Learning Faster in Bel Air

September 30, 1992

An old idea in education may get a new chance at Bel Air High School next year -- doubling the length of classes in order to cram a year's learning into a single semester. It's a variation on the "intensified education" concept that has been adopted by Baltimore's Walbrook and Frederick's Thomas Johnson high schools, among others.

The plan's objectives are to forge stronger teacher-student relationships, reduce wasted hallway transit time, and increase instruction time in laboratory, physical education and other classes that require lots of set-up, clean-up activity. With four classes a day instead of eight, the pupil-teacher ratio would be cut in half, encouraging more essay and expository homework assignments that now overwhelm instructors. Students earn more credits in four years, teachers gain more planning time.

Most important -- this is the rub -- it forces more creative approaches to teaching, to avoid the traditional one-period lecture or test. Teachers and students alike are resistant to change: both would have to commit more energy to the new system to maintain interest and attention. Only 20 percent of Bel Air teachers reportedly favor the new system.

As with many pedagogical theories, there is no clear evidence that it is better than the typical U.S. pattern of 50-minute classes and two-semester sequences for each subject. Schools using the longer class period have mostly been private institutions, with a distinctive student body that discourages fair comparisons. Typically, it is offered as an option, "a school within a school," so that teachers and pupils who choose the new program will channel their enthusiasm into making it succeed.

That's a critical element that should be considered when Principal William Ekey presents the idea to a faculty advisory committee next month. And there are some potential disadvantages to the proposal that need to be carefully considered. Because of the accelerated pace, an absent student will find it very hard to catch up with missed classwork. Under the system, studentsare more likely not to take the same subject two semesters in a row; that creates an eight-month gap between courses in a subject, which can dim a student's memory of earlier foundation material.

The innovation, on balance, offers an exciting and worthwhile challenge for improving secondary education. If offered as an option within the high school, it could provide creative opportunities and positive learning experiences for those bold enough to make the leap of faith.

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