Re-envisioning the “Seat-Time” Algorithm in Education

Blog Post by Esther Wojcicki
mediaX Distinguished Visiting Scholar

For more than two decades, groups like George Lucas Foundation, the Buck Institute and Hewlett Foundation have been promoting and supporting project-based learning in schools nationwide. Many schools and teachers have adopted it, at least in part of their programs. The evidence that it helps students develop the 4 Cs, – collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity –which are essential for 21st century employment has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, project-based learning, also referred to as blended learning, is the only time in the curriculum when students need to use their 4 C skills to complete the work. Linked here is some  research on the effectiveness of PBL.

Palo Alto Unified School district is one of several in the state of California that has a special training program for its teachers in the blended learning/project-based learning approach. The district developed a 60-hour course to help teachers learn how to use blended learning instruction techniques, including learning how to manage a classroom full of students who are all working on projects of their choice. In this model, students need to come to class only 51% of the time and the rest of the time they can work independently on their projects in teams or individually, either on campus or at a location that is required for their project.

Many Palo Alto teachers have completed this course, and last year hundreds of students enjoyed the opportunity to work on projects of their choice related to the subject area. Recently a legal issue has surfaced that is constraining blended learning programs statewide. This problem is the definition of instructional minutes or seat time as defined in the education code. According to LAUSD based on the California Code:

Actual classroom instruction is any regularly scheduled classroom activity offered under the direct supervision of a properly credentialed teacher employed by the District for the number of minutes established by the District. Only that time during which courses are required for all students is counted when determining instructional time.

The code requires students to be under the supervision of teachers at all times, creating problems when the students go off campus to work on their projects, or even just go out of the classroom. This is a major inhibiting factor in the growth of blended learning/PBL programs.

The Palo Alto High School student newspaper, The Campanile, wrote an editorial in October 2019 in which they lamented the loss of the blended learning programs and urged the state and the district to reexamine the laws to allow for blended learning.

As the students indicated in their editorial, blended learning classes are one place in the curriculum where the 4 Cs are practiced, where students can take an intellectual break from the lecture based classes and the pressure of that type of instruction, and where they can develop independence by working on projects that they initiate and are passionate about. These projects also require collaboration skills, creativity skills and critical thinking skills, all of which are in demand by employers these days. Many of the projects are technology-based, and thus students also gain additional technical skills and self-learning skills.

The seat requirement was developed for the last century when the skills of high school graduates were dramatically different, and the needs of employers were dramatically different.  Now employers are looking for employees who know how to work independently, take initiative, and collaborate effectively.

Certainly there are legal ramifications to changing the definition of seat-time, because the role of the school as a guardian changes.

The questions before us are: How can this education code requirement be redefined for the 21st century?  How can we empower students toward intellectual freedom while respecting the instructional minutes laws?

To initiate the discussion, two initial suggestions are as follows:
*The definition of supervision could be redefined as “being in contact” with the supervising teacher at all times, such as via cell phone.
*Students should be required to check in and stay on campus if their project can be done within the confines of the school. If they need to go off site, then they need to register their location with the supervising teacher and make sure the school knows where they can be contacted during their absence from campus.

Join our conversation online, or in person on October 22nd from 4:30p-6:00p in CERAS 101as mediaX explores these questions through a Panel Discussion titled Re-envisioning the “Seat-Time” Algorithm in Education. Panelists that will be joining me are; Larry Rosenstock, CEO and founding principal of High Tech High. Shelley Goldman, Professor with the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the discussion will be moderated by award winning journalist Janine Zacharia.

Esther Wojcicki is the founder of the scholastic journalism program at Palo Alto High School, now the largest in the nation. Over the past 30 years she built the journalism program from a small group of 20 students in 1985 to over 600 students in 2014 and five other journalism teachers. The program has won major national and international recognition and is a model of how to integrate the curriculum and teach 21st century skills. She is a 2009 MacArthur Foundation Research Fellow for the Student Journalism 2.0 project; the 2002 California Teacher of the Year by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing; the 2011 Charles O’Malley Award recipient from Columbia Scholastic Press, and holds an honorary doctorate from Palo Alto University (2013). She is Vice Chair of the Board of Creative Commons, Chair of PBS Learning Matters, and on the board of the Alliance For Excellent Education. She is also an adviser to EdSurge, Hapara and Shmoop and CEO of ClassBadges.

Feature Image: Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash