Conquering the Beast: School Scheduling

Student schedules have largely gone unchanged since the inception of mass available public schools in the late 1800s. As Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and other business leaders wanted highly obedient factory workers, the “bell schedule” mimicked factory shift bells. Despite the implication this makes for education in general — our goal — obviously, is no longer to educate factory workers, but innovative minds — people who are creative, leaders, responsible, tolerant, and more. Notably, skills that aren’t necessarily addressed via standardized testing, and certainly not focused on by a traditional school schedule.

Most traditional school schedules host a variety of problems:

  • Content and instruction are in a silo. No subject in the real world is learned independently of another — everything builds off of each other. When we teach in this fashion, we make all content less relevant, and in-turn, also hurt interest in those areas. Not to mention, teachers are cut off from co-teaching and co-learning — both skills that will invigorate any classroom planning and instruction.
  • There’s not enough time to do anything worthwhile. Many schedules feature 45-minute periods (or less once you take time for bell switches, getting the class to attention, any housekeeping tasks, and unforeseen circumstances). It’s not impossible, but nevertheless difficult for high-quality instruction — such as experiential learning — to occur when rushed for time.
  • Making modifications is too complex. Want to take a field trip? Combine classes? Have a student move ahead? Stay behind? Work in another classroom? The more classes, teachers, students, and “seat time” initiatives to meet, the more overly complex a schedule is — and therefore, the harder it is to change. When two teachers come together to work on something — do they share students? Do they have a space to work in? Is it a giant hassle that burns teachers out from wanting to collaborate?

Most schools feature a prolific vision statement that affirms they’re “preparing students for the future.” This reminds me of a fantastic statement by former Vice President Joe Biden: “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Of course, this is simply translated to scheduling (or any other facet of schooling): we know what’s best for students — the research is out there — but are we actually applying it? Simply put, a student is much happier and see connections greater in co-taught classrooms, moving at their own pace, understanding why what they learn is important, and working on large, overarching assignments (such as what we see in project-based learning.)

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Whenever we look at the schedule, however — we simply state that nothing can be done. It’s too complex due to seat time; there’s too many people to fit individualized schedules in; they need AP/IB/college credit; students won’t be able to handle a new schedule; teachers have too much/too little plan time.

Our solution, despite being rather blatant — is simply to just put in a new schedule. Make a “back of house” schedule that makes sense to the state, and a “front of house” schedule that you actually operate if you have to! And, this schedule doesn’t need to be complicated.

What features does a great schedule hold?

  • BreaksStudents need mental breaks — and sporadic time in classrooms is not structured nor valuable enough. Breaks can come with meaning. A great example of this is a “genius hour” (non-shameful promo for our resource). Give students time to explore what they’re interested in (or even sleep or socialize — some students really need this!) Giving students space to learn, rather than forcing them to, will often have the greatest results.
  • Flexibility: If possible, teacher teams are a no-brainer. If students all share the same core teachers, whenever something needs changed (field trips, speakers, random days, whatever!), it’s just a matter of meeting after school and saying we’re doing “this” tomorrow!
  • Time Matters: There’s no reason to have a class in a short period of time. When we cram too much into too little time, then there’s even more of a push for bell-to-bell draining instruction across every single class. The longer (and simpler) we structure each core class, the more students will process and retain.
  • Collaborative Time: It’s one thing to value collaboration among staff and students…but why not explicitly normalize it? Perhaps your schedule can offer a large amount of flexible time for multiple subject areas to interact between each other.

Perhaps your schedule has two rotating classes each day, with an hour long genius hour placed at the center, and you’ve embedded the arts?

Maybe students have all of their core subject area classes each day, with a simple 15 minute break between each?

How about a project-based approach where every day for 2 hours teams of teachers meet together and plan for their students, then the other half of the day is a rotating “regular” class?

Or maybe have completely self-directed learning for every student?

The goal isn’t necessarily to make the perfect schedule, but make a large enough leap in changing something that it has a real positive impact on student learning. We need to be careful of taking small incremental steps, because we’ll never reach our major goal (without losing student buy-in on the way, or the change being too small to matter). Instead, we’d rather implement large, sweeping policies that do what we know works. Part of this is embracing a new mindset of progressive education (that much be communicated through staff, parents, and students alike.) At the end of the day, we need to ensure that change occurs — because we know right now that what we have doesn’t work.

Talk to any innovative administrative team and they’ll agree unanimously that a school schedule is one of the greatest, grittiest hurdles to jump through in order to make what’s best for students. Again, we need to ensure that just because something is hard does not mean we shouldn’t do it. No one ever said that making huge educational change was easy.