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In Defense of Simplicity: Let's Start With School Schedules

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One of the things I like about being a teacher educator is the opportunity it gives me to visit all kinds of different schools. But I have to ask: Am I the only one completely confused by what goes on there?

I'm not talking about the teaching and learning; that part is still pretty straightforward. It has been over 20 years since David Tyack and William Tobin wrote about the remarkable persistence of the "grammar of schooling" in American educational institutions, and it still holds: you can walk into almost any classroom in any school in America on any given day and see just about the same thing you would see if you walked into any other classroom in any other school in America at the same time (or, for that matter, on a different day). In spite of the constant tinkering we do with our education system, the typical arrangement—one teacher presenting information, many students receiving it, lots of desks facing the front of the room—hasn't changed much in most places.

But one thing that varies greatly from school to school, even if the rough contours of its existence are consistent almost everywhere, is the daily schedule. Boy, is it confusing. The school bell schedule is a monument to the American school administrator's twin obsessions with efficiency and control. You'd have to be an idiot to design a system like this from scratch. You have to be a genius to understand it.

If you don't know what I mean, Google "bell schedule" and see what happens. It's especially interesting to look at the image results, as they include a number of actual school schedules in graphic form. Just let your whole page be covered in those for a minute; scroll on into oblivion. It's like a piece of abstract educational art, punctuated here and there by comic sans and alarm clock clip art. What you see are hopelessly convoluted bell schedules—different schedules for different days of the week, seven, eight, or even ten "periods" crammed into a six-and-a-half hour day. (One school I looked at even had an ominously-named "Period 0"; everything must disappear into the abyss when that period ends.) With bells and warning bells and announcements and whatnot, students and teachers have to be well programmed just to keep it all straight.

And that's the point, isn't it? Since every minute of the school day is micromanaged, both for students and for teachers, there really isn't time for deviating from the norm. Class periods start at strangely staggered times, and run for different times on different days. Where I live, some classes (either for "accelerated" students, or for those taking a class for the second time) are compressed into a single semester. Others continue all year. This means some classes last for 80 minutes, while others only last for 43. Some start at times like 9:38 and end at 10:21; or they start at 10:31 and end at 11:11. Or they start at 11:15 and end at 12:35. Lunch is squeezed in somewhere; I taught at schools that had as many as five lunch periods of roughly 20 minutes apiece, each serving about 600 students. You can always tell if you're out to dinner with a teacher; they're the folks who wolf down their food like Fantastic Mr. Fox as soon as it gets to the table. 

Our overmanaged school days reveal a lot about what we think school is for, and what we expect to happen there. A school days packed tight as a tick makes it harder for teachers and students to do the most important thing public schools exist to do: educate the public. It takes time to weigh arguments and consider evidence and sort out different value systems, but we don't have time for that in school. Instead, there is an implicit idea being conveyed to everyone working in schools that school is about transmitting settled knowledge from "teachers" to "learners," and that the ultimate goal for those learners is to show that they mastered this knowledge by doing well on tests. So: let's get through this as quickly as we can. The real reward comes after you leave, when you get yourself a paying job. You'll figure out all that citizenship stuiff on your own later.

We could see things differently, you know. We could decide that school is important enough to justify spending the time and energy it would take to make it interesting every single day for every single kid. Instead of dividing the day into segments of instruction, we could show a little faith in the professionalism of teachers and the intelligence of students and give them a little room to breathe. I'm not just talking about giving everybody more time; I could introduce you to plenty of teachers and students ready to complain about how hard it is to fill 80 minutes with engaging instructional activities. It'll take more than that. We've got to get down to the business of reexamining our assumptions about what school is for. 

What if, for example, we started from the assumption that the primary purpose of schooling is to expand the minds of young people, not just get them ready for jobs mainly by making them "proficient" in reading and math? Then what would the schedule look like? Considering how much we hear about ongoing structural changes in our economy, helping kids learn to think and interact with each other might even help them get jobs in the long run. Just a thought.

At the very least we could simplify schedules quite a bit. It wouldn't hurt to remember that if we really want kids to grow up to be responsible adults, we might start by giving them more responsibility. Micromanaging what they do all day might make them good employees in some fields, but it's unlikely to help us get any closer to dealing with the spate of social problems schools should exist to help us solve—and, anyway, good employees don't always make good citizens. Creative problem solving doesn't usually happen in 43-minute segments. Simplifying the school schedule could actually add much-needed complexity to the work students and teachers do there. As someone who cares about what happens in the future, I'd be in favor of that.

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