Commentary and Criticism about the National Education Association (NEA)
Getting less done in more time……
Seems like a contradiction in terms right? How could you possibly get less done in the classroom even though you have more time?
Today’s blog post will clarify this apparent contradiction. And let me be clear at the outset that I have no intention of taking a middle ground by giving both sides of the issue. My personal experience leads me to only one conclusion about this type of scheduling.
If you are looking for a typical pros and cons approach to block scheduling, there are plenty of websites out there. Below I include two that I came across doing a quick search on Google:
The Pros and Cons of Block Schedules
Research Spotlight on Block Scheduling
Incidentally, my perspective is based on a twelve-year span of teaching middle school: six years in a 40-minute period regular schedule – six years in an 80-minute period block schedule.
THE PERFECT 40-MINUTE PERIOD
Let’s start with a commonly acknowledge fact: the attention span of a middle school student is between 10 – 12 minutes (and I don’t imagine that the high school student span is much more).
Given this fact of life, the typical 40-minute period would look something like this:
This approach is structured and efficient. One topic is introduced and the remainder of the class is spend building on it. In addition, there is enough variation so that kids don’t have time to get bored or lose focus. At no point do I strain their attention span.
THE QUESTIONABLE 80-MINUTE BLOCK
By contrast, in an 80-minute block, you would need to plan approximately 7 different activities in addition to the Do Now and Closure Activity. Of course, you could dedicate the entire block to a self-paced research type activity on the computer but my following suggestions are concerned with a typical curriculum based approach.
The way I see, it you could accomplish this in one of two ways.
Possibility #1 – Cover Two Topics Instead of One
Possibility #2 – Cover One Topic in More Detail
The problem with structuring a lesson in this way is that mid-way through the second topic (if not before then) the kids are getting restless. More importantly, introducing twice as much material in this way is counterproductive. You just can’t pump that much information/content into middle school kids and expect them to retain it. They lose their focus before you get far into the second topic.
Restlessness is a problem in this set-up also. The solution is to allow the kids more time to “collaborate.” This is a fancy word to describe allowing students to sit together so they can talk with one another in order to solve a problem, discuss an issue or accomplish a task.
Now let’s see, put kids together, give them permission to talk, allow them to share their answers … I wonder why they like this set-up so much?
I have a whole lot to say about the push to have middle school kids “collaborate” but will leave it for a future blog post. For now, I will say that I often use “collaboration” as a way to keep the kids from getting bored in that interminably long block period. I find they really wake up and the conversations can get quite loud.
Isn’t it interesting that bored, sleepy kids suddenly wake up when they have a chance to get into a group and talk with their peers?
I can’t imagine why this is so……
THE BOTTOM LINE
So Possibility #1 doesn’t work very well because there is too much content plus they are bored half way through. Possibility #2 kind of seems to work but only as long as you vary the activities.
In fact, Possibility #2 is the recommended way to run a block period.
But at what cost?
I agree that, in a longer block, students will almost certainly learn more about the topic you introduced at the start of class – more than they would have learned in a 40-minute period.
But is this really an efficient way to learn?
We already agree that covering two topics in an 80-minute block period won’t work. So instead you spend 80 minutes on a topic that could really be covered in 40. But doesn’t this mean that you are, technically, behind in the curriculum? You just spent twice as long on a topic. Had you used two separate 40-minute periods you would have moved on next day to a new topic.
But, but…. you can go deeper into content because you have more time. Isn’t that beneficial?
I don’t know about other teachers, but I find myself putting in filler activities that I would never do if I had the kids for 40 minutes everyday. I can tell the point in an 80-minute block where the kids have had it and are losing focus. You can give them all the additional assignments you want in order to try to keep them on task but they are not going to be absorbing any more content or learning anything much of value.
In this type of situation, I will break out the computers and have the kids play a marginally-curricular-related game on whatever subject we are studying. Or I will find a marginally-curricular-related video that will keep their attention. Kids also tend to like to draw and color so instead of focusing on specific content they can draw and color a poster to display what they have learned that day.
Again, I have to find interesting and engaging activities that I would never use in a 40-minute period schedule. These additional activities are totally unnecessary and only marginally increase the student’s knowledge of the subject area we are studying.
ITS NOT “ALL ABOUT THE KIDS”
Block periods are great for teachers especially when it is the A/B schedule type– that is for sure. We only have to plan a new lesson every other day.
Even better, if there is a particular class or individual student I don’t like, I only have to deal with him every other day. Even better, I might only see him twice a week (Tuesday/Thursday) depending on when A or B day meets.
And you thought everything was “for the kids……”