School Timetables: Even as the school year has ended, and we relax and reflect a little on the successes and frustrations of 2021-22, there will always be areas of our practice that we would like to refresh or enhance for next year.
One major area of consideration for every teacher and administrator is our use of time, and how this impacts our staff and students. After the disruptions to routine and the lockdowns of the past two years, many of us have enjoyed a more consistent and “normal” school year.
For some, this has meant a return to in-person teaching and learning, and all things familiar, whilst for others there has been opportunity for new innovation, different challenges and a diversity in learning structures, taking the best from recent experiences and honing a new school experience for our students.
“Research consistently shows routines can best support children’s cognitive development.”
The structure of a school day is often an area of contention. There are strong views declaring “best practice” or “modern methodology”, suggesting that “current research shows…” followed by myriad differing opinions.
It is true that research consistently shows young children need to learn in a safe and comfortable environment, and routines can best support their cognitive development, executive functioning and cognitive and physical organization.
This extends to daily patterns of regular mealtimes, bedtimes and a sense of order and purpose framing their days. So, in terms of younger children, the need is clearly evident for a routine in the school day – regular break times, lunch times and an appropriate use of movement and transitions.
Routines allow quick accomplishment of day-to-day tasks that are required of both the teacher and students. Routines also help to create smoother transitions between activities and therefore allow fewer opportunities for disruptions to occur (Burden, 2003; Docking, 2002).
“The more time that children spend in less structured activities the better their self-directed executive functioning.”
A continuity of behavioural and classroom expectations is also important, building a safe environment for the development of new skills and those tentative initial attempts at discovery or innovation. But how far should this go?
Debbie Pope, a lecturer in psychology at University of Central Lancashire writes: “We know that executive functions, the cognitive control mechanisms that support a number of higher-level processes including planning, multitasking and decisionmaking, are linked to important life outcomes.
“Studies have shown that the more time that children spend in less structured activities, such as playing on their own, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite is true of overly structured activities, such as rule-driven sporting activities.” (The Conversation September 2020)
How, therefore, should primary schools respond? There was a time when some countries introduced a national curriculum which dictated that the “important” subjects be taught in the mornings – literacy hour or numeracy hour in the UK is an example of this thinking.
“Saving the morning for ‘important subjects’ gave credence to the concept of a two-tier curriculum.”
It possibly raised standards in certain areas, but also gave credence to the concept of a two-tier curriculum with the music, drama and arts, or sciences perceived as less important. There is now perhaps more appeal to the concept of a broad and balanced school day, giving value to all curriculum experiences and allowing for ample freedom for inquiry and exploration throughout.
So, how rigid should the daily structure be, to enhance optimum learning, reduce confusion and still allow for creativity and spontaneity for our students?
There is a need to explore the familiar, from a new perspective: trying something new and unrelated sparks the beginnings of creative thought. Yet, at the same time, repetition leads to mastery.
“Children need to be prepared for the unexpected, within a safe and secure environment.”
Some would advocate for the same lesson to take place at the same time each day, or for specialist subjects and transitions to be synchronized across a week. Others would opt for a more open approach, allowing all curriculum areas to benefit from fresh, morning classes and giving more freedom to build the curriculum in a more transdisciplinary way, with conceptual development and opportunity for in-depth inquiry across the week.
If we truly believe in the changes in learning necessary to meet current needs, we have to be open to the concept that children need to be prepared for the unexpected, within a safe and secure environment.
Young minds are designed to constantly look for patterns and find meaning and solutions. After figuring out the solution or whatever is new and interesting in its environment it needs another “problem” to solve.
Teachers need to be facilitators of learning, and look for the routines and school timetables that suit our learners, even if they may be less comfortable and more complex for us as teachers. In a holistic, 21st century, inquiry-driven learning environment, emphasis in education has to lean towards creativity rather than limitation and towards facilitating our students rather than our own needs.