The Colorado Plan

Tomorrow marks the beginning of our fourth year of homeschooling, and Steve will be starting the ninth grade. In a few ways it will be a little like high school. He will be taking some of the same classes other ninth graders take: Biology, Algebra, Spanish, etc. Steve will still need to set his alarm to get up early in the morning if he wants to get his assignments done in a timely manner. Then he can spend his afternoons and evenings loafing around on the computer, playing videogames, and doing other things that interest boys his age regardless of where they go to school. He will have to try to write neatly so his teacher can read his handwriting. He probably won’t like every subject he studies. He’ll groan sometimes when he opens his math book.

But in a lot of ways, things won’t be like a typical public high school experience for Steve. He won’t have to walk five miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways. The only person around to steal his lunch money or give him a wedgie will be his dad. Complaining to his mom about his Spanish teacher is going to be a slightly awkward conversation. And the class clown is his own 5-year-old brother.

I jest of course, but on a more serious note, one of the many really wonderful ways that Steve’s homeschooled high school experience is going to differ from that of his public schooled peers is the way that we can mold his classes around his preferred learning style. We’ve learned over the past three years of homeschooling that Steve prefers to focus on one subject at a time when he can. He’d rather spend several weeks intensely studying just history or just science, than trying to tackle six or several different subjects for short time periods every day.

I eventually discovered that this particular style of learning material is called a“block plan” or is sometimes known as the “Colorado Plan,” after the college that originally developed its use around 1970. In the plan as used by Colorado College, each academic year is arranged into eight total 3.5 week blocks. During each block of time, students focus on just one course subject at a time. If the subject is particularly intensive, students may sometimes spend two or three consecutive block periods on the subject until the material is learned.

I think this particular style makes a lot of sense, at least for some subjects. I think it can work quite well for history, science, and Literature. We tried it to some degree or another with all of those subjects over the past few years. However, I was never comfortable with trying to schedule our Spanish, math, or Latin sessions in weeks-long blocks. Those particular subjects rely so much on building one concept upon another or constantly accumulating new vocabulary that I feared that every time math or Spanish came up again in our rotation, that I would spend most of that block of time re-teaching previous concepts or vocabulary.

Despite the possible weakness of a block plan for some subjects, I still wanted to implement this method for at least some of my son’s classes this school year, most importantly because Steve likes learning this way. We discussed the pros and cons of a block plan for various subjects and developed a plan for how we wished to go about it. After a while, we decided that Steve would continue to work daily on his Spanish, Latin, and Algebra, but that we would divide his World History, Biology, and Literature work into 12-week-long blocks during which he would complete a year’s worth of course work for one of the three subjects each 12-week period. Our school year is will be approximately 40 weeks long, so I figured we would have an extra four weeks as a buffer if our lessons start to run behind.

Steve had a hard time deciding which of the three subjects he wanted to work on during his first block period because they are his three favorite subjects, and he frequently changed his mind. In fact, he tried to change his mind yet again this evening, the day before we resume school. He finally settled on beginning with World History and says that he will likely tackle Literature during his second 12-week block.

I am interested in seeing if this whole plan will work out well. On the one hand, it has worked out well on a smaller scale over the past few years, so I don’t see why it couldn’t work on a larger scale if we want it to. However, knowing how much Steve loves Biology and Literature, I wonder if he’ll be able to go a whole 12 weeks without cracking open his Literature textbook or planning out his Biology lab projects…