ERIC Identifier: ED393156
Publication Date: 1996-03-00
Author: Irmsher, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Block Scheduling. ERIC Digest, Number 104.
Six classes a day, five days week, every day the same schedule.
Telephones and radios were still novelties when high schools nationwide
petrified the school day into this rigid pattern. The refrigerator and
television hadn't been invented, much less the copy machine, computer, and video
We live in a very different world now, and we know immeasurably more about
how students learn. Yet most contemporary high school and middle school students
are still locked into the same archaic schedule that their great-grandparents
experienced when they were teenagers.
This Digest looks at problems inherent in the traditional scheduling pattern.
Then it examines the benefits and challenges of block scheduling, and ends with
a few tips for making the transition.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE TRADITIONAL SIX- OR SEVEN-PERIOD
For starters, say critics, the pace is grueling. A typical student will
be in nine locations pursuing nine different activities in a six-and-a-half-hour
school day. An average teacher must teach five classes, dealing with 125-180
students and multiple preparations. This frantic, fragmented schedule is unlike
any experienced either before or after high school.
"It produces a hectic, impersonal, inefficient instructional environment,"
states Joseph Carroll (1994), provides inadequate time for probing ideas in
depth, and tends to discourage using a variety of learning activities.
Opportunities for individualization of instruction and meaningful interaction
between students and teachers are hard to come by.
No matter how complex or simple the school subject, the schedule assigns an
impartial national average of fifty-one minutes per class period, say Robert
Canady and Michael Rettig (1995). And despite wide variation in the time it
takes individual students to succeed at learning any given task, the allocated
time is identical for all.
The 1994 report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning
states, "Schools will have a design flaw as long as their organization is based
on the assumption that all students can learn on the same schedule."
In addition, since most disciplinary problems occur during scheduled
transitions, the more transitions, the more problems. And a great deal of time
is lost in simply starting and ending so many classes in a day.
"Traditional, inflexible scheduling is based on administrative and
institutional needs," say Gary Watts and Shari Castle (1993). Flexible
scheduling patterns are a much better match for pedagogical practices that meet
the educational needs of students and the professional needs of teachers.
WHAT IS BLOCK SCHEDULING?
Gordon Cawelti (1994) defines it
as follows: "At least part of the daily schedule is organized into larger blocks
of time (more than sixty minutes) to allow flexibility for a diversity of
The variations are endless, and may involve reconfiguring the lengths of
terms as well as the daily schedule. Some of the possibilities detailed by
Canady and Rettig include:
*Four ninety-minute blocks per day; school year divided into two semesters;
former year-long courses completed in one semester.
*Alternate day block schedule: six or eight courses spread out over two days;
teachers meet with half of their students each day.
*Two large blocks and three standard-sized blocks per day; year divided into
sixty-day trimesters with a different subject taught in the large blocks each
*Some classes (such as band, typing, foreign language) taught daily, others
in longer blocks on alternate days.
*Six courses, each meeting in three single periods, and one double period per
*Seven courses. Teachers meet with students three days out of four--twice in
single periods, once in a double period.
And there are many more. Any of these can be modified, of course, to meet the
specific needs of a school.
Scheduling changes are usually linked to decreased reliance on the standard
lecture-discussion-seatwork pattern, and an increase in individualization and
creative teaching strategies. They are often part of a major restructuring
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF BLOCK SCHEDULING?
of time allow for a more flexible and productive classroom environment, along
with more opportunities for using varied and interactive teaching methods. Other
benefits listed by Jeffrey Sturgis (1995) include: more effective use of school
time, decreased class size, increased number of course offerings, reduced
numbers of students with whom teachers have daily contact, and the ability of
teachers to use more process-oriented strategies.
In evaluations of schools using block scheduling, Carroll found more course
credits completed, equal or better mastery and retention of material, and an
impressive reduction in suspension and dropout rates. He posits improved
relationships between students and teachers as a major factor. Every school in
Carroll's study benefited from the changes, though not all in the same ways or
to the same degree.
