I recently read a post from my friend, Lee Fleming, about the challenges of 45-minute class periods, and it inspired me to dust off this blog post that has been sitting in draft mode for too long.
There’s a moment in PBL that I love. I do like the beginning of projects when students interact with an entry event and surface lots of good questions (need-to-knows), but that’s not my favorite moment. My favorite part comes after a project is underway. It happens after a teacher has provided a scaffolding activity (or workshop as we call it at NTN) to target a student need-to-know. And then, the students are asked to take that new understanding to help address the larger question or problem the project is centered around. Watching students make these attempts is my favorite. Initially, the attempts might be clumsy, but each clumsy attempt has the potential to turn into a powerful learning moment of deep connection with the concept being explored.
To me, that’s the rub of PBL, or at least better PBL. It’s where the deeper learning happens. Summed up well by the National Research Council’s paper on developing transferable knowledge and skills: “The product of deeper learning is transferable knowledge, including content knowledge in a domain and knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems.” Transfer – that’s where it’s at for deeper learning.
Creating these types of learning experiences at scale in a school is hard work, but certainly achievable and absolutely worth pursuing. And I’ve been coming back to one structure in the secondary schools I’ve visited over the last 6 years that consistently makes and breaks opportunities for this kind of deeper learning: the schedule.
Let’s look at that deeper learning moment from above and see how that might play out in two different schedules, a 45-min period and a 90-min period.
Here’s a few important differences in how things play out above:
- In the 45-min period, students go from the workshop straight to the exit ticket! There’s no immediate chance for the students to experiment with that new skill in the project context and the teacher’s chance to assess students’ transfer ability gets delayed.
- In the 45-min period, there is a 23-HOUR BREAK. Lots can happen in there – six other classes, band practice, stresses at home, etc. When they eventually do come back, who knows what knowledge/skills from the workshop stuck or got kicked out of a kid’s head.
- The 45-minute approach asks for students to make double the transitions. (Class of 28 energetic youth) x (Number of Transitions Required) = Chaos Possibility Factor. The 90-minute block asks for less transitions, which takes me to my next point.
- In the 90-minute block, students have 40% more structured work time. Wow. That affords students the chance to play around with the new skill they got in the workshop, to make some messy attempts at applying (aka transferring) it toward the project challenge, to get some feedback and support from peers and teacher, and to try again….all in the same continuous stretch of time. That additional time could be a great space for teachers to encourage students to go a little divergent with their thinking, knowing there’s more time for the thinking to converge back toward progress on the project.
- There’s just more time and space to see, hear and respond to kids in the 90-minute block, without the next impending transition looming. That’s good for culture and relationships.
Coincidentally, ALL of this applies to the staff learning in your school too, where deeper learning should be the norm. You just can’t get very deep in a 30-minute after school PD. This might be worthy of a blog post of its own.
I value the notion that structures drive behaviors, and, if the behaviors we want are about deeper learning for students AND staff, getting the structure of the schedule right is time well spent.