January 02, 2012

Free up time by freeing up the timetable

One of the schools we're working with has just redesigned its timetables from scratch, based on the energy of the students, and negotiates most of each day with every student at the beginning and middle of the day.

When we're working with our Design Thinking Schools there is one challenge that is guaranteed to come up through the initial empathy and observation phase. It's symptoms are often first cited in great numbers: time, energy, curriculum coverage. We use a period of structured observation of every aspect of the school and a building blocks exercise to discover these issues, to get observations, not just opinions or perceptions:

The problem itself is actually far simpler: the constraint of the timetable.

So, whether it's an independent girls school in Sydney or a family of primary schools in South London, we get them to reimagine what the timetable could look like, based on how energetic and "up for" learning children (and their teachers) are, and on how much time is required to make the most of certain activities.

Timetable - danger!We discover different surprises in every school. At MLC School, through a colour-coding exercise on everyone's timetables we discovered that both teachers and students were low in energy and thinking capacity for the first couple of hours on a Monday morning, with other low energy levels at the close of the day (and little humour for learning that was foisted upon them, as opposed to learning of which they were in control). No surprise there, really, except the timetable tips an unfair disadvantage on students that have mathematics then, rather than a session of phyiscal education or another practical subject with some movement. Students learn that projects need long tracts of uninterrupted time, but maths needs short, sharp, high energy time to keep concentration levels up. Or, when studying maths at a higher level, students yearn longer sessions on maths to get deep into new concepts, try them out and create something from them that contributes to another project.

TimetableAt Rosendale School, South London, the teachers there have got around to publishing their two class timetables, clearly showing in light blue the 70% or so of the timetable that is up for negotiation, up for problem-finding and -solving.

This framework was designed with students, in much the same way as we did with high school students at MLC School in Sydney, to spot which parts of the day would lend themselves best to which kind of activity, and which activities were unmoveable, mostly down to visiting specialists needing these times, in the short-term at least.

As always, our brilliant teachers there are sharing their journey on their own blog, so if you want to see how this pans out through early 2012, just give them a regular visit or follow their posterous blog.


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Hi Ewan,

We played around with this a lot when I was head of THINK Global School. We didn't even bother with days of the week; that is, Satruday or Sunday was to us as good a day as any for having a math or literature class. It mostly worked, but we had to be very careful to ensure we had enough structure to make people feel comfortable and enough downtime to keep people refreshed.

To do this we were working on weekly school meetings on Sunday evenings. Students and staff came together to review the week ahead and make adjustments as we felt the group needed them. Call it hybrid fixed/dynamic scheduling.

I don't think the school is continuing with this. Such a schedule isn't compatible with IB and TGS has designs on offering the Diploma Program.

Look forward to meeting again sometime. Will you be in Bost for BLC 12?

I'll be seeing you there, Brad. I think the challenge of offering enough structure is the exact same as in our professional lives, that is, when one is not employed by a school or traditional industry. In the creative industries people accept that their personal and professional life timetables are mixed, and find mechanisms to deal with it. And that takes a lot longer than two years to work out. Education needs to give more, more of a try.

I often read posts from people that I respect and think about how I can implement some of the ideas in schools and classrooms within my district. The contrast is so stark though, that it seems implausible to make this change.

I am working with a great group of teachers that have been given some leeway to try some new things and to be inventive, but there is such control held over the buildings that it gets tough. The idea of flexible/dynamic scheduling is great, but our leadership actually expects classrooms to be in pretty much the same place at the same time. That's a little bit scary to me.

What are your thoughts on attacking this in a district?

Thanks for the info, I've been interested in this for quite some time, and it's great I found your blog

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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