Go and find a copy of your class or weekly timetable and put it side by side with your school’s pedagogical statement. Your school’s pedagogical statement might be part of a teaching and learning model. Or perhaps it is communicated in a different form. Either way place it alongside the details of your timetable. Now consider these questions:
- How does your timetable influence the learning experience?
- How has the design of learning changed to suit the demands of the timetable?
- How is your school timetable cast from your pedagogical values?
- Which came first your timetable or your definition of learning at the school?
- Is your class timetable the real school wide pedagogical statement?
The last one is a provocation I share with lots of leadership teams I work with. It helps us consider the influence of time, and our organisation of it, on the learning experience.
In seeking the ideal conditions for learning, our stewardship of time resources is critical in terms of the daily learner experience. However many of these conditions have not changed in line with our thinking.
These hegemonic constructs1 have simply lingered as part of the school experience.
The basic grammar of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. Little has changed in the ways that schools divide time and space, classify students and allocate them to classrooms, splinter knowledge into ‘subjects’ and award grades and ‘credits’ as evidence of learning. 2
Whilst I would contend that more recently there has been a bigger shift in terms of assessment, evidence of learning and learning spaces, there is not enough consistency of change. Most notably the sacrosanctity of the school timetable.
In a recent article from MindShift, Diana Laufenberg, the executive director of Inquiry Schools, explained that, “Our schedule is a function of what we’re trying to create”. Diana goes on to suggest,
Changing the master schedule, while difficult, is a major signal to everyone connected to the school that pedagogy is shifting. “If we don’t match our minutes to our mission, [teachers are] not going to shift.”
There is a palpable logic to the need to grapple with the time resources ideal for pedagogy change. All too often we want the pedagogy change, we want the experience of learning to shift, but a key resource structure is left untouched.
Alongside highlighting the work of Diana Laufenberg, the article also shared the story of Jerry Smith, the Principal at Luella High School in Atlanta. They are an example of a school grappling with new models of thinking, learning and time.
It soon became clear that one of the biggest obstacles to instructional changes of the sort Smith and his team were trying to engineer was the school schedule itself.
Existing scheduling software isn’t designed to handle the priorities Smith wanted and would “break the pedagogical model” if relied upon to do the scheduling.
I would be the first to recognise the intricacies and complexities of organising hundreds, if not thousands, of learners across a school’s campus. But these software packages have an in built pedagogical bias. They might seem inert, but the lines of code will bring a certain bias to how people might learn and behave.
We shouldn’t offshore our school’s pedagogical identity to a software company.
Smith and Laufenberg point out the difficulty of changing the schedule to suit the needs of the learning experience a school is trying to uphold. When technology intervenes we have the opportunity for greater efficiency from the process of timetabling learning. This releases us to put our energy and time elsewhere. However we have to strike a balance.
When we prise open the housing of the pedagogical clock a little more we see that the use of timetables is a balance between Validity and Reliability. Roger Martin explains that
Reliability seeks to produce consistent, predictable outcomes by utilizing a system that is restricted to the use of objective data. Validity, on the other hand, seeks to produce outcomes that meet the desired objective, even if the system employed can’t produce a consistent, predictable outcome.3
Importantly Martin explains that in order to develop a reliable system, in our case a schedule, we have to drop variables that might lead to different experiences. Perhaps in this instance the variables are the individual preferences of every learner in the community. When and where they want to learn, and for how long.
There are some universal truths about learning that would influence contemporary timetable design. However developing a valid timetable for one learner may be different to another. Multiply that by hundreds and the ostensibly increased effort surpasses the perceived validity.
When we say personalised learning the ideal would be a valid timetable for all learners. In most cases though we attempt to find a balance between reliably moving humans around and offering a valid experience for everyone.
Validity and reliability anchor down opposite ends of a spectrum that defines how systems are conceived and solutions are framed.
At secondary or high school level there is little conclusive research evidence about the extension of lesson length or block scheduling4. But of course it is not simply about changing the block of time, that alone changes little.
The pedagogical change, the new teaching opportunities that open up are the key drivers here. For example, longer sessions with students so that a greater volume of ongoing feedback can be provided to more students – not just those you can manage in the time.
The Education Endowment Foundation (here is the Australian equivalent) offers a useful summary of the evidence regarding secondary block scheduling. Their questions to consider are worth noting too when exploring timetable development.
- Timetabling changes alone are not sufficient to improve learning.
- Teachers need to alter the way that they teach, and should plan and organise different kinds of learning activities to obtain benefits.
- Have timetabling changes been matched to curriculum goals and teaching and learning objectives (such as longer lessons for science experiments)?
- Have you considered how longer lessons may provide opportunities for other promising approaches, such as improving the amount of feedback that students get from the teacher or from each other?
What we might ascertain from these prompts is that time is a key enabler for different kinds of learning. Used carefully the schedule can become the function of the learning experience as Diana Laufenberg previously mentioned.
Let’s change the clocks for a moment and look at this from a slightly different perspective. As soon as I read the MindShift piece I thought about the importance of challenging assumptions about how school time is organised. My reflections also focused on how this chimes with the ideal conditions for creative and critical thinking.
In “Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention”5, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests,
The only way to stay creative is to organize time, space, and activity to our advantage. It means developing schedules to protect our time and avoid distraction, arranging our immediate surroundings to increase concentration, cutting out meaningless chores that soak up psychic energy, and devoting the energy thus saved to what we really care about.
More than 8 years ago I began a long period of Literacy learning with my Year 5 class. The learning centred on using the PC based adventure game Myst 3 as a narrative and inspiration for our own descriptive writing. Once pairs of students were freely exploring the game and stumbling on ever more inventive puzzles, time certainly stood still or moved at an unusual pace.
The problem solving and narrative element of the game, alongside our own creative writing tasks provided a clear purpose for the students. I was able to ensure we had longer sessions, free from distractions and interruptions to work in and with the game.
I also allowed the work to be extended over a few weeks. This allowed the overall arc of learning to progress at an ideal pace for critical and creative thinking.
I vividly recall the buzz as students shared what they had learned or discovered in the game with each other. Fully immersed.
In one of my favourite books Conceptual Blockbusting6, James Adams outlines a range of emotional blocks to the creative process. Behaviours and habits that can stultify our efforts, and it would seem many are directly related to the organisation of time.
- A fear to make mistakes, to fail, to risk.
- Preference for judging ideas rather than generating them.
- No tolerance for ambiguity or chaos.
- A lack of challenge – not engaging enough.
- Excessive zeal – too much speed, pace and haste.
- An inability to relax and to incubate ideas.
Just take a moment to read those through again, consider at each turn the influence of time on why these often occur.
The overall endeavour we face is how much change we can handle. Regarding timetables in schools, how do we challenge the edges of what is deemed acceptable? How do we ensure stability whilst designing a high value personal learning experience?
Crucially as school leaders we need to question the dominance of certain ideas or norms and how they have exerted influence, over decades, on the accepted design of learning. The organisation of time might just be one of the most important barriers to pedagogical change.