Building creativity and flexibility into the school day

Earlier this week, I attended a workshop looking at how culture and technology can be used to transform a school into a more open, self determined learning environment. The session was led by David Jackson and John Bosselman from the Innovation Unit. David is a former Headteacher and expert on education and leadership. John previously worked as a High Tech High Chula Vista teacher and leader and is currently supporting UK schools to introduce project based learning. Quickly, the topic of conversation focused in on how schools organise their day. It was easily established that the the foundation for the learning environment originates from the way teaching is organised and resources such as teachers and rooms are allocated. Far too often this structure inhibits teacher planning and collaboration and restricts opportunities for self-direction, flexibility and change.

 Fig 1: Typical UK timetable, courtesy of the Innovation Unit

Fig 1: Typical UK timetable, courtesy of the Innovation Unit

In the vast majority of schools across the world the school day is organised into a mosaic of equivalent time blocks. We can see from the example in figure 1 that subjects are isolated into discrete silos, there is no flow or connection between them. Even within a subject the only discernible pattern is that the classes will repeat on a cyclical basis ad infinitum.

Longer time blocks = greater flexibility

 Figure 2: Timetable at Hi Tech High, courtesy of the Innovation Unit

Figure 2: Timetable at Hi Tech High, courtesy of the Innovation Unit

David Jackson advocates using longer time blocks, believing that this provides the opportunity for flexibility and immersion. It is hard to combine short blocks into longer ones but longer blocks can be sub-divided as needed by the teachers running the session. High Tech High in San Diego uses longer blocks as the basis of their timetable, see figure 2. Their schools specialise in project based learning (PBL). Subjects such as English and Humanities or Science and Maths are combined and taught through projects in two hour daily blocks. (‘Through projects’ means that content is mapped into projects such that it serves the project and is relevant to the purposes of the project.)  Students have time to get into the detail of a project where they are encouraged to direct their own work and are taught how to give peer to peer support. This frees up the teachers to guide and instruct individual or small groups of students exactly when they need it.

Supporting and enabling teachers

More time for teacher planning and collaboration is built in to the High Tech High approach. Teachers meet for an hour at the same time every day to plan and prepare,  often in the morning before school starts. At first glance the five hours of planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time given to these teachers looks similar to the average four hours given to a typical teacher in the UK. However, there are a few significant differences. PPA time at High Tech High is scheduled so that all teachers have it at the same time, allowing them to run joint planning sessions and build a learning culture across the whole staff.  No one is trapped in a classroom. By holding the sessions in the morning teachers are at their freshest. The way in which teachers are allocated to classes is also different. Unlike the UK, teachers only teach one year group rather than classes to range of different year groups. This means the PPA time used by High Tech High teachers is concentrated on a single area of work whereas in the UK PPA time is diluted across a number of courses.

High Tech High is only one example of a successful school rejecting conventional structures. However, the message and evidence is clear, if a school wants to implement a new way of learning it must rethink its entire daily structure, not simply change what is happening during each 50 minute period.