There is something completely unique about Fork Union Military Academy that sets the school apart from all other secondary schools. In fact, one of the most innovative and effective ideas in secondary education can be found today in the unique academic schedule used at Fork Union, and it has revolutionized the school's ability to empower students to achieve their highest levels of personal academic achievement.
This academic innovation is called the One Subject Plan, and it has been in use at this historic boys' school for over seventy years.
The Best Kept Secret
"The One Subject Plan," one satisfied parent of a former student told us, "I always refer to it as 'the best kept secret' here."
While the One Subject Plan is not an actual secret, most parents and students do not realize the powerful effect it can have on a student's academic success. The One Subject Plan truly is the "secret sauce" that makes the Fork Union recipe so effective for students.
To understand the One Subject Plan though, it is helpful first to take a look at how most other schools operate in scheduling their class day and curriculum.
A Typical School's Class Day
Since the early 20th century, schools across the United States and around the world have created an education model strikingly similar to the factory model established by Henry Ford in the early 1900s. Just like Ford's Model T moving along the assembly line, getting parts and pieces added one bit at a time, students in most schools spend their day traveling through a succession of classes, adding a bit of math in this classroom then some science in the next classroom followed by portions of social studies or language in yet another classroom.
If you're a parent of a certain age, you probably remember lugging around a stack of huge textbooks during the school day. Today's students might not have heavy textbooks to carry, but in most schools they still carry the mental and emotional weight of taking multiple classes each day.
In a typical school schedule, those classes may only last 45 to 50 minutes per day. In a block schedule, adopted by many US schools in recent years, students may get up to 90 minutes per class period. Students will likely take four to six classes a day, each class usually being held in a different classroom and taught by a different teacher.
Lecture continues to be the most widely used instructional method in high schools today, and it is easy to see why given the time constraints teachers are under. The first few minutes of each class are taken up by "crowd control"—getting students seated and taking attendance. The last few minutes of the class period are marked by students packing their bookbags and looking longingly toward the door as the teacher announces homework assignments. A 45-minute class period may only yield, at most, 35 to 40 minutes of actual instructional time. That is not a lot of time to set up an engaging experiential learning exercise...so lecture it is. By the end of the school day, a student has likely had to sit through at least four hours' worth of lectures, which may not be the most favorable recipe for successful learning.
How the One Subject Plan Works
Under the One Subject Plan at Fork Union, the academic year is divided into five grading terms of approximately seven weeks each, totaling 35 class days. A student is assigned to one course each grading term, for a total of five courses in the regular academic year.
The student attends the same class, with the same group of fellow students and the same instructor, for the entire seven-week grading period.
Class size is usually in the 10 to 14 student range, but never more than 20 in the largest class. The teacher is responsible for teaching only one class of students for that seven-week grading term. All assignments and tests come in this one course from the same teacher, and that teacher can focus all of his or her attention on this one group of students, and no others.
Only Seven Weeks? Is That Enough Time?
One of the first question parents ask about the One Subject Plan is how their son could possibly learn enough in seven weeks, compared to a whole year at other schools. It is easy to understand why parents might wonder about this at first glance, so let us take a closer look at the time involved.
A school year in the United States ranges from 160 to 180 days long, depending on the state in which the school is located. In Virginia, where Fork Union Military Academy is located, the requirement is at the top of that scale, with students required to attend 180 days or 990 hours of school each year, whether at a public school or a private school. To receive credit for a course in Virginia, the law requires that the student successfully complete 140 hours of instructional time.
- At Fork Union, a student attends class in a specified course for 4 hours each day for 35 days:
4 hours X 35 days = 140 hours
- In a typical school, a student may attend class in a specified course for approximately 45 to 50 minutes each day for 180 days:
~0.75 hours X 180 days = ~135 hours
The instructional time under the One Subject Plan at least equals the instructional time a student receives at most other schools. And, in fact, since several minutes of each 45- or 50-minute class session in a typical school is often lost to administrative tasks and "crowd control," effective instructional time under Fork Union's One Subject Plan may easily exceed that of most other schools.
All Day in One Class? Isn't That Too Long?
When they hear about the One Subject Plan and students being in one class each day, some parents may wonder if that is too much time for a student to remain in a single class. But rest assured that students are not actually in class for four hours straight, they do get appropriate breaks and variety throughout the class day.
"Our class day runs from 8 to 2, but no, students are not sitting in front of their teacher from 8 to 2 every single day," explains Fork Union's Academic Dean, Mike Goad. "Students have a total of four instructional hours per day and they get a 45-minute period for lunch, a 45-minute planning period for teachers during which students may attend a seminar class such as art, leadership, religion, things like that. And they have a 30-minute school-wide break during the middle of the day."
Don't the Students Get Bored?
The short answer is no, not any more than normal. "Interest comes with mastery," said the late E. H. "Gus" Lacy, a former teacher and administrator at Fork Union Military Academy, writing about the One Subject Plan in 1955. "This new plan has given us a method of doing a better job of teaching. The boys learn more, and, consequently, they devote their energies toward the subject because they understand more about the subject being taught." This observation continues to be true more than sixty years later. Students get a lot of genuine satisfaction from really learning a subject instead of just coasting their way through a 45- or 90-minute class period.
Those who doubt the concentration ability and attention span of a teenager have never seen a young man working to master something like Fortnite on his favorite video game console. When it is something that engages and interests them, young people can stay amazingly focused. The One Subject Plan helps channel that kind of dedicated effort into the academic realm, helping a young man post his name on the Honor Roll instead of just climbing the leader board for Call of Duty.
On a related note, most students have favorite subjects, and subjects they don't enjoy. In those cases where a student finds a particular subject to be dull and tedious, the One Subject Plan offers the promise that with just seven weeks of effort, the course can be successfully completed.
Benefits of the One Subject Plan
Fork Union Military Academy has found a number of specific benefits resulting from this unique program.
Students are able to focus on a single subject, without the distractions inherent when shifting from class to class. They never have to mentally shift gears like they would when moving from English to physics. It becomes almost like a total immersion program in that one subject. This focus helps students and teachers both stay engaged with each other and in the learning.
Students are freed from the obligation to meet the demands of several different teachers at the same time. They never have to prioritize homework assignments, deciding whether to spend more time studying math or do their history homework instead. They can focus their energy and attention in one direction, yielding more rapid progress and deeper understanding.
A typical high school teacher teaches several separate classes each day and must track at least 80 to 120 students at a time, even with block scheduling. Under the One Subject Plan, the teacher is responsible for only perhaps 10 to 14 students at a maximum. Teachers check homework every day. They can check student notebooks and journals on a regular basis. It is nearly impossible for a student to "slip through the cracks" within the One Subject Plan.
In the same way, the One Subject Plan requires the teacher to be accountable to the students. Under a normal high school schedule, if an underprepared teacher has only 45 to 90 minutes to spend with four or five different classes, they might slip by with just a test and a video for that day. In the One Subject Plan, however, the teacher is responsible for four hours of class time each day and this schedule, by its very nature, requires that teachers be fully prepared to teach each day when they enter the classroom.
With markedly fewer students to track, a teacher can really get to know each student as an individual. The teacher can determine what styles of learning work best for each student and use different instructional methods to reach the various visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic learners in the class. For example, a traditional lecture method might work for auditory learners, while hands on group activities might be needed to effectively teach the kinesthetic learners in the class.
In fact, the nature of the One Subject Plan forces a teacher to use a variety of instructional methods throughout the class day. While a teacher might be able to simply lecture for 90 minutes every day under a block schedule, that kind of educational filibuster is nearly impossible to maintain for almost four hours a day. The teacher must use different techniques to keep students engaged throughout the course of the day. This naturally provides the kind of individualized instructional variety that proves effective for learning.
The teacher spends hours each day with a small group of students. Students and teachers get to know each other very well. This means they must work through any conflicts, learn how to deal with each other effectively and positively, and look beyond surface impressions to find points of connection and shared interests.
A strong bond can develop between students and teachers in this environment.
This is how effective learning has developed for centuries, between mentor and protégé. Plato was a disciple of Socrates. Aristotle was a disciple of Plato. Learning from a respected teacher among a small group of students has a long, productive tradition. A teacher can be more than a mere functionary delivering 50-minute lectures; a teacher can become a role model, trusted and respected, helping develop a young person's character in addition to his knowledge of Algebra.
Special Learning Activities
Teachers do not need to worry about coordinating their schedules with other classes. They have the whole school day to use as they need. This means that government classes can schedule field trips to the state capitol to witness the legislature in action. A chemistry teacher can use more time for a lab experiment. A history teacher can take the entire class to the library to work on research for a term paper, supervising the process from start to finish.
This flexibility in scheduling special activities means that the needs of the student can drive the learning process, not the need to be finished with class within 50 or 90 minutes. Learning is no longer held prisoner by time.
The One Subject Plan offers benefits in class scheduling as well. Students can take sequential courses like Algebra I and Algebra II consecutively within the same year. This is recommended as well for students taking a foreign language, so they might take Spanish I and Spanish II in back-to-back grading periods and gain the benefit of concentrated study in the language. Students can also repeat a course within the same year if needed to improve a low grade.
An Innovation That is Here to Stay
Within the first five years of implementing the One Subject Plan, Fork Union Military Academy saw its Honor Roll double in size. This kind of academic success continues today. Most students who transfer to Fork Union Military Academy from another school see their GPA improve, even though Fork Union may use a grading scale that might be tougher than their previous school. These increased grades are matched by improvements in scores on tests such as the PSAT and SAT.
Academically, students who have followed the One Subject Plan are as prepared, or better prepared than their peers to handle college level work. The college acceptance rate of Fork Union Military Academy graduates is 100%.
More than seventy years ago, an educational innovation was nurtured in the small village of Fork Union, Virginia. Generations of students since 1950 have found this unique program to have a transformative effect on their academic lives. At Fork Union Military Academy, the One Subject Plan is one educational reform that is here to stay.
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Dan Thompson has been with Fork Union Military Academy since 2004, specializing in strategic communications and marketing. He enjoys sharing the success stories of the school and its cadets.
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