wasting bandwidth since 1999

Changes in Isolation

The concept of “block” scheduling of high school class has been around for a long time, at least since before 1992 when it began to seep into Fairfax County, the district that used to employ me. The basic idea is that, instead of having five to eight hour-long “regular” class periods in a school day, students would study a specific subject for 90 or more minutes every other day.

Why? Well, the advantages of that format were never clearly explained beyond everybody would have more time. Except they really wouldn’t. And, we were told, teachers would have more room for creative teaching and students would improve their learning. Except the record on that is also pretty murky.

Now a much smaller district in this area is considering changing to block scheduling for their middle schools and Jay Mathews doesn’t like it.

Many people, including me, think block scheduling is an attractive but unproductive fad. A 2006 University of Virginia study said students in high school block schedules did somewhat worse in college sciences than those who had regular schedules. A 2010 review of British research said block schedule results were slightly positive but “are not strong enough to recommend their implementation.”

I’ve read of several other studies that also found very little to support the change in schedule.

However, there is a much larger problem with block scheduling (and most other “reform” ideas) than the lack of supporting data. It, and most of the research, assumes that the current school format is a valid way for students to learn. And, in the case of blocking, all we need to do is rearrange the time to make it better.

In almost all high schools and most middle schools, a student day is divided up in to neat little discrete blocks of subject matter. When the bell rings, kids must switch gears and move on to work on a different specific subject, commonly in isolation. Chemistry here must never mix with Algebra there, and neither should be associated with social studies or literature. Keep that art and music far, far away from our labs, please.

So taking the same knowledge silos and making them larger is not really a change. Information and ideas in the real world swirl about and intermix freely but in school we treat each like the streams in Ghostbusters that must never get crossed, lest we get total protonic reversal.

The way time is organized in most schools is just one part of the issue with changing to a block format. Helping teachers adjust their pedagogy to best use the new schedule is another. For all I know this district is addressing all of this, but based on my experience, I doubt it.

Anyway, the last word should come from one middle school parent in Mathews’ story who asks an excellent question about the planned changes: “We would like to know exactly what they’re trying to accomplish at Williamsburg and why they think block scheduling is the answer.”

We should all demand the same discussion around any educational reform – and get good answers before making any changes.

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1 Comment

  1. SECarter

    this is SO perfect. I have had 3 kids attend a high school that celebrates its ever-so-great “modular schedule.” Having used it for 20+ years, it is the school’s gospel and, frankly does nothing for the students.
    But it’s different. It’s free. And they pay a guy to schedule stuff

    Never once has there been any data on effectiveness presented to parents and still, the athletics are kept at day’s end.

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