Innovation at Madeira: Q&As About the New Schedule

Why did Madeira change to a modular schedule?*

Developing a new schedule is a direct outgrowth of our recently-launched Strategic Plan. One of the key goals articulated in the plan focuses on establishing Madeira as the leader in 21st-century girls’ education. Changing Madeira’s class schedule constitutes a major step toward achieving that goal while employing current research on how girls learn. Furthermore, over the past several years, our program has embraced a model that encourages active student engagement, collaboration, and experiential problem solving. As the delivery of our curriculum has evolved, so must the structures that support it, including our schedule.

Innovation has always been a hallmark of Madeira. For example, when Co-Curriculum was launched nearly 50 years ago, it was regarded as a revolutionary approach to girls’ education. The goal of the modular scheduling effort is to honor and continue this legacy of innovation.

What is a modular schedule?*

Below is an example of what the modular schedule that Madeira is launching looks like:

A block represents time spent each day in class or an activity. The Madeira day is divided into four blocks. A, B, and C Blocks are 80 minutes in length. D Block is 90 minutes in length.

A module is the period of time the academic year is divided into. The Madeira year is divided into seven modules, each lasting approximately five weeks.

Each student’s day will be divided into four blocks (A, B, C, and D) that are supplemented by periodic break times. A, B, and C blocks will focus on academic subjects (math, science, English, history, fine arts, languages) and on the Student Life Curriculum. D block will be devoted to student activities and athletics. All students will be engaged during A, B, C, and D blocks. Detailed information regarding the effect of the modular schedule on course registration and prerequisites will be distributed in mid-March.

The modular approach allows for:

  • Longer class periods – and more classes
  • Opportunities to study topics in depth
  • More interdisciplinary courses
  • More frequent advisory meetings

How will the new schedule impact Madeira’s curriculum?

The new format brings several important enhancements to our academic curriculum.

  • It reflects current research on how adolescent girls learn best by providing fewer, longer classes of 80 minutes in length that offer a better balance between the mastery of individual topics and interdisciplinary learning.
  • It provides for more in-depth study of individual disciplines, with a greater emphasis on applying knowledge both to solving problems and to fostering creativity.
  • It allows for better integration of our academic subjects with our Student Life Curriculum and with Co-Curriculum, resulting in a more holistic educational experience for our students.

How will the new format improve life at Madeira overall?

The new schedule will create benefits for our entire community, including the following:

  • Students will have greater flexibility, which will encourage them to explore their passions and try new things, particularly at the ninth grade level.
  • Faculty members will work with fewer students during each module; as a result, they will be able to devote more time to each of them.
  • Students and faculty will be able to meet more frequently for periods of academic advising.
  • There will be a clearer division between periods devoted to academic subjects and those devoted to athletics, team sports, and arts, which will foster increased participation in these activities.
  • An entire grade level will be together during lunchtime.
  • A greater number of students, faculty, and staff will be able to attend athletic events and other community events.

Will students still have a free period?

The free period will be replaced by other enhancements to the school day; these include a later start time and a designated snack time and advisory time. By instituting a later start time and building breaks into the schedule, we are intentionally slowing the pace of the day in order to create a more balanced experience for students while retaining academic rigor. We also believe that the new schedule will allow students to make better use of the time they spend in class interacting with their peers and teachers.

What happened to conference time? How could a student have one-on-one time with a teacher?

Conference time allows students to meet one-on-one or in small groups with a teacher. This will continue to happen during block classes. One of the many benefits to longer classes is the ability for the teacher to break up class time into different segments allowing for large and small group conversations and one-on-one meetings.

If my daughter takes Spanish in Module 1 and then again in Module 4, what is the impact on her retention?*

One of the goals was to create a schedule that provided deep learning. Independent School Management’s (ISM) examination of research on time, and observations in many schools supports these findings.

From ISM's article "How Much Time is Enough?” Ideas & Perspectives, vol. 32 no. 5:

  • When teaching in-depth (rather than breadth) takes place in classrooms, students suffer less short-term memory loss and little long-term memory loss.
  • In-depth teaching is typically associated with more intense experiences and varied teaching approaches carried out in longer class periods.

