50 Minute Periods Are Killing Teacher Creativity

“I’d love to do [fill in the blank with some creative idea or activity], but I just don’t have time. My classes are only 50 minutes.” I hear this lament frequently when I lead professional development. Teachers get super excited about integrating technology or want details about a project, assignment, or routine I do with my own kids. When they find out that my school is on a 90-minute block schedule, they sigh and tell me that they just don’t have that kind of time with kids. Ironically, I see my students for about the same total amount of time because we are on an A/B schedule and our class meets every other day. However, the length of a class period has a huge impact on the way teachers plan their lessons.

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When teachers plan for a 50 minute period, the scope of their lesson is extremely narrow. They know they have limited time to get through x, y, and z. Too often the default in this scenario is to lecture or verbally present information because it is faster. Allowing students to research, discuss, and share their findings takes time. Yet, if we want students to develop these crucial life skills–finding and evaluating information, communicating and collaborating with peers–they need time. They cannot feel they are being hurried through the process of learning. In fact, the more relaxed a student is in a learning environment, the more open the brain is to taking in information.

If teachers had more time, the scope of their lessons would naturally expand. They would be challenged to design a variety of learning experiences for a single class because we all know that students cannot and should not be asked to sit quietly and listen to a teacher talk for long stretches of time. Instead, classrooms on a block schedule provide the luxury of allowing students to engage with information and with one another in a variety of ways.

As an advocate for using technology to create student-centered classrooms, I believe longer classes would also make using technology a lot less scary. Teachers would not need to worry that a single tech hiccup would derail an entire class. Teachers sharing carts of devices would have time to allow students check out their devices without feeling that they’ve sacrificed a significant chunk of their class period.

I cannot understand why so many secondary schools have students running from class to class every day without giving them the time needed to form meaningful relationships or engage with complex tasks. So many teachers trapped in a 50-minute schedule report feeling like they cannot embrace project-based learning, explore the value of makerspaces, or experiment with blended learning models. The big hurdle is time.

If schools want their teachers to be innovative and teach outside of the box, then they need to take a closer look at their schedules and talk to their teachers and students about how their schedule is either encouraging or stifling creativity. Administrative teams need to evaluate how the length of classes is impacting they way teachers teach and, ultimately, how students are expected to learn.

If you are a teacher who has taught in both a traditional 50-minute schedule and a block schedule, I’d love to have you share your experience in each scenario. How did having more time impact your lesson planning? Were you able to incorporate projects, creative assignments, technology, etc. into your shorter periods? If so, do you have tips for other teachers who are struggling to be creative or innovative in a 50 minute period? As always, I welcome and appreciate teacher insights and comments!

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26 Responses to 50 Minute Periods Are Killing Teacher Creativity

  1. Sue Weems says:

    Our school has a hybrid schedule (some 45 minute classes and some 90 minute blocks– both meeting every day), and I teach both. As with most things, I have time for anything I make a priority. With both types of classes, I find it helpful to plan in 20-30 minute chunks. Yes, a rotation station might take two days in a skinny, but it’s worth it if the objectives are valuable. If students need more time in a 45 minute skinny, they can finish at home or more often, we use the first 15 minutes of class the next day. If my blocks are working on larger projects, I still establish check in/ refocusing points at the 30 and 60 minute marks to help students manage time and revisit their goals for the day. I have also found it helpful to have students leave themselves a “START HERE” comment at the end of each period (identifying the next task or goal), so they don’t waste time trying to figure out where to start the next day. I don’t know that we’ll ever have enough time for all the fantastic ideas we’d like to explore, but prioritizing is an integral part of creative process– for us and our students.

    • Hi Sue,

      I love your comment that you have time for anything prioritize. I also know there is never enough time to get through all the fun stuff I want to do with my kids. There are plenty of teachers who make it work regardless of time constraints, but I know the lack of time can also be an excuse not to experiment with new teaching strategies. I wish all teachers had more time to try new approaches to engaging students.

      atlin

    • Hi Sue,

      I love your comment that you have time for anything prioritize. I also know there is never enough time to get through all the fun stuff I want to do with my kids. There are plenty of teachers who make it work regardless of time constraints, but I know the lack of time can also be an excuse not to experiment with new teaching strategies. I wish all teachers had more time to be creative and try out strategies that would shift students from passive observers to active engaged learners.

      Catlin

  2. Billie says:

    Going from traditional to block schedule is a budgeting issue because you need more staff, at least that’s what the small school I was at discovered when we investigated switching. Also, I believe there is some research (anecdotal or otherwise) to suggest that when teaching math in a block, scores and the amount of content covered tend to suffer under the block schedule. My staff was willing to try, but ultimately were unsuccessful because of staffing. Other’s experiences may be different.

  3. Jennifer East says:

    I have experienced both schedules. I’m currently teaching 45 minute classes (!) at the middle school level. I teach Science, and it can be challenging to get anything done in that space of time. You have to jump right in! I honestly prefer the block schedule. I think you can really take time to work a concept in different ways in a 90 minute session. Furthermore, many labs have to be split up over several days in shorter class periods, which can really interrupt the flow. There’s less time for thinking and doing when you have to re-explain and remind students of what we already did the day before. I do see how there might be an exception for math. I would think shorter chunks on a more frequent basis is a better fit for that.

    • Hi Jennifer,

      I cannot imagine teaching a 45 minute period! Even for subjects like math and foreign language, I wonder if online resources could be used to engage kids outside of a block class for practice. Some math and language programs use adaptive software that adjusts to the individual child’s skill level. Those programs might be a more engaging way to get them practicing beyond the classroom. At my high school students taking a foreign language often complete handouts for practice at home. I can see that strategy being a less effective way to keep kids learning if they are on a block that meets every other day.

      Catlin

      • Jennifer East says:

        45 minutes is definitely short! I would love to look at the schedules of schools that have integrated both block and ‘normal’ schedules. For instance, having 55 minute classes 4 times per week but having one day of block scheduling. That would at least give teachers the chance to have a more comprehensive day for larger projects and activities.

      • Renee Hannah says:

        The only problem with using technology outside the classroom, s that all students may not have access to it at home. In my school’s community many children do not have access to internet/technology except while at school.

  4. mmazenko says:

    As a teacher and administrator, I spent a year researching block schedules while our school district considered a change. We made numerous school visits, brought in consultants, scoured achievement data, and had thoughtful discussions. At the end of the year, we recommended remaining on a traditional schedule, and the discussion has been tabled since then. I now work in one of the top high schools in the country, and we operate on a traditional eight-period day. As a teacher and administrator I have witnessed rich, engaging, creative, and productive classes which prepare our students for the top colleges in the nation. Block scheduling would not improve outcomes, increase technology use, or enhance instruction. In fact, those reasons are never the justification for a move to block scheduling. Schools use block as crowd control to manage students and as a way to maximize staffing constraints. There are no proven educational benefits to block. And, I’d argue that if a teacher cannot accomplish his learning goals in 50 minutes, he’s not a very effective teacher.

    • Hi Michael,

      It’s true that there isn’t strong data for one schedule over the other. I’m sure it’s hard to find conclusive results across the board since there are so many variables on a campus from the individual teachers to the student population.

      I know there are incredible teachers planning engaging, creative, and productive lessons in all types of schedules. I’m sure the opposite is true too. I do, however, believe that more teachers would explore new approaches to teaching and experiment with a project based approach if they had more time.

      I disagree with the statement that “Block scheduling would not improve outcomes, increase technology use, or enhance instruction. In fact, those reasons are never the justification for a move to block scheduling.” I’m not sure how you can say that those aren’t valid reasons for schools to consider a different schedule. Perhaps your school didn’t feel a change in schedule would benefit your teachers or student population, but different schools have different challenges and different needs. My concern is that planning so many short lessons limits the depth of the lessons and does not give teachers the time and space to be as creative in their approach.

      Although we clearly disagree on a few points, I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and perspective.

      Catlin

      • tadams says:

        For a number of years, I have taught a robust high school Career Tech Ed Commercial Photography also deemed college concurrent enrollment credit program – both in a 90-block alternating schedule as well as a traditional 51-55 minute M-F schedule. I would counter your disagreeing point because I found that it’s absolutely true that students attending a (traditional) 51-55 M-F class will learn, retain, experience, and produce more than a 90-minute alternating block schedule – even if it’s an elective creative photography program.

        Some other things to consider: my students found it much more difficult to make up absences and stay current in a 90-minute alternating program and for some students, this becomes an out of control challenge, which leads to additional problems like grades slipping, increased cheating to get “current/up-to-date”, sloppy craftsmanship, and other problems.
        • In an alternate day setting, they still have to prepare for
        six classes every other day, and still have the same
        number of tests, quizzes, etc. The work doesn’t change and can be more difficult if the material has to be learned by the student at home because the teacher didn’t cover it.
        • I found that students can also become bored easily if the teaching methods are too teacher focused. Yes, my program is very project based but not all subjects are which can lead to other problems.
        • I also feel that students can have a more difficult time keeping up with the faster pace that is inherent to block scheduling. And if the teacher experiences technology/project hic-ups, it could sway/alter the schedule of curriculum delivery and the teacher now has to speed up to cover everything by semesters end. Anything project based can run into problems.

        Bottom line: in my opinion based on my experience from what my students have been able to learn and produce: I wholeheartedly believe that a traditional 51-55 minute schedule M-F produces/promotes student learning over a 90-alternating block schedule – even in a creative classroom/program like mine. I also believe that a traditional scheduling allows teachers see each student everyday, which helps students retain and review information better. The daily student communication keeps minds energized and more focused on the classroom activities. Sometimes I have a number of learning disabled students; I believe that they be able to focus better because the classes are shorter in a typical M-F 51-55 min schedule. Teachers have to be more efficient when planning lessons because the time means everything. I also found that students completed and remembered their homework more often in a typical 51-55 min schedule vs. an alternating one.

        Lastly, I have data that students who completed their comprehensive final did far better in a traditional M-F class vs. an alternating schedule.
        Thanks,

  5. Holly Z says:

    I teach pre-AP/IB English at an international school in China. I have three 40 minute periods, one 80 minute period, and one 50-60 minute period depending on the section for each class. I make use of the technology we have available – anything with a Google or Facebook architecture is blocked here – which means WeChat and Wikispaces. I find class discussions extend outside of normal classroom hours, usually well into the evening.

    • Hi Holly,

      That’s awesome that you use online spaces to allow the learning and conversations to extend beyond the class period. Even in a block schedule, I don’t want learning to end when the bell rings so I am a huge advocate for online discussions and online collaboration spaces.

      Catlin

  6. Krista says:

    My kids both had block schedule at their HS, and both love the longer classes. Daughters HS did t/th odd periods and w/f even period block days, and Monday was late start (for kids. Teachers had meeting time) and then 40 minute periods 1-7. Teachers then had all kids three days a week, two long sessions and one short. It was great. They always did rallies on Mondays and many holidays are Monday’s, so the longer block periods were protected.

    My son’s school has a rolling schedule that drives me crazy. They do even/odd block periods every other day. So some weeks even periods are m-w-f but the next week they are t-th. It’s super annoying because he doesn’t have 7th period so he gets out early on odd days, but I need a calendar to figure out when those days are. He reports that the staff are always complaining that the other set (even vs odd) has more teaching minutes because they spend time calculating out whose schedule is more affected by holidays and assemblies to figure out total hours.

    • I can relate to the challenges of the rolling block schedule, Krista. I work on an A-B schedule so I teach on M-W-F then T-TH. Since I am 50%, that makes planning my professional development trainings and other work (not to mention mundane things like dentist appointments) challenging. My husband’s school does blocks on M-T-Th-F and Wednesday is an all period day. That means his schedule is consistent each week, which he likes.

      Catlin

  7. Anna Sill says:

    I am lamenting because we went from a 90 minute block to a 50 minute block. We are a blended learning environment, so itis 50 minute in class, 50 minutes lab. I went from creating exciting lesson plans where students got to discuss, create, research and have fun learning, to a classroom where I just teach. I feel like a hamster on a wheel. My students get information then run into the lab to apply the information. That is it. I am actually thinking of holding back some literature (I teach English) so I can create more time for the kind of learning that helps students grow. Also, that important component of a relationship goes on a back burner because it besomes increasingly more difficult. I am more engaged in teaching than I am in facilitating learning. It’s frustrating and disheartening because I feel that my students are getting shortchanged.

  8. Ms. R-P says:

    I am only a second year teacher (7th grade Math), and I find my school’s schedule impossible.

    We have a 7-period day, which is not only exhausting for teachers and students (teaching 6 unique groups = 180 kids), but it results in 48-minute periods, which are not conducive to the kinds of curriculum and preferred pedagogy right now (problem-solving and academic conversations).

    In addition, Wednesdays are “minimum days” so staff can collaborate in the afternoon, and our periods are only 32 minutes! The kids have to go straight through with no break for 4 hours, and what the @&*$ am I supposed to get done in 32 minutes?! A Warm Up, HW check and try to squeeze in part of a lesson and/or practice? I don’t even put much emphasis on HW anymore, because I simply don’t have time during class to deal with it (on any day).

    Our district adopted the CPM curriculum last year, and it is sincerely and truly impossible within these constraints given the amount of time students need to spend just unpacking one single problem (a lesson usually consists of 3 or 4 core ones).

    Since I’m a Math teacher, lets crunch some numbers for a moment – compared to a neighboring district with a 6-period day and 60-minute periods (whose Wednesday minimum day allows for 40-minute periods), my students are in Math class roughly AN HOUR LESS (56 minutes) each week. Yet they are supposed to master the same content? In what amounts to a whole class period a week less?

    Over a month, that is roughly 3.75 hours less of Math class time, and across a school year, almost 34 hours less. You realize what THAT means? The equivalent of roughly SEVEN WEEKS less of class-time. All, from what I understand, so kids can have two electives, or perhaps because they are trying to accommodate more students with less staff (probably the latter).

    In any case, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, because I never hear anyone at my school or district talk about this.

    What I would give for those extra TWO minutes everyday! And a full period on Wednesdays.

  9. Brigham says:

    At my current school, I am teaching 4th grade math. My instructional style is to provide as many kenesthetic activities as possible in order to allow my students a chance to actively be engaged with the math. My class periods are currently set at 45 minutes and the time is a definite hindrance when trying to teach the way I do. I come home each day and voice to my wife how I wish I had more time! This is the third school district I have taught in and while employed at my last district they brought in a scheduling specialist to help create a schedule to allow for 90 minute blocks. At first I didn’t know what to do with all that time, but soon learned how much more I could accomplish with my students. Teacher flexibility is the big issue right now with trying to gain more time, so as for now, I will have to provide as much research to my principal on block scheduling in hopes that he buys in and implements the change.

  10. Melissa says:

    All of this is absolutely true. I’ve taught both and I hope I NEVER have to go back to traditional. I LOVE block schedule. I can get way more done and the best part is that my students have time to discuss and I have time to get to all of them to help. We can do a variety of things each block and it makes longer cross-curricular projects much more manageable. Also, I’m at a small school with a very small staff (8 teachers for grades 9-12 and a very limited budget and we still make it work. I’ve also taught block at a huge high school. Works there too. It’s truly a more fulfilling and meaningful way to teach. Not to mention I feel more prepared for each class, and no longer feel like I’m rushing around.

  11. Nicola says:

    It will always be about great teachers/ teaching. The best schedule in the world will not be successful unless you have a stellar teacher. I’m a principal and we have 56 min. Periods. Our teachers collaborate so that frequently their ELA lesson will blend over to their History class; making connections. Same with Sci and math. We do design challenges and switch up the bell schedule on those days to allow kids two hours of design thinking and building. There’s always a work around to provide more time. Be creative/ innovative with scheduling but always start with good teaching first!

  12. rhondasonline@yahoo.com says:

    Hi Catlin,
    This is an interesting topic with even more interesting perspectives and experiences shared by all of the previous responders.

    I’ve taught 3rd-6th grades on both the 90 minute block A/B schedule and the traditional 50 minute period daily schedule as well as 120 minute daily blocks of time for specific subject areas such as ELA. My experience with 90 minute blocks on the A/B rotation were my personal favorite, but I do concede that I was able to accomplish the instruction and learning just as well in the other formats. It was only as successful as my planning was intentional. The 80/20 rule. How I viewed any segment of time and what could be accomplished in that time was subject to the 80/20 rule. Purposeful. Intentional. Prioritized. Actionable.

    Though I can not prove there is a correlation, those students of mine that earned perfect state assessment scores in SS, Sci, ELA, and Math were all learning in 50 minute blocks of time. And, those years with 100% class proficiency on state assessments were also happening during 50 minute blocks of learning time. Same thing for the years of greatest student learning gains. In addition, those students that were able to create technology projects for competition and take them beyond the state level and those that were the most empowered and engaged in PBL were all doing so in traditional 50 minute blocks of time.

    While 90 minute blocks were my preference, for me, it’s all about how I choose to plan for student learning and how I view what IS possible with the time we have.

    Thank you so much Catlin for hosting this conversation. Reading everyone’s perspectives and experiences, even when disagreement arises, has been enlightening.

    Rhonda

    • You’re welcome, Rhonda! Thank you for sharing your perspective. I’ve taught in 50 and 90 minutes too, and I cannot imagine going back to a traditional schedule after teaching in a block schedule. I found that more time directly influenced the depth of the lessons I designed.

      Take care!

      Catlin

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  14. Rob Glenn says:

    Catlin,

    I chatted with you about this last May. We only have 45 min class periods at Saint John’s Military School, but I’m adjusting to turn 2 days into my “90 min block.” I set the goal of 2-3 lessons a week, and make tasks that cover the material taught in the videos I assign outside of class. The kids do get to socialize and collaborate in a way they haven’t before, and I think they are getting more out of tasks than just “lecture and drill.” Its worked out well so far. Can’t wait to see how it evolves over the year. Thanks again for all the help.

    • Hi Rob,

      I’m thrilled to hear you were able to turn 2 days a week into 90 minutes and feel like that’s having a positive impact on the lessons you design as well as student engagement!

      Catlin

  15. Kathrine says:

    I have taught in everything from 50 minute classes to 110. There are pros and cons to each. When block scheduling was first introduced, the concept was that a 90 minute class was really two classes combined and students had two nights to complete the homework. The reality is that students, parents, and many teachers view the 90 minute block as one class with one night to complete the homework. While the 90 minute block allows me to get far more in depth during class, we cover only 50% of the reading that was covered when classes met every day for 45 minutes. It’s a trade-off.

    More than content, I find that my relationship with students is different with 45/50 minute classes vs. 90 minute blocks. With shorter classes, you see students every day – that contact matters. I was more likely to remember that a student was feeling ill or excited about a job interview when I saw them daily.

    I do not have a preference for one or the other (though 110 minutes was far too long!); both have their benefits and drawbacks.

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