Block scheduling for schools

It seems that parents, teachers and students either love block scheduling, also referred to as a “Balanced School Day” approach to timetabling, or they hate it. There doesn’t seem to be any in between.The block scheduling idea has been around for over thirty years. Just as with most educational innovations, it has both its defenders and its critics.

Earlier I wrote about two Ontario boards of education, Halton and Waterloo, who say the approach is working. The Halton Board of Education (see middle of page for link to the study), for example, describes a survey they took which indicated that 80% of teachers preferred the approach, 59.2% of parents and 55% of students. Mind you those results also show a lot of respondents didn’t like it — nearly 40% of parents for example and 45% of students.  

However, there are parents and educational professionals who say that the approach is nothing more than a way of accommodating teachers’ unions and collective agreements. For example, most Ontario elementary school teachers get from 190 to 200 minutes a week for “preparation time” plus a 40 minute lunch period every day — which fits quite nicely with block scheduling and two 40 minute snack breaks. So, what is the real reason for “balanced school day” scheduling? Is it for the benefit of students or teachers or both?

One of the best sources on this topic is on a link from the website called the Illinois Loop, an educational advocacy group not to be missed. The link to Jeff Lindsay is here. He writes (and includes some research to prove his points) that the key advantages of block scheduling are:

  • fewer failing grades;
  • less time lost in the halls between classes;
  • more time for student interaction;
  • less stress for everyone (as long as teachers don’t try to cover too much material);
  • more time for teacher planning;
  • more time for off site work experiences; and
  • reduced drop out rates.

While all those advantages sound good, particularly if it can be proved that there are fewer failing grades and a reduced drop out rate, here are some disadvantages which tend to cancel out or balance many of the advantages:

  • severe attention span limitations (longer classes, too much material to cover and concentration problems);
  • retention of information problems (when a subject is only taught in one semester and is forgotten by the next year);
  • problems in transferring learning — which is related to retention problems — from one class to the next (again which might be a year later); and
  • problems with organizing specific courses (such as in courses like music, when there are choirs and bands as part of the course, or physical education and the connection to coaching and sports teams). 

 Other complaints I have heard are that the children seem to be eating constantly without enough physical activity. And, the snack schedule completely interrupts weekend and holiday schedules at home, as well as being able to go home at lunch time.

The bottom line is that like all educational innovations, what goes around comes around. When I was teaching elementary school in the 1970’s, block scheduling was introduced but with regular recess and lunch breaks. The main difference, from what I can remember is that we didn’t have to teach one single subject for the whole block. For example, language arts might be scheduled for a long period, but it was broken up with reading, spelling, language and creative writing. In that way, the children were usually always on task and excited for the next activity. Nothing dragged. And, children with learning disabilities were able to receive extra attention or were able to leave the room for twenty minutes for time with a resource teacher.

I’d love to hear comments on this topic — from everyone involved in the process. I’d also like to know, for example, if boards of education have returned to a more traditional type of scheduling, on what basis did they make that decision?