Time's the thing

One of the things we do in traditional schools is [say] "It's Martin Luther King's birthday" and we say to the kids, "He had a dream, what's yours?" The implication being, "How would you change the world? Or how would you solve global warming? Or how would you solve human trafficking?" Well, those are really sophisticated problems, that really sophisticated adults spend a lot of years trying to solve and maybe not solve at all. When we give children thirty minutes to solve those problems, we deny them authentic opportunities to learn. And what we get as a result is just politically correct parroting, repeating, echoing of what we as adults think that they should say.

- progressive education leader Dr. Gary Stager, from a 2010 interview 

There's a lot wrapped up in the situation Dr. Stager presents in the above excerpt, but currently I find I'm focused on one tangent. I'm wondering what effect the "traditional" class schedule - where students are segregated into ~45 minute chunks of time and thought throughout the day - has on two related things: 1) our students' ability to think about and work with authentic big questions and 2) our ability as schools and teachers to provide our students the chance to engage with authentic big questions.

Now, I'm not trying to claim that we are to be expected to solve those particular world-wide problems in our high school classes, but there is certainly a level of question that lies between "when was the Magna Carta signed" and "how do we stop human trafficking" that is probably more useful to our students' lives than the former and at the same time more relevant than the latter. But given the traditional model of 7 or 8 short periods a day, what kind of questions are we currently suited to answer?

It's pretty much proven that being constantly interrupted by incoming email messages does terrible things to our productivity by cutting off our continuity of thought. So what does that say about asking our students to get up every ~45 minutes, stop what they're doing, and hurry down a hallway to an entirely new area of study? As SLA founder and principal Chris Lehmann says, "We ask kids to have 7 different bosses a day. How many of us would be good at that?"

Additionally, what educational impact does such a schedule have on teachers and their teaching? I know from (albeit, anecdotal) personal experience that there's a lot of energy/effort overhead in the process of trying to lead students on an intellectual journey in the time allotted. Set-up, review, and clock-watching leaving limited time and attention for honest, thoughtful discussion. And since we teachers are under the gun in most schools to deliver content necessary for test-based assessments, in many classes there really isn't any time to even entertain the idea of a student-driven intellectual adventure - there's only room for our content. It physically hurts me whenever I have to say to a student, "That's a great question, why don't you do more with it on your own time?" To me that's like telling the kid, "Your ideas are not as important as my content" and worse, "I also can't really take the time to guide you through how to foster your own learning and investigation. Sorry." That is not the way I prefer to encourage independent learning.

I really believe the most meaningful and satisfying moments of my life as a teacher have not come from my own plans, but from my engagement and interactions with students. There's a serendipity (also a big deal to Dr. Stager) to what comes out of a room of people working on their own understanding together. In my view, any schedule that can increase the opportunity for this serendipity is a better option than the traditional 7 or 8 period school day.

So what's the better option? Block schedules? Completely PBL mini-terms? I love hearing and reading about what other people think about this problem and the solutions they've found, so please leave your thoughts in the comments.