This is an excerpt from a letter written to a Charlotte, North Carolina newspaper in 2002 by a first-year math teacher, a man who was vehemently opposed to block scheduling.
“I am…a first year high school math teacher. (My school) operates on a block schedule — a concept I had never even heard of until I accepted (this) teaching position. My observations of block scheduling have been a shocking education for me. Block scheduling has resulted in less emphasis on core content and more on gimmickry. Classes used to be places where serious learning took place. No more. Under block scheduling, they have become little more than glorified playtime periods. Classes used to consist of core subject material being communicated to students by individuals rich in knowledge and experience. Now teachers are no longer teachers, but merely guides — glorified baby-sitters, if you will. Under block scheduling, the students are now in groups trying to “discover” facts that used to be communicated instantly when teachers actually taught. It’s obvious that this format wastes valuable class time — and that doesn’t include the time students waste by talking, singing, and becoming restless all-around as a result of the lengthened class periods.”
This letter articulates the concerns some teachers, parents, and even students have about block scheduling, where class periods last 80 to 100 minutes and only four classes are held each day. This type of schedule became popular in middle and high schools in the 1990s as an alternative to the traditional schedule, where students attend the same six to eight classes, 45 to 50 minutes each, every day. The idea behind the change was that with less transition time between classes, fewer instructional minutes would be wasted, and the kinds of behavior issues and bullying that can crop up during class transitions would also be cut down. On top of that, having extended blocks of time would give teachers the opportunity to dive more deeply into their content.
And in many cases, schools have been successful with block scheduling. They’ve even found solutions for some of the problems it presents, like offering shorter periods for classes like math and band, where consistent daily practice is more important. But one issue with block scheduling seems to persist, a problem that is highlighted in the letter above, a problem that is still voiced by teachers and students today: The ineffective use of the longer block of instructional time.
So that’s what we’re going to focus on here. We’ll start by looking at the mindset that causes a lot of block scheduling’s biggest problems. Then we’ll quickly review some best practices for teaching in the block. Finally, I’ll walk you through five specific structures you can choose from to plan solid, interesting instruction for an extended class period, the kind of teaching that will make those 90 minutes fly by.
The Big Problem: A Lecture-as-Teaching Mindset
Some of the challenges associated with block scheduling boil down to logistics, like needing more time for AP courses. These issues can often be solved with creative scheduling tweaks.
But the rest of it, the criticisms lobbed at block scheduling and the problems that can crop up with it, can almost all be traced back to one mindset, a single strong, pervasive belief about teaching, and that mindset is this:
teaching = lecture
This mindset, the belief that lecture is the only “real” way to teach, causes all kinds of trouble in block scheduling.
Let’s go back to the math teacher who described the extended classes in block scheduling as “glorified play periods” in his letter. One likely reason he felt that way was because he saw his co-workers doing something besides straight-up lecturing. Here’s a line from his letter again, where he longs for the good old days of traditional scheduling: “Classes used to consist of core subject material being communicated to students by individuals rich in knowledge and experience.” What could he possibly mean besides lecture?
In this teacher’s mind, anything that wasn’t lecture couldn’t possibly be “serious learning,” and therefore all the other non-lecture-based activities he observed in his colleagues’ classrooms were a waste of time.
And to an extent, he may have a point. We don’t know what was going on in his colleagues’ classrooms. Maybe the other teachers were using some highly effective techniques that he was just unfamiliar with. Or maybe, if his school was like some who don’t invest enough in training teachers in different methodologies, they really were just screwing around. Because if teachers don’t have a well-rounded repertoire of instructional strategies, methods that they know are effective, they will only use lecture to teach, and that gives them one of two choices:
- Lecture for the full 90 minutes, which bores students to tears, can lead to behavior problems, and ultimately has a negative return, since student attention spans can’t be sustained for longer than about 15 minutes. So in this case, you’re “covering” a lot of material, but students aren’t learning it.
- Lecture for half the period, then give students the second half for “homework time.” This is also ineffective, because that means students are actually learning only half the material over the course of a semester or year. This is typically the reason why some teachers object to block scheduling: They say they can’t “get through” as much material. But if these teachers knew more strategies, that remaining time could be used for instruction that would actually hit more learning targets.
Best Practices on the Block
Do not rely solely on lecture.
This advice comes from every teacher I have talked to and every piece of research I have read about successful block teaching (for a good summary, see Queen, 2002). Although I do believe a brief, dynamic lecture every now and then is an efficient way to deliver instruction, and does not need to be abandoned entirely, teachers who lean too heavily on it are doomed to failure in a longer class period. Instead, use a variety of instructional strategies, many of which we will get to in a little while.
Switch activities every 15 to 20 minutes.
Students get restless when they are required to sit still or do the same thing for long periods of time, so unless they are working on a task that will truly engage them for a full hour (and we’ll get to these later on), look at your class period as a series of 15- to 20-minute chunks of time and switch activities in each chunk.
If you’ve ever finished your planned activities in a 50-minute period and found yourself with ten awkward minutes to kill, imagine how much worse it is when you have 30. So plan for the essential activities, but also build in some extras that would be nice to get to, but aren’t essential. Meagan Brockway, a high school history teacher in Greencastle, PA, says, “Block scheduling requires planning for more than you can accomplish and then continually readjusting based on student needs.” This readjustment may vary from student to student and class to class. “If I have a class that is tremendously behind, then it is a matter of looking at the ‘extras’ and either cutting those out completely to get to the content needed OR if it is a class that is up for a challenge, then I give them extended time to complete it on their own.”
