the development of optional extension and interdisciplinary units based on teacher and student interest and community resource availability
- the use of unit prerequisite (rather than age) requirements to ensure skills needed prior to a unit are held
- the use of pretesting to give prerequiste credits where sufficient competence is shown (including with newly enrolled students)
- the students choosing units they wish to enrol in subject to any "coherent course of study" requirement
- the facilitation of independent learning options when units do not have sufficient enrolments to justify a full-time teacher (including mentoring, part teacher/part independent learning combinations, etc)
Such strategies clearly facilitate student-paced learning and progression, in part by eliminating the conspicuous nature of individual acceleration or special treatment in a conventional timetable-constrained school.
To facilitate effective transition to such a structure the following factors have also been found to be important:
- allowing at the initial stages for a significant workload in preparation of unit materials and in achieving school community acceptance of the changes
- a vertical pastoral care system with regular meetings between a staff member and a small group of students from across all ages at the school, providing the immediate point of staff/student/parent contact and guidance
- an appropriate staff and school community participatory decision-making process to complement the more student directed and flexible curriculum strategies.
One school, Sanderson High School, in Darwin, Australia, describes the process in this way (Gifted, Dec 1993, p20):
Students are allocated to units on the basis of choice and the meeting of prerequisites. This selection takes place once a quarter with the certainty that the opportunity for a student to pick up a unit they may have missed or which they have only recently found an interest in exists. Thus students from all three year groups can be found in any unit. They study units appropriate to their ability and background rather than on a age group basis. They progress according to ability rather than in a lockstep age structure. The unitising of the curriculum allows for individual progression and the introduction of new units (for example Philosophy) on a trial basis. It also enables classes and units to run which would otherwise lapse for lack of demand in any single age group.
While not aimed solely at enhancing flexible progression for gifted and talented students, it certainly seems to do so. Vertical grouping of students in classes and in associated pastoral care groupings largely eliminates the "unusualness" of subject and whole-year acceleration, defusing much of the staff and student peer body resistance to flexible progression.
Moreover to enhance its benefits vertical unitised timetabling can be relatively easily combined with independent or small group pursuit of a specialised or higher level unit with only limited face-to-face teacher involvement (for example a teacher facilitates two or three such groups in lieu of teaching a full class). Community resources and mentors can also be more easily incorporated into facilitating small-scale specialised units within the school's broad timetable, thus extending the probability of the students' particular educational needs being met and enhancing student motivation and sense of responsibility for their own education.