From CAL Digest, "Scheduling Foreign Languages on the Block" October 1998:

"Anecdotal accounts of students' language retention seem to point out that the loss of language is no greater after a one or two semester break than it would be after the summer recess. Canady and Rettig quote research dealing with retention rates at the college level: "Students retain 85% of what they had originally learned after 4 months and 80% of what they had originally learned after 11 months." Students tend to forget factual information quickly but have significantly higher retention rate with information they learned through critical thinking because the information is not just memorized but internalized.

Canady, R.L. & Rettig, M.D. (1995). Block scheduling: A catalyst for change in high school. Princeton, NJ: Eye on Education.

What professional development have teachers had to design 80-minute classes?*

Teachers are involved in professional development on a regular basis. We have offered a one-year sequence of workshops on varying teaching strategies (2011-2012 school year); using Project-Based Learning as an option for student-centered classrooms (semester I of 2013-2014); teaching in block schedules (semester II of 2013-2014). The new schedule allows us to continue to support professional development on a sustained basis and on specific teacher-selected. We continue to use experts from our own faculty as well as external consultants. 

How will the college application process work into the modular system?*

College counselors will have allotted times to work with students both in groups and individually, as they do now. The college-counseling curriculum is also woven into the junior and senior Student Life courses.

If a student has a problem adapting to 80-minute classes, what is your plan to help her?*

Our teachers work closely with students, regularly monitoring their progress. As is the case now, if a girl has an academic problem, she will be supported by her teacher, advisor, and the Academic Office.

The longer class periods are ideal for students to engage actively in the learning process. Having more time allows teachers increased opportunity for differentiated approaches toward student mastery of concepts as well as increased opportunity to provide a variety of learning activities. Teacher attention to differentiation and variety will support student focus, we believe.

Will the new format affect the number of credits required for graduation?

Graduation requirements will not change during the 2014-2015 academic year. Any change in the number of credits required for graduation will reflect a tiered system that incorporates both the current schedule and the new modular format.

How do college admission offices consider schedules?*

College admission officers look at end results: courses taken and grades on the transcript to assess a student’s performance, not at the school's schedule structure.

Every transcript is sent with a Madeira School Profile that gives an overview of the academic and Co-Curriculum programs at Madeira. The college counseling team updates the school profile annually to ensure that colleges have an accurate picture of the high standards to which Madeira holds itself.

Will AP courses still be offered? Will girls be prepared for the exams?*

Yes, you will see a robust offering of AP courses on the 2014-15 course list. We believe the module schedule will support the deep learning required in upper-level courses such as AP courses. The entire curriculum supports the growth of a girl's critical thinking skills.

How do semester or year-long courses translate into the module system?*

A semester course is one or two modules. An AP course is covered over three or four modules. Each department uses its own expertise to design their courses and determine the appropriate length of their semester and AP courses.

To what extent can subjects be integrated? How will you do so within this structure?*

The modular schedule allows greater flexibility in planning and scheduling interdisciplinary classes. It also allows faculty time to develop these classes. Co-Curriculum and Student Life are intentionally integrated into the modular system.

How will the modular format affect extracurricular activities like competitive sports and riding?

Girls will still be able to participate in competitive sports, riding, dance, theater, and activities. Athletic teams will practice daily during D block and participate in a traditional game schedule. Two afternoons a week students enrolled in the riding program will be able to take advantage of one of three 60-minute riding lessons offered daily.

How will my daughter’s Co-Curriculum placement impact her D Block activity during that module?

Most girls will not do an activity during the module in which they have their immersive Co-Curriculum experience. The Academic and Co-Curriculum offices look forward to assisting your daughter in planning her activities, course selection, and Co-Curriculum placement, helping her manage and anticipate related nuances for a year at a time. For example, juniors interning on Capitol Hill arrive back to campus in late afternoon, so some girls who play a seasonal sport or are eager to be part of the musical in eleventh grade will be able to indicate preferences for which modules they prefer to have their internship. Our goal is to work together with your daughter on her year’s program.

How will “D” Period work? My daughter is a rider.*

Two afternoons a week students enrolled in the riding program will be able to take advantage of one of three 60-minute riding lessons offered daily. Mr. McCartney is designing a program that includes riding classes and other activities in the barn.

