Pathways to Excellence team envisions changes to improve cadets' schedules

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
How many days are in a week? If you're involved with scheduling cadet activities here, the answer is "two."

But the Air Force Academy is now examining whether the M-day, T-day schedule it's used for 60 years should be replaced. Dr. Dave LaRivee leads the seven-person Pathways to Excellence team, which is looking at scheduling and other possible improvements to the Academy's officer development experience.

The team's goals include discovering and integrating various mission elements' programs and best practices, many of which started before Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson's tenure as superintendent, across the Academy.

"The Pathways to Excellence effort is the superintendent's initiative," said LaRivee, an associate professor in the Academy's Economics and Geosciences Department. "What we're trying to do is keep the momentum going for (the mission elements) and keep them aligned with the superintendent's objectives."

Of the many programs the Pathways team is working on, the future of scheduling is easily the most complicated, as it requires mission elements to work in parallel.

"The faculty is working on the curriculum overall, and that process started a couple of years ago," LaRivee said. "The commandant is going through his review of the four-class training system. The Athletic Department has completely revamped intramurals already, and now they're talking about things like the reconditioning program. We're linked in with all those processes."

Some curriculum changes, such as intramural sports changes and night classes, can work within the existing schedule of calls, LaRivee said. But the scheduling system is a major obstacle for other initiatives, such as the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department's experiential learning initiative.

"We are spending so much (mental energy) on just finding time to meet, we're operating at the lowest possible level right now," said Dr. Steven Samuels, a Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department professor, during an interview in October. "Cadets are suffering."

Most agencies have realized that the schedule of calls, as it currently exists, is an obstacle, LaRivee said.

"We've traded off minutes here and there for years, and that's not giving us what we want," he added.

The Pathways team is looking at a scheduling system that would treat each week as a block, allowing each day within the week to have a different number of periods, LaRivee said.

"Monday could have five periods in it, Tuesday could have six, Wednesday could have three," he explained. "You could even schedule Saturday. So we think of it as a six-day week where you can schedule a variety of classes or events. We've asked each one of the mission elements to look at the curriculum they deliver and ask, 'What's the optimal way of doing this?'"

The added flexibility would allow cadets to better focus their attention, LaRivee said.

"We assume there are essentially no economies of scale, so it doesn't matter: As long as you put in 45 minutes on a topic each day over the course of four days, and it adds up to three hours of study, then that's just as good as three hours of study, but it's not," he said. "So the idea is, how much concentration of focus is best for the cadets to develop fully?"

LaRivee referred to the experiential learning course as a case in point.

"In our international economics class, we took two of the lessons we were working on that week and held a night class where we combined both lessons," he said. "We got more than twice as much done in less than two full periods of time. And that's what we were trying to demonstrate: If you don't have to start a class and stop a class, and you don't have to summarize what we did last time, then you can go right from a lecture into the experience and then back into a review. And I have to believe the learning level went up, because the participation level certainly went up."

The Academy's development model calls for giving cadets time to reflect on what they've learned -- time they don't currently get, LaRivee said.

"If you think about the leadership growth model, it has four key steps: expectations and inspiration, instruction, and then feedback and reflection," he said. "If we fill the schedule of calls with instruction and never give cadets time for reflection and feedback, then we never really get to complete the cycle."

The proposed scheduling system would create opportunities for cadets to take time to spend time on self-improvement through clubs or self-study, LaRivee said.

"It's not as though we're saying, 'Here's some more time, go do something that's unrelated to the Academy,'" LaRivee said. "It's, 'Here's more time to better develop as an officer.'"

Another advantage of scrapping the M-day, T-day system is that it could shorten the semester from 18½ weeks to 15 weeks, LaRivee said. That could involve removing some classes from the main curriculum and placing them in the freed-up blocks of time.

"So now, for example, I might not have any airmanship or military field training at all during the 15 weeks, but right after that, I can take the extra three weeks and run cadets through airmanship or a military training program. That's the concentration of focus: You still have 18½ weeks to execute the curriculum, but by condensing one portion of it into the three-week part or the 15-week part, you could concentrate the experience more. You could even have a mid-semester military training break if that made sense."

Wholesale changes are still a year or two away, as many proposals are still in brainstorming changes, LaRivee said. Others, like night classes, will be part of experiments this spring.

Meanwhile, the discussion has encouraged people to propose other ideas for improving the Academy experience, said 2nd Lt. John Lu, a 2014 Academy graduate currently assigned to the Economics and Geosciences Department.

"People have ideas that they want to bring forward," Lu said. "We've helped people do that, helped people realize their ideas can be brought into reality."