Use a smart pacing guide.
One of the challenges of block scheduling is “fitting in” all of the content you might be used to teaching on a daily schedule. Pacing guides, which are used to map out when you will address each learning target or standard throughout the year or semester, are essential to make sure you use class time wisely. But these often value “coverage” over actual learning. The late educator Grant Wiggins, who always offered incredibly insightful ideas on authentic learning, wrote a great post on designing pacing guides that help teachers hit the most essential standards but also build in time for re-teaching and extension when necessary.
5 Structures for a Block Class Period
To make the most of your extended class period, consider one of these five structures, which you can mix and match over the course of a marking period, depending on your instructional needs. For the sake of convenience, I’m going to assume we’re talking about a 90-minute class period, but you should obviously make slight adjustments if your block is longer or shorter than that.
This would look the most like a typical lesson, except you would have time to do it right and include ALL the bells and whistles that we all know a good lesson should have:
- (10 min) An engaging anticipatory set to pique students’ interest, build relevance, bring concepts out of long-term memory or just set the stage for learning. This is a step we often skip over when we are pressed for time. (For ideas, see my post on anticipatory sets or this one on How to Approach Your Teaching Like a Master Chef.)
- (15-20 min) Some kind of direct instruction, where the teacher delivers the day’s lesson through a lecture (Yes! In small doses this is okay!), doing a demonstration, showing a video, having students read through some kind of text or do an interactive online lesson.
- (30 min) Student application of the content. This might take the form of individual practice, reciprocal learning, or some other kind of group work.
- (15-20 min) An assessment of the content or skill, followed perhaps by re-teaching to those who need it and an extension activity for students who met the standard.
- (10 min) A reflection or other kind of wrap-up, where the value of the lesson is reinforced.
Whitney Schultz, who teaches 80-minute blocks of English at a high school in Baltimore, MD, uses this kind of structure on most days, mixing up the activities within each of the segments. “That 10-15 minute review and 10-15 minute introduction might instead be a 20-30 minute quiz followed by self-grading; or, in my AP class, it might be 20-30 minutes of daily AP practice followed by 40-50 minutes of text discussion/analysis. I’ve found it’s easier to fill 80 minutes than try to trim down what I cover each day!”
In this structure, students would spend the majority of time working on their own projects. The class period might start with a brief (10-minute) mini-lesson, and it would ideally end with some kind of a wrap-up, sharing, or reflection time, but at least a full hour would be spent working independently or in groups on a long-term, hands-on project. Meanwhile, the teacher would circulate, conferencing individually with students as needed or using an appointment system like the one used at the Apollo School.
- In an English language arts class, this could be independent writing or reading, or a mixture of both, depending on what each student happens to be working on at the time.
- If you are running a self-paced math class, or are delivering instruction through hyperdocs or playlists, where students work at their own pace through a series of lessons, then during the hour, students would just get started from wherever they are in the materials.
- In any class that has implemented Genius Hour, this time could be devoted to research, writing, or working on presentations.
One big, focused activity takes up most of the class period in this structure. Class may start with some kind of an introduction and end with a reflection or wrap-up, but at least an hour is set aside for an activity where the whole class digs into a single meaty task. In this case, the task itself is designed to be active and engaging, so the rule about switching every 15 or 20 minutes is waived. The big activity could be any of the following:
- Simulations or role-plays, which can be incredibly useful in helping students understand complex social studies or science concepts.
- A debate, socratic seminar, or some other long-form discussion strategy
- A project-based learning activity
- A virtual field trip
- Jigsaw or another cooperative learning activity
- An actual lab (hello, science!)
- Sketchnoting: This idea comes from Jana Maiuri, a middle school English teacher in Oakland, California, who will occasionally set aside a whole class period for students to create sketchnotes on a given topic. It starts with “a ten minute rapid-fire warm-up…followed by a kind of ‘okay, show me everything you know about commercial fish depletion in a sketchnote in the next 90 minutes.’ Then in the next class we do two concentric circles and everyone gets two minutes to present their sketch: three vital facts, the most unique or compelling thought, and one artistic accomplishment or challenge. The movement and the art are engaging and thought provoking.” (To get started with sketchnoting, see Vicki Davis’ comprehensive post on sketchnoting here.)
At the end of a learning cycle, students should ideally have some kind of final product to share with peers, or even outside visitors. A 90-minute block class would be ideal for sharing and celebrating this student work. This performance could take many forms:
- Student speeches
- Film festival
- Gallery of physical or digital products
- Poetry or other readings
The Variety Pack
On some days, you might opt to just give students a fast-paced mixture of activities, some that might review previously learned content, some that introduce new stuff, others that do a bit of drill and practice, and even some that are just there for fun and enrichment. These can be handled in a station rotation model, with student-selected learning centers, or just by having the whole class do a a series of smaller activities together. Here are just a few possible activities you could include:
- Any kind of skills practice, flashcard work, or retrieval practice
- Watching a short video clip
- Independent reading
- Journal writing
- Having a short philosophical chairs debate
- A short read-aloud from a book you’re reading together as a class
- Small group work with the teacher
- Games like Kahoot or Crumple & Shoot
So whether you’re brand-new to block scheduling or you’ve already been doing it for years, I hope you’ve found at least one new idea to help you make the most of that extended class period and never again be accused of running a “glorified playtime period.” ♦
Queen, J.A. (2002). Block scheduling revisited. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(3), 214-222.