Positive outcomes multiply when four "year-long" courses are taught in longer
time blocks, each compressed into one semester, say Canady and Rettig. This
pattern allows students to enroll in a greater number and variety of elective
courses and offers more opportunities for acceleration. Students who fail a
course have an earlier opportunity to retake it, enabling them to regain the
graduation pace of their peers. Teachers have fewer students to keep records and
grades for each semester, and schools require fewer textbooks. What's more,
overall satisfaction in the learning process is greater for both students and
WHAT ARE ITS CHALLENGES?
All change is painful, say Gerald
Strock and David Hottenstein (1994), and often controversial. The process of
making the transition is probably the biggest challenge: building support for
altering such a time-honored tradition, and finding/creating the planning time
needed to make the change.
"Imposing a scheduling model on a school will not ensure success," states the
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (1990). The lab recommends a minimum
of two year's planning time before implementation, to make sure the new schedule
meets the needs of all concerned.
Adequate staff development time is also essential, say Canady and Rettig.
Teachers who have taught in thirty-five to fifty-minute time blocks for years
need help in gaining the necessary strategies and skills to teach successfully
in large blocks of time.
They observe that teachers who are most successful in block scheduling
typically plan lessons in three parts: explanation, application, and synthesis.
Most teachers have much less experience with the latter two phases than with the
first. Teachers may also need training in cooperative learning, class building,
and team formation.
WHAT ADVICE DO EXPERTS HAVE FOR MAKING THE CHANGE?
instituting major schedule changes, it's desirable to have a common vision, a
good plan, and strong support of all stakeholders, says Carroll. Ideally, the
superintendent, school board, principals, teachers, students, and parents should
all be provided with opportunities to learn about the proposed innovations, and
have plenty of chances to discuss the ramifications.
Canady and Rettig suggest the following:
*A general presentation regarding the pros and cons of various models of
*Visits by teachers, students, parents, and school board members to schools
having block schedules
*Panel presentations by teachers from schools operating block schedules
*Faculty discussion meetings, leading to a vote or consensus
*Parent and community meetings
*Assemblies for students conducted by students from other schools or by their
peers who have visited other schools
*Distribution of relevant research data and implementation procedures
*School board presentations and approval
*Staff development focused on the appropriate design of curriculum and use of
extended blocks of time for instruction
Attempting smaller changes minimizes the risks, they note, but creates less
striking results and is also less likely to generate enthusiasm and commitment.
To be successful, the change must address a need, fit the teachers'
situation, be focused, and include concrete strategies.
Canady, Robert Lynn, and Michael D. Rettig. "Block Scheduling: A Catalyst for Change in High Schools." Princeton, New
Jersey: Eye on Education, 1995. 266 pages.
Carroll, Joseph. M. "Organizing Time to Support Learning." "The School
Administrator" 51, 3 (March 1994): 26-28, 30-33. EJ 481 309.
Cawelti, Gordon. "High School Restructuring: A National Study." Arlington,
Virginia: Educational Research Service, 1994. 75 pages. ED 366 070.
National Education Commission on Time and Learning. "Prisoners of Time:
Research." "What We Know and What We Need To Know. Report of the National
Education Commission on Time and Learning." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government
Printing Office. September 1994. 60 pages. ED 378 685.
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Rural Education Program.
"Literature Search on the Question: What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of
Various Scheduling Options for Small Secondary Schools (High Schools and Middle
Schools)?" Portland, Oregon: Author. January 1990. 24 pages. ED 329 385.
Strock, Gerald E., and David S. Hottenstein. "The First-Year Experience: A
High School Restructures Through Copernican Plan." "The School Administrator"
51, 3 (March 1994): 30-31. EJ 481 309.
Sturgis, Jeffrey D. "Flexibility Enhances Student Achievement." "NASSP AP
Special: The Newsletter for Assistant Principals" 10, 4 (Summer 1995): 1-2.
Watts, Gary D., and Shari Castle. "The Time Dilemma in School Restructuring."
"Phi Delta Kappan" 75, 4 (December 1993): 306-10. EJ 474 291.