There are a variety of ways in which schools and other educational establishments can organise their teaching regime. Most have the default position of spreading the learning for a particular subject over the course of an academic year. They divide the curriculum across periods each week and by the end of the year, all the material has been covered. This ties in with the traditional examination pattern, with May and June the key examination periods for most schools. However, traditional academic calendars are beginning to change and we are no longer tied into the one approach. This has lead to different thinking around pedagogy and some newer systems of teaching are being employed. One such approach is called block scheduling.
Block scheduling is a system which concentrates learning for a particular subject over a short period of time, not spread out over the full term or year. It achieves this by narrowing the number of subjects a student studies at any one time and therefore concentrating the time allocated to that subject. For example, a typical high school might have eight teaching periods during a day and each of these teaching periods is dedicated to one subject. A student learning in this fashion will spend a small amount of time on eight different subjects in one day. Under a block scheduling system the number of teaching periods might be reduced to four, each twice as long as before. Under this form of block scheduling system a student will spend a considerable amount of time on only four different subjects.
In addition, the teaching throughout the year will also be concentrated. If a student is due to study eight subjects over the year, under traditional scheduling systems they will study all eight subjects across the whole year. Under a block scheduling system they would study four subjects for half a year and the other four subjects for the remaining half of the year. In this way teaching of individual subjects is concentrated over a shorter period of time.
The reason for introducing a block scheduling approach is to promote better learning and attainment. The theory suggests that block scheduling has a number of benefits over the traditional scheduling system and these include:
1. less teaching time is lost while students and/or teachers change classes and settle between lessons. Clearly time is required to transfer from one lesson to another and so fewer changes means that less time is spent on this activity. Over the course of a year the time saved is not insignificant.
2. Teachers need to spend less time on lesson planning and so can concentrate on the learning process for their students. This will depend on how many subjects the teacher is responsible for delivering. Most teachers will deliver at least two subjects and if these are split so that one subject is taught in the first half of the year and the other in the second half of the year, this would mean that they could concentrate all their efforts on one subject at a time instead of splitting it over two for the whole year. This should result in better and more focussed lesson plans.
3. Students take a little while to settle into the beginning of a lesson and get their thought processes focussed on learning. By reducing the number of times they need to do this, there should be more time for learning. In addition, once students are engaged in the subject, having them work on it for a longer time period maximises the learning process.
4. Some subjects, such as science, have a need to spend a concentrated amount of time on some aspects of the curriculum. This might be an experiment for instance which may not be completed unless a longer period of time is spent on it.
With all these benefits, you might wonder why all schools aren’t adopting the block scheduling approach. It will perhaps be no surprise to you to learn that some teachers and education professionals dispute that the benefits described are real or always realisable. They would point to a number of disadvantages of the block scheduling system over the traditional scheduling approach. These disadvantages include:
a) students who are ill or need to be away from school for a period of time for other reasons, will miss a considerable amount of the teaching and may not be able to catch up their missed learning. Under the traditional approach, they will have missed less for each subject and should be able to more easily catch-up on the missed teaching.
b) the level of concentration in each lesson required from students is for a greater length of time under the block scheduling system. Research suggests that there is a limit to concentration which will be exceeded under this system and so the benefit of extended learning is not achievable.
c) while it is agreed that changing between classes takes time, some suggest there is a benefit to students by doing this. It breaks up their concentration and allows them a break from learning. This should mean that when they are next in class, they are more able to concentrate for the shorter time required under the traditional approach to scheduling.
d) some subjects require the use of repetition to ensure that learning is retained by students. This repetition needs to be over a sustained length of time and so the whole year of lessons is required. Research suggests that this is true for subjects such as mathematics and foreign languages.
It would appear that a mixed approach to scheduling might be more beneficial to students than simply adopting the traditional or the block scheduling method. Some subjects are better spread across the whole year while longer more concentrated lessons better suit other subjects. A number of schools adopt this mixed approach through the use of double periods and this looks unlikely to change for some time.