New views on the block: schedule or philosophy?
Colorado College founded its Block Plan in the heady, revolutionary late 1960s. What can a look back over 50 years teach us about the future of compressed and modular modes of curriculum delivery?
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You don’t need a weathervane in these post-pandemic days to see the winds of educational innovation blowing towards hybrid, compressed modes of instruction and, most particularly, towards block plan and similar modular forms of curriculum delivery.
Having directed a documentary about the Block Plan at Colorado College (CC), I thought it might be useful to be reminded of the history of this particular concept, given the flurry of new kids on the block (if you’ll forgive the obvious pun) cropping up across the globe.
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As Susan Ashley elaborates in her study of CC’s block plan, the germ of the idea emerged in the fall of 1968. Fred Sondermann is credited with wondering aloud to the then president of the college if, rather than simply celebrating the history of the college for its centenary, something might be done to change it in a way that would carry it forward into the next 100 years. One thing led to another with impressive, even improbable speed, and Glenn Brooks was tasked with figuring out what this institutional change might look like and how to implement it.
Brooks’ journey towards the plan began with a question: “How can we do what we do better?” While waiting for replies, he appears not just to have spoken to almost everyone at the college but to have visited every part of it, getting close up with locations ranging from the physical plant to residence halls (new hi-fi stereos and their speakers, he concluded, were going to be an issue), as well as meeting with academic departments. Assisting Brooks were a raft of devoted students who seem to have become as invested in institutional change as they were in the wider cultural and political revolutions of the time.
Block teaching is about managing time
One of the suggestions was from psychology professor Don Shearn, who reportedly said something like: “Just give me 15 students and let me teach them.” What Professor Shearn wanted was greater control over class time. “I’d be in the middle of making a point,” he told me recently, “and the bell would go off.” He then described in language too colourful for this forum his pre-block plans to tear the ringing devices down.
This is the first takeaway that emerges from studying the history of the block: from the first, it has been about time. This issue has a different shape today after the pandemic, as both faculty and students look for ways to deploy modes of learning and teaching that opened up during Covid. Whatever else can be said about it, the block’s modular, one-thing-at-a-time approach has proved more readily adaptable to digital forms of flexibility than other ways of organising the academic calendar. Could it be that technology has finally caught up with the block plan?
Block teaching focuses attention
Which brings us to a second insight. When people are introduced to block modes of instruction, what they tend to see is a schedule. But history tells us that there’s nothing sacred about any single block plan structure. What’s crucial is the way it focuses attention. You study one thing at the time. As a faculty member, the plan focuses you in a similar way. If I’m walking across campus and I encounter a colleague, one of the first things I ask is if they’re teaching and what. While I might have asked that question a few times when I taught at a school that ran on semesters, it was not nearly as often. For faculty, the CC block plan focuses you differently on teaching – and that difference makes a difference.
A 1960s teaching innovation that survives
There isn’t space here to detail the faculty meetings that led to the block plan moving from wild idea to implementation, but it unfolded with a speed that in retrospect seems typical of the time, when change was in the air. It’s an important context to keep in mind, to see the block plan as one of the last surviving educational innovations of the 1960s.
While it’s often said that universities and colleges are staffed by liberals, institutions of higher education themselves are essentially conservative. The metabolism of higher education is very slow indeed. But as Joy Kliewer observes in The Innovative Campus, there was a moment of experiment in the late 1960s when education opened up, if only briefly. Like today, it was a time of great social and cultural interrogation. Fifty years later, however, most of the educational innovations of those days are gone.
Not the block plan. As to why it survives when so many other innovations of its time have withered away, the answer lies in its ability to change. It looks like a schedule, but it’s really a philosophy of how to focus attention and manage time in the classroom. It’s not the same today as it was 50 years ago, but if the chips off the old block emerging at Victoria University in Melbourne and the University of Suffolk in the UK (to name just two) are any indication of what the future might hold, the story of the block plan is still somewhere near its start.
Steven Hayward is professor in the department of English and director of the Colorado College Journalism Institute at Colorado College. He is a keynote speaker at the International Block and Intensive Teaching and Learning online conference on 2-3 February.
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