Why are juniors and seniors offered Co-Curriculum only in modules 3, 5, and 7?*

These three module options are based on a range of factors including, but not limited to, placement availability, anticipated AP module spacing, and anticipated Student Life offerings.

How will a student take an AP exam if her Co-Curriculum placement and an AP exam conflict?

We will handle this possibility as we do now if an AP exam falls on a Wednesday: the girl takes the exam on the scheduled date, rather than going to her placement.

How often will students take exams?*

Students will be assessed at the end of each module. Each department will determine the appropriate assessment method for its courses. This could take the form of an exam, but may also be an assigned research paper or other appropriate demonstration that the student has learned the course work.

ISM's research recommends that independent schools "maintain conditions that facilitate high levels of student performance throughout the year," noting that exam periods "interrupt and interfere with those conditions."

"Although most colleges still have exam periods, most do not require exams be given during the scheduled time, and more than 60% of professors opt for alternative assessments." This is based on ISM's "College Student Assessment Study 2009."

"There is no evidence that exam periods advance learning or retention. […] It is clear that students cram for the test and that long-term memory is rarely involved." This is based on "Optimizing Distributed Practice: Theoretical Analysis and Practical Implications," Experimental Psychology, 56(4), 2009, 236-246.

How does the new schedule impact the students’ homework load?

In the module system, a girl is engaged in courses and activities during A, B, C, and D blocks. (A few activities, such as Chamber Orchestra or Tech Theater, will happen in the evening and not during one of these blocks.) Typically, therefore, a girl is managing homework for fewer courses at one time in the module system than she is with the current schedule. We anticipate that this shift to studying and learning more intensely in a few areas at one time will feel positive for girls. Study hall continues to be part of the evening’s activities.

What is the Student Life Curriculum? Why is it important?

The Student Life Curriculum is designed to prepare students for life during and after high school. It incorporates three essential areas of learning: life skills, health and wellness, and community life. Our current ninth grade Co-Curriculum focuses on many of the areas that we are addressing. We are expanding those that we believe are essential preparation for building enhanced academic and life skills. The program enhances Madeira’s current Co-Curriculum by offering courses designed by Madeira and by aligning them with students’ Co-Curriculum experiences. For example, the sophomore Student Life courses will bookend their Co-Curriculum experience in order to maximize a girl’s preparation and reflection time. Each grade level within the Student Life Curriculum is designed to be developmentally appropriate and to enhance a girl’s Madeira experience. For example public speaking and study skills will be a part of the foundational freshman course. We will build topics such as interviewing skills and emotional health into the sophomore year program. Our national identity and stress management are incorporated into the junior year. The senior course will cover college counseling and sexuality, among other subjects. The Student Life Curriculum is designed by Madeira faculty to be both age appropriate and build upon previous knowledge.  

What was the process involved in designing the modular curriculum format?

At the end of last (2013) school year, we established a task force we call the Curriculum Leadership Team. This team is comprised of five faculty members who were eager to assume the challenge to carry out an in-depth analysis of our current program, evaluate the results of pilot projects in Co-Curriculum and in the classroom, and research the different options available that could truly support our excellent program and take it to the next level. The team offered several schedule options for the entire faculty to consider and rate on the basis of well-established educational research on learning and the brain. Throughout the process, we worked with student focus groups, department chairs, faculty members in small and large groups, and spent many of our Wednesdays in workshops that focused on building great models of student-centered learning. At every stage of research, discovery, and schedule design, the team stayed focused on our commitment to teaching the basic underpinnings of any rigorous academic program: reading and analytic skills, writing and communications skills, mathematics and problem solving skills, scientific research, and inquiry and creative expression. A baseline requirement was to ensure that we provide a truly well-balanced, integrated and holistic program that provides students with opportunities to thrive academically, physically, emotionally, and socially. 

Did Madeira consider a block schedule?*

Yes, it was one of the final three structures we considered; however, the block schedule did not support our program well, as our program includes both rigorous academic preparation and a signature experiential component, the Co-Curriculum.

Do other independent schools use a modular format?

Many schools use blocks of time to construct their schedule. The modular approach to curriculum has been used by independent schools for many years.