Strategies for teaching in a block-of-time schedule

Author: Hackmann, Donald G; Schmitt, Donna M Source: NASSP Bulletin v81n588 (Apr 1997): 1-9 ISSN: 0192-6365 Number: 03205375 Copyright: Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals 1997

Headnote:

Secondary schools throughout the nation are fashioning creative alternatives to traditional six and seven-period days, in the form of block of-time schedules. Although varying tremendously in format, block-of time schedules have an overarching commonality: They significantly depart from the traditional 45 to 55-minute class period.

One recommendation contained in the Breaking Ranks report of the National Association of Secondary School Principals is that students be engaged in their own learning (NASSP, 1996). Extended class blocks permit teachers to use a variety of creative approaches to instruction while accommodating individual learning styles.

These large blocks, however, may be viewed with a great deal of apprehension by veteran teachers. A typical reaction may be "What in the world am I going to do for that many minutes?" Even though a new scheduling configuration may have unanimous faculty support as "the thing to do," teachers still must confront the daily reality of preparing creative, enriching lessons that keep students engaged academically.

Creative Uses of Instructional Blocks

When traditional schedules are restructured into larger blocks, some teachers may naively assume that they can force-fit two "old" lessