Block Scheduling Blog

  • Block Scheduling—its promises and its pitfalls

    We have 70, 80, 90 minutes…how do we use our time to maximize learning?  How do we take what we used to teach everyday for 60 minutes and fit it into this new configuration?

    First, let’s take a look at 7 common pitfalls:

    1. Not teaching like your hair’s on fire

    To borrow Rafe Esquith’s idea: we have to Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire; time is a limited commodity.  If we approach our day, week, or year as if we have nothing but time, we lose urgency.

    1. Not managing transitions well

    With larger segments of time, we know we’ll have multiple activities.  Our students are masters (especially our secondary students) of dragging their feet during transitions.  Three minutes becomes five minutes, becomes seven minutes, becomes ten.  Suddenly, we find ourselves asking, “Where’d the time go?”

    1. Including less than meaningful Brain Breaks

    Please don’t misunderstand, brain breaks are great.  But 10 minutes of restroom/drink time and 5 minutes of walking the track are really 30 minutes by the time we get kids settled in to learn.

    1. Making the class 50% homework completion

    Independent practice, in and of itself, is not bad.  But when the block consists of 15 minutes of direct instruction and the rest is “time to do your homework,” we’ve missed the opportunity to dig deeper and more concretely into our content.

    1. Forgetting reflection time

    We all need to reflect—teachers and students alike.  By omitting the reflection piece, we are no longer giving students (and ourselves) time to think deeply and connect the dots.

    1. Not creating connected learning events

    What we know about brain-based learning is that the dendrites that populate our brain are a little like Velcro.  When new information is introduced, the brain looks for something to “hook” that information onto.  According to Judy Willis, “…the brain's plasticity allows it to reshape and reorganize the networks of dendrite-neuron connections in response to increased or decreased use of these pathways.”  In other words, when a pathway is used (or connected), the more likely information is retained.

    1. Forgetting wise and careful planning

    This is the key to everything, isn’t it?  When we plan thoroughly, we can better include powerful learning activities in our lessons, manage student behavior, and steer transitions.

    So, if those are some common pitfalls, what do we do about them?

    1.   Start by varying activities—some mental, some physical, teacher-led, student-led, small group and whole class.
    2.   Include meaningful brain-breaks.  Standing and stretching is a great idea. Working with a partner to learn vocabulary is an even better idea. Standing and stretching while working with a partner to learn vocabulary is the best idea of all.  Our time is precious; if we use 10-15 minutes of class time to simply jump about, we’ve missed a golden opportunity to combine physical activity with our content. 

    How do we organize our time?

      If you’ve been in education for a while, you’ve probably heard the name Madeline Hunter.  If you’ve listened closely, you’ve probably heard her ideas disparaged—primarily because her research-based ideas, once they left her purview, morphed into something she never intended them to be—a checklist for teacher evaluation. Let’s use her work as it was intended.

      Start by identifying your curricular must-dos: independent reading, multiplication fluency, or vocabulary building, for example.  Then, think about Hunter’s model of mastery learning:

    1.     Set the bait.  The initial hook is how we build anticipation.  It may be a bell-ringer or another activity.
    2.     Identify your daily objective. Students should know the objective of learning, but this does not mean simply writing it on the board hoping that students absorb it through osmosis.  It is about establishing relevance.
      3.     Direct teaching. Despite popular belief, direct teaching in and of itself is not bad.  We have to start somewhere.  However, if we never leave the world of direct teaching and dig deeper, we’ve done our students a disservice.
    3.     Modeling.  No doubt you’ve heard of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model also known as I do, We do, Y’all do, You do.  Modeling is simply the I do phase.
    4.     Checking for understanding.  Formative assessment is just that: the assessment we do to inform our understanding of student learning.  What we do with that information is a topic of its own.
    5.     Guided practice. Remember I do, We do, Y’all do, You do?  During guided practice the students have been released to work under direction—the We do, Y’all do phase.
    6.     Independent practice.  Here’s the last stage of the Gradual Release Model: You do. Of course, the teacher is still working the room, but the students are engaged in independent practice.
    7.     Closure.  When we revisit or reflect on the day’s learning,our goal is to create those Velcro hooks that build dendrites and catch learning in our students’ brains.

    Psssst—note to teachers: we may not necessarily hit each of these steps in every class period. This isn’t a lock-step program, but rather a guidance system in organization.

    Next step:  Wisely and carefully plan our blocks  in which we think about our class time not as days, but rather as minutes.  We determine our learning activities purposefully, making optimal use of the time we have with our students.

    We are all works in progress.  Working together we can use our collective resources to create a powerful and purposeful atmosphere of learning.

    Want to know more?  Here are some resources (This is not an endorsement. In fact, there are some strategies I like much better than others; this is just a short list of possibilities):


    Teaching in a Block:

    Formative Assessments:

    Gradual Release of Responsibility:


    Brain Research:

    Madeline Hunter: