Teaching for Ninety Minutes
Conversations with Teachers Using Block Scheduling
by Don Fritz, Staff Development Consultant,
Educational Service Unit #6
The restructuring of schools has been an ever present topic in education circles for the last decade. Much has been, written, studied, discussed and attempted in schools as educators try to find ways to improve teaching and learning for all students. On topic in the restructuring discussed has been the issue of the issue of the allocation of time, especially at the high school level. Many high schools have begun experimenting with various forms of alternative scheduling, specifically, moving away from the traditional seven period day to a four period format.
This article describes one high school's move to alternative scheduling and focuses on what it's like to teach in an intensive block schedule. This description will be in four parts: 1) a summary of the issue of time; 2) a study of one high school's move to block scheduling; 3) a description of what was learned about teaching in this format; and 4) a discussion of considerations from the study.
A Problem of Time
The design of the American high school, based on a factory, assembly-line model, establishes time as a constant and learning as a variable (Hart 1983). That is, students go through the "factory" school in fixed amounts of time, such as fifty-minute periods, seven periods a day for nine months. At the end of the school year, students leave the school, all having spent the same amount of time, but with differing levels of learning. The National Educational Commission on Time and Learning (1994) identified the issue that time if fixed and learning is variable as the major restructuring challenge in education.
The typical American high school daily schedule, a pattern that has existed for the last seventy years (Carroll 1989) is organized around seven or eight classes of around 50 minutes in length, regardless of subject area (Carroll 1989; the National Educational Commission on Time and Learning, 1994). Because the daily schedule has a profound effect on the operation of any high school (Lohr and McGrevin, 1990), the allocation of time has become a major issue in schools wanting to improve teaching and learning.
Many educators in the restructuring movement have begun to look for ways to challenge the time issue and have begun to look for ways to redistribute or reallocate the usage of time in the high schools. One such effort that is gaining popularity is the use of alternative scheduling, or more specifically, the intensive block schedule (Willis, 1994). The intensive block schedule refers to a school day divided into four blocks of around 90 minutes a block. Each block, or class, meets every day, thus intensifying the traditional year long course into a semester.
Proponents for using the intensive block schedule argue that longer instructional periods allow for a wider variety of instructional strategies, allow for more depth in the curriculum delivered, and ultimately, increased student learning (Carroll, 1994). Opponents argue on student learning, regardless of changes in instructional strategies (Carroll, 1994).
Because the intensive block is still a relatively new innovation, only now is the educational community beginning to study the issue. Many of the studies are quantitative in nature with an emphasis on establishing a cause and effect relationship between the allocation of time and student learning. Many studies have relied on indicators such as honor roll statistics, failure rates, and grade point averages to measure the effects on student learning (Carroll, 1994; Hart 1994). To measure the effects of alternative scheduling formats on teacher perception surveys, designed around lists of teaching strategies (Hart, 1994). A qualitative study, based on interviews and observations, would provide a description of teaching in an alternative schedule format from the teacher's perspective. The more educators understand about innovation, the easier it is to accurately determine the value and effect of the innovation.
Teaching For Ninety Minutes
Seward High School, located in Seward Nebraska, a community of approximately 6,000 people, looks pretty much like any other Midwestern high school. Like many high schools, the teachers and administrators have been actively involved in school improvement initiatives to improve student learning.
In the fall of 1991, driven by a district Strategic Plan developed by staff and community members, the high school was challenged to deliver learning to students in a more flexible environment. Faced with many challenges such as increasing students enrollment, limited resources, and ever-increasing student needs, various committees were formed to study curriculum offerings, staffing, facility needs, and students scheduling. As a result of the committee work, the staff began to explore the possibility of moving to an alternative scheduling format. In April of 1993, the decision was made by the staff and board of education to move to an alternative schedule, more specifically, an intensive block schedule utilizing four, 90 minute periods, for the 1994-95 school year.
As the block schedule format began, an evaluation committee was formed to assess the impact of the intensive block schedule. A comprehensive set of strategies, mostly quantitative in nature were developed. To provide a more complete picture of the intensive block schedule, Ann Lyon, curriculum director for Seward Public Schools, and I decided to conduct companion qualitative studies focusing on teaching and learning in the 90 minute format. Ann would ask students the question, "What is it like to be in 90 minute classes?" and I would ask teachers, "What is it like to teach for 90 minutes?"
Because of my interest in describing the phenomenon of teaching in a 90 minute format, I selected a collective case study design. Stake (1994) identifies a collective case study as the study of a number of cases, with the purpose of inquiring into a given phenomenon; in this situation, teaching in a 90 minute format. I selected three teachers as individual cases. Each of the teachers are unique unto themselves; yet of greater interest is the collectiveness of their experiences. What are the similarities/differences of their experiences? What do their experiences tell about teaching for 90 minutes? What are some common themes that emerge from their descriptions?
