Six classes a day, five days week, every day the same schedule. Telephones and radios were still luxuries when high schools nationwide petrified the school day into this rigid pattern. The refrigerator and television hadn’t been invented, much less the copy machine, the computer, and video player. We live in a very different world now, and we know more about how students learn. Yet most contemporary high school and middle school students are still locked into the same schedule that their great-grandparents experienced when they were teenagers.
The big question here is what is wrong with the traditional six or seven-period day? For starters, say critics, the pace is tough. A typical student will be in nine locations working on nine different activities in a six-and-a-half-hour school day. An average teacher must teach five classes, dealing with 125-180 students with several preparations. This frantic, fragmented schedule is unlike any experienced either before or after high school. “It produces a hectic, impersonal, inefficient instructional environment,” states Gordon Cawelti (1994), limits the amount of time to go in-depth on a subject, and tends to discourage using a variety of learning activities. Opportunities for individualization of instruction and meaningful interaction between students and teachers are hard to come by. No matter how complex or simple the school subject, the schedule assigns an impartial national average of fifty-one minutes per class period. And despite wide variation in the time it takes individual students to succeed at learning any given task, the allocated time is identical for all.
Schools will have a design flaw as long as their organization is based on the assumption that all students can learn on the same schedule. In addition, since most disciplinary problems occur during scheduled transitions, the more transitions, the more problems. In my district, the principal states this as the number one discipline problem in school during passing times. And a great deal of time is lost in simply starting and ending so many classes in a day. Traditional, inflexible scheduling is based on administrative and institutional needs. Flexible scheduling patterns are a much better match in order to meet the educational needs of students and the professional needs of teachers.
“What exactly is block scheduling?” Gordon Cawelti (1994) defines it as follows: “At least part of the daily schedule is organized into larger blocks of time (more than sixty minutes) to allow flexibility for a diversity of instructional activities.” The variations are endless, and may involve reconfiguring the lengths of periods and semesters as well as the daily schedule. Teachers meet with students three days out of four–twice in single periods, once in a double period. And there are many more. Any of these can be modified, of course, to meet the specific needs of a school. Scheduling changes are usually linked to increasing retention, reducing lecturing time by instructors and gaining the opportunity for more creative teaching strategies. They are often part of a major restructuring effort.
There are some disadvantages to the implementation of block scheduling. All change is painful and often controversial. The process of making the transition is probably the biggest challenge: building support for altering such a time-honored tradition, and finding/creating the planning time needed to make the change. Imposing a scheduling model on a school will not ensure success.
There should be a minimum of two year’s planning time before implementation, to make sure the new schedule meets the needs of all concerned. Adequate staff development time is essential. Teachers who have taught in thirty-five to fifty-minute time blocks for years need help in gaining the necessary strategies and skills to teach successfully in large blocks of time. Teachers may also need training in cooperative learning, class building, and team formation. Our district offers opportunities for professional development through a reimbursement program, opening even more opportunities for teachers to gain strategies to use within this structure.
For the past year I have worked in a school system that has block scheduling and I personally do not care for it at all. My main issue with block scheduling is that a person’s attention span is too short for them to pay attention for more than twenty minutes. As a student I changed class every forty minutes. I feel that this is adequate time for teachers to teach and students to learn! I just honestly believe that it is torture for teachers and students to be locked in together for more than forty-five minutes a day.
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