Block Scheduling: Structuring Time To Achieve
National Standards in Mathematics and Science. ERIC Digest.
by Durkin, Bernard
Where do you find time? The national standards for both science (National
Research Council, 1996) and mathematics (National Council of Teachers of
Mathematics, 1989) emphasize hands-on learning, inquiry-oriented laboratory
experiences, and performance-based assessment of student achievement. Many
state curriculum frameworks also call for remediation and enrichment programs.
Can all of this be effectively accomplished within the traditional schedule
of six to nine class periods in a school day? Perhaps it is time to consider
a different way of structuring time in schools.
The national standards for science and mathematics education call for
sufficient instructional time for inquiry-oriented activities, accompanying
discussion, and explanations of concepts involved. The science standards
prescribe a minimum of 300 minutes per week for science instruction in
secondary schools, with at least 40% of that time devoted to inquiry or
hands-on experiences. The mathematics standards contain similar guidelines
and stipulate one hour of mathematics each day at all grade levels as being
a "reasonable expectation."
Several of the standards will require increased time to achieve ambitious
instructional goals. For instance, according to Science Teaching Standard
D (NRC, 1996), teachers are to design and manage learning environments
that provide students with the time, space, and resources needed for learning
science. In doing this, teachers must:
*Structure the time available so that students are able to engage in
*Create a setting for student work that is flexible and supportive of
*Make the available science tools, materials, media, and technological
resources accessible to students.
*Identify and use resources outside the school.
Many schools are turning to "block scheduling" as a way of meeting these
goals. The term, "block," does not refer to a specific period of time,
but it implies a schedule that is flexible enough to allow extended sessions
for courses that would benefit from longer periods. Typical models of block
scheduling have blocks of time ranging from 80 to 120 minutes in duration,
but there is no minimum or maximum. It is also possible to have blocks
split into smaller modules for those courses that are better accommodated
by shorter time segments.
There is also the possibility of "alternate day" schedules where students
take different courses on alternate days for the entire year, instead of
different courses each semester. The Copernican model (Carroll, 1994) has
a 2.5 hour class for two subjects within a ten-week semester.
There is no one model that is right for every school or type of school.
Each school must design the schedule that is right for local circumstances.
When designing the schedule, the primary goal is to structure time to maximize
student learning within each course. Implicit in this goal is the need
to structure the schedule to provide teachers the time they need to plan
and evaluate instruction, and to collaborate with each other in developing
new and effective methods and materials.
Experienced teachers know the importance of engaging student interests,
allowing them time to explore, encouraging them to ask questions, and helping
them construct meaningful concepts. Schools must structure time to enable
such practices, as well as make tools available, identify resources, and
assess student performance. It is also generally accepted that "lecturing"
is not an appropriate substitute for more effective instructional methods,
but the lack of skills, facilities, support, and sufficient class time
often inhibits the use of other approaches.
While the mathematics curriculum standards (NCTM, 1989) do not specifically
refer to block scheduling, they do suggest that some reorganizing of schools
will be necessary. For example, the standards state that, "Calculators
and computers with appropriate software transform the mathematics classroom
into a laboratory much like the environment in many science classes, where
students use technology to investigate, conjecture, and verify their findings."
As with the science standards, the mathematics standards emphasize the
importance of meeting the needs of students along the full continuum of
abilities and challenges to learning. This, too, implies a need for longer
periods of instructional time during class sessions than is available in
STAFF DEVELOPMENT STANDARDS
Every class includes learners with a variety of learning styles; each
student sees the world from a unique perspective. Most classes have some
degree of cultural diversity, as well as students for whom learning is
a challenge. Classroom culture continues to become more complex, requiring
more technical skills and more time to respond to the wide range of individual
differences. Therefore, increased time for professional development will
become increasingly crucial to achieving the objectives of the national
Here are some of the guidelines provided by the Professional Development
Standards (NRC, 1996) for science teachers :
*Provide regular, frequent opportunities for individual and collegial
examination and reflection on classroom and institutional practice.