I wanted three "typical" teachers for the study. Typical in the sense that the collective sample of three teachers represented the teachers in the high school. In fact, each teacher in the sample is unique, differing from the other teachers in the sample by years of experience, teaching loads and professionalism responsibilities and accomplishments.
The three teachers selected each provided unique perspectives. I selected as my sample: Tom (pseudonym's have been assigned), a social studies teacher for 25 years; Sue, a geometry and computer teacher with 13 years of experience; and Tracy, a Spanish teacher with three years of experience.
Each teacher was formally interviewed and observed during the second semester of the 1994-95 school year. The interviews and observations began in March 1995 and continued with one interview and one observation a month per informant and concluded in May 1995. Each teacher kept a journal of experiences during the three months of the study. The journals contained descriptions of teaching in the 90 minute format.
What Was Learned?
Since this was the first year of the
implementation of the intensive block schedule, considerable
discussion was generated about it. I spent a great deal of time in
both formal and informal observations and interviews. Once all of the
data and information was collected, an analysis identified six major
issues. Because of the depth of the study, the following represents
only a basic discussion of the major findings. More in-depth analysis
may be obtained by request.
On a daily basis, the block format has allowed for more depth in certain subject areas. However, the effects of the 90 minute format on the scope and depth of curriculum taught has varied. In some classes, such as geometry, more has been accomplished that anticipated; in other, such as computer applications, not as much content has been taught.
More Planning - A longer instructional period requires more planning. As Sue stated; "I knew I was going to have to plan well, you can't song and dance for 90 minutes. It was real easy before... let's just throw out page 3000 and that will take 30 minutes of it and we can song and dance for 20 minutes." Planning the instruction becomes crucial in the 90 minute format.
Magnified Differences - "The 90 minute block seems to accent student differences in learning (Sue)." The longer period magnifies student differences in learning rate and styles. For example, some students finish more quickly than others. In the 90 minute format, teachers must provide differentiated instruction for longer periods of time. Conversely, because some students take longer to complete the learning, the 90 minute block has given teachers more time to work with some students. In other cases, students have had difficulty keeping up with the volume of content being taught and the amount of homework in the intensified schedule. The difficulty of meeting individual student needs intensifies with the 90 format, making the decisions of how to teach very important.
Multiple Strategies - Teachers use a variety of instructional strategies in the 90 minute format. Tracy said it this way, "I try to vary what we are doing three times if possible..breaks it up into 20 - 30 minute segments. Part of the time is teacher - led and then students might do presentations and then work together on a project." There is something magical about the number 3 and teaching for 90 minutes. All of the teachers exhibited multiple instructional strategies per class period, usually 3 distinct strategies. Also evident was a wide variety of strategies used in each class period, for example, lecture, cooperative learning, individual work, videos, role-playing, hands-on activities, singing... the list could go on. The variety of strategies begin to meet the individual learning styles of students.
I observed excellent teachers in this study, who made teaching in the 90 minute format successful. But as Tracy indicated, "A lot of the things I am doing in the 90 minute block, I did in the 50 minutes." The same is true for Tom and Sue.
Movement - The design of the classroom activities are important to maintain energy levels. "It seems like the last half hour their attention span just drop. I try to give breaks (Tom)." In those classrooms where students were allowed to get out of their seats and either leave the room or at least get up and move around, the level of attention and energy seemed to be increased. Multiple activities are accompanied with physical movement.
Relaxed Environments - The 90 minute format has created a more relaxed environment. As Tracy stated, "There just is a lot less stress; kids are more tolerant... teachers have relaxed a little." The longer class periods, fewer classes, less passing time, and varied classroom activities seem to contribute to a more relaxed environment.
Advocates of the intensive block often argue that the longer class periods allow grater opportunities to get to know students on a personal level. This study indicated mixed results on this issue. The longer class periods and the varied activities do allow the teacher to get to know students better, but this can be offset by the fact that students are sometimes in the class for only 45 days, such as is the case for a quarter course. Tom, who teaches a mix of both electives and required social studies courses, felt that it was difficult to really get to know a student in a elective course. The student could be in his class for only 45 days and then perhaps not be in another for his classes for another year.
The use of the intensive block schedule is now in it's second year of implementation at SHS. Many other high schools in Nebraska and in the nation have either moved or are strongly considering moving to this format; all in an attempt to improve the quality of teaching and learning. As a result of this study I offer some considerations about teaching for 90 minutes and about judging the impact of the intensive block schedule.
"It's too early to tell. We are still in the honeymoon period (Tracy)." As with any innovation, one year is not enough to judge the impact. Perhaps after 5 years of study, educators might begin to build a complete enough picture of the intensive block schedule to judge it's merits.
One thing is abundantly clear, the block schedule "has given us an opportunity to grow and if you choose to grow you can make it work (Sue)." It gives good teaches a chance to be even better; and for those who are less innovative, it magnifies that as well.
Perhaps Tom sums up the issues best, "Four period, seven period days are just sidetrack issues to the overall question in education. The question is are we delivering a quality product to students?" Quality teaching and learning is still the foundation of any successful school.