The School Scheduling Issue

I’m sure you’re asking the same question I am: how did a second-year teacher get himself into the thorny knots of school scheduling?

Well, first, I’m a data head. I like looking at structures and their impacts, and I like looking at the big picture. Second, this year ASFM is implementing PLCs: Professional Learning Communities.

A PLC, as implemented here, is basically a self-chosen group of teachers working together on a project. The project might be rewriting a unit for Grade 7 science, doing an action research project on teacher language use, or… investigating prospective scheduling models to inform the future of our school. When a colleague threw out the idea of discussing scheduling, I was intrigued, then hooked.

The two questions a school schedule has to answer seem basic: when does instruction happen and in what groups? However, the influences behind these decisions are wide ranging: for example, the space-use of your school determines a range of how many students can be in each class. Just as broad are the implications of the schedule: staffing and hiring, student behaviour, allocation of resources and space, and student learning outcomes.

We have barely scratched the surface of discussing scheduling issues and models in our PLC discussion, and I can’t say that I’ve read and heard enough to begin having informed opinions of my own; however, there do seem to be a few standard models out there to begin with:

  • The basic period schedule: Six or seven periods a day at about an hour apiece — this is your basic school schedule. The better ones rotate through or switch class order so the same class isn’t always meeting at the same time. Usual advantages: it’s fairly simple, classes run all year, classes aren’t too long for most students, and teachers see students almost every day. Usual disadvantages: it’s very inflexible, won’t allow for longer classes such as required by some science labs, for example, and students have little down-time or study time.
  • The block schedule: Four periods a day at half an hour each. Since students usually take more than four subjects in a school year, this usually means either having semester-long courses or having a Day 1 and Day 2. Semester-long courses can allow students to focus on only a few courses at a time, but they then may have lots of time between, say Grade 9 Math in semester 1 and Grade 10 math in semester 2. Switching day-by-day avoids this problem but means teachers may only see students twice a week.
  • Hybrid period/block schedule: Some schools have worked out schedules which combine days with longer, block-like classes and days with shorter classes. An interesting approach; however it would have to be carefully thought out to take the strengths from both systems rather than the weaknesses.
  • “Flex-mod” scheduling: So-called flexible module scheduling chunks up school time into smaller 20 or 30 minute modules which can then be scheduled in short, medium or long segments with different size groups. The goal of this seems to be small-group sessions; however, like university scheduling, this necessitates larger-group lectures, which of course, requires the space to facilitate both types of classes. Flex mod schedules end up looking like really full university schedules, but do have some time for students to call their own.

As you can see, while I have tried to remain impartial and give both upsides and downsides to the models, my biases are showing. For example, I think that allowing students self-structured time during the school day is a good thing — the traditional school schedule leans too far toward supervision to my taste, especially in high school, and I would like to see a schedule that respects that students can for the most part self-regulate and reinforce that with meaningful instructional time rather than part instruction, part supervision. However, I know a few teachers at ASFM who would disagree and wouldn’t give students more control over their time.

My personal biases, as close to my heart as they are, should not form the basis for an entire school schedule, so our PLC group is trying to approach the problem methodically with research, deliberation and lots of input from the school community. For example, we have just distributed a preliminary survey to teachers asking them how they feel about the current schedule and inquiring about their scheduling needs. Once we identify and prioritize the needs for a school schedule, we can start evaluating different models against that metric. Of course, going back to teachers and the rest of the school community will be necessary at that point!

As for me, I will try to update this blog with information on how the project goes. It looks as though I will be the main tech guy for the project, which suits me just fine — so perhaps I’ll throw up some of the tech-related goings on here. (On a related note, a colleague and I are going to look into the software our school uses to schedule, to see how our recommendations as a PLC can be implemented.)

I suppose that’s it for now, though!