*Provide opportunities for teachers to receive feedback about their
teaching and to understand, analyze, and apply the feedback to improve
*Provide inservice programs characterized by collaboration among the
people involved in programs, including teachers, teacher educators, professional
associations, scientists, administrators, policy makers, members of professional
and scientific organizations, parents, and business people.
*Provide opportunities for teachers to learn and use various tools and
techniques for self-reflection and collegial reflection, such as peer coaching,
portfolios, and journals.
These and other standards for professional development will also require
additional time in larger blocks. It will become increasingly important
that school schedules provide sufficient time for instructional preparation
and professional development.
The standards recommend that all assessments be authentic, fair, varied,
valid, and reliable. The impetus is to move away from heavy reliance on
multiple-choice testing to assessments which are performance-based. This
will require using many different forms of student assessment. Traditional
tests cannot adequately assess the outcomes of standards-based science
and mathematics education. Alternative forms of assessment might include
use of portfolios, concept mapping, open-ended questioning, Paideia Seminars
(Holden & Bunte, 1995), and other performance tasks that involve student
manipulation of materials to produce a product that illustrates conceptual
understanding. A return to the idea of a "laboratory practicum" is implied
by the science standards, but this practicum will be assessed much differently
than previously. The "Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy" (AAAS, 1993)
assert that "If students themselves participate in scientific investigations
that progressively approximate good science, then the picture they come
away with will likely be reasonably accurate. But that will require recasting
typical school laboratory work. The usual high-school science "experiment"
is unlike the real thing. The question to be investigated is decided by
the teacher, not the investigators; what apparatus to use, what data to
collect, and how to organize the data are also decided by the teacher (or
the lab manual); time is not made available for repetitions or when things
are not working out for revising the experiment; the results are not presented
to other investigators for criticism; and to top it off, the correct answer
is known ahead of time."
Assessment is addressed in the mathematics standards as well, and the
focus is on alternate assessments such as project work , group and individual
writing assignments, discussion between teachers and students-and among
students, and the maximum appropriate use of educational technology.
If the visionary goals of the science and mathematics standards are
to be achieved, educators must take a hard look at just about everything
they do. Certainly the structuring of school time will be one important
dimension to examine. Perhaps scheduling for administrative simplicity
or efficiency must give way to scheduling for maximal student learning
and teacher planning.
American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). "Benchmarks
for Science Literacy." New York: Oxford University Press
Carroll, J. M. (1994). The Copernican plan evaluated: The evolution
of a revolution. "Phi Delta Kappan," 76(2), 104-113.
Holden, J., & Bunte, K. (1995). Activating student voices: The Paideia
Seminar in the social studies classroom. "Social Education," 59(1), 8-10.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). "Curriculum and
Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics." Reston Virginia: Author.
National Research Council (1996). "National Science Education Standards."
Washington, DC: National Academy Press
Canady, R. L. & Rettig, M. D. (1995). "Block Scheduling. A catalyst
for change in high schools." Princeton, NJ: Eye on Education.
Canady. R. L. & Rettig, M. D. (1995, November). The power of innovative
scheduling. "Educational Leadership," 53 (3), 4-10.
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schedule. "The School Administrator," 53(8), 20-24.
National Commission on Time and Learning, (1994). "Prisoners of time:
Research, what we know and what we need to know." Washington, DC: Government
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Creative ways to schedule the school day. "The High School Magazine," 3(3),
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assessment. "The Mathematics Teacher," 90(1). 16-19.
Smith, R. (1996, July). Block that schedule. "The Executive Educator,"
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scheduling in middle education." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, George
Tanner, B. M. (1996). "Perceived Staff Development Needs of Teachers
in High Schools with Block Schedules." Unpublished doctoral dissertation,
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High School Edition." Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association.
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