Is 75 too much?
Recently, I have been listening to the complaints about the length of school periods, 75 minutes. It is a long time since I have visited this issue, so I thought I might take this complaint seriously and look at the research findings. As might be expected, the research findings are huge, but not as large as those wanting to comment on the topic. The following three examples show typically how a school might address this question, how old the question is and lastly the best answer from a summary of the research.
Goulburn High School – one-hour periods (2016)
A committee was established to investigate a five-period day structure and broadly supported its introduction. The expected benefits were seen to be:
- Increased time for engaging activities and a reduction in the number of subjects studied per day
- Reduced movement leads to less disruption and greater focus.
- Five periods per day allows more opportunities to reduce split classes
- The last two periods of the day under a six-period day model can be less productive and have more disruptions.
It was noted that a five-period day structure may cause some concerns including the impact on other practical subjects, particularly related to double periods.
The committee surveyed nearby schools about their experiences with a five-period day structure.
This report is anecdotal and does not quote any research but reports other opinions about the benefits. The focus is also as much on administration benefits as it is on learning outcomes which are often assumed but not demonstrated.
An age-old issue
In Class length according to the purpose of the lesson (Davis 1968) the author takes up the question and highlights what most teachers know: there is no ideal time and the purpose of the lesson is one thing that dictates how much time should be spent. His conclusion is that schools organise class times and length of periods for administrative convenience and not learning, which is a second priority. One might like to think that these matters have changed, but I am not so sure.
Schools are likely to use research that justifies what they want and ignore what doesn’t support what they want. Some believe that students learn better when lessons provide opportunities for research, group work, preparation of reports and presentations. Short periods tend to work against these goals. Longer periods are believed generally to provide more opportunity for deep learning. Primary teachers have more flexibility, but secondary teachers must adjust their teaching to the given time slots.
Those subjects with strong practical components like visual arts, technics and VET courses want the longer periods whereas subject which require more writing like English, the humanities and a subject like mathematics where fatigue can easily set in, prefer shorter periods.
Whatever the length of period, a number of learning matters need to be considered:-
- Not all students respond in the same way to period lengths.
- Not all students respond in the same way to different subjects.
- Not all students learn in the same way.
- Not all teachers teach in the same way.
- Not all teachers can adjust their teaching to the time available.
So, the lesson to be learnt from history is, whatever period length is chosen, both teachers and students will need training in how to make the best use of the time available. To address learning issues within a school by asking teachers to teach to changed periods lengths alone could be just changing deck chairs on the Titanic unless there is a whole of staff response involving training.
Is 75 too much? Yes, for many teachers and students, but for other teachers and students there are benefits.
Perhaps some training for both teachers and students on how to make the best of the period times available could help raise the overall level of learning.
The best length of time for a class?
Watson (2018) reinforces the argument above. As far as I know, we just don’t have a clear answer to that question.
The evidence suggests that how teachers use the time they are allocated is more important than the length of lesson or the schedule of lessons, and hence that the introduction of block scheduling is unlikely to raise attainment by itself.
The point is not how long we teach but how well we teach with the time we’ve got. If you teach 2nd graders or 7th graders or 11th graders, you’ll probably find that different lengths of time work better. If you teach in cultures that inculcate patience and concentration, longer classes will work better than in cultures with a more get-up-and-go kind of pace. The number of students in the class might matter. The experience of the teacher almost certainly matters.
Watson makes some sensible recommendations for schools wanting to investigate period lengths, school starting and finishing times and when to have breaks and how long they should be. He recommends: -
First: study human attention. For instance there is evidence that six minutes is figure for attention when watching video and that the average period length is 50 minutes*.
Second: don’t design “the optimal schedule.” Design the optimal schedule for your school and your students. It might not work at anyone else’s school, but it doesn’t need to.
A schedule that works for you and your students is the closest to optimal that you can get.
Some other matters to be considered could include:
- having varying length periods for different subjects
- how much teacher talk and student talk is built into lessons
- the importance for subject classes to meet each day.
Whatever the final choice there needs to be a whole school commitment to implementation or decisions will be undermined and students will be the ultimate losers.
A Christian perspective The Bible acknowledges a range of human differences. We are not all of the same gender, intelligence, physical features and we express our emotions differently and we LEARN differently. Christian teachers are focussed on working for the good of every student. They want them to learn and grow into mature responsible adults. In fact, to be like Christ. Christian teachers in every setting have a responsibility to participate in discussions that affect how students learn in classrooms. They have a calling to stand up for those who are without power so that they can be represented. But on the question of best period times there is no simple answer.
Christian involvement in the discussion, asking questions, presenting research, representing the needs of students who might be disadvantaged, ensuring that reasons are focused on student learning and not school or teacher convenience might go a long way to representing Christ in such discussions.
Davis H S (1968) Flexible scheduling Educational Research Council of America https://files.eric.ed.gov
Watson, A The best length of time for a class from Learning and the brain https://www.learningandthebrain.com/blog/the-best-length-of-time-for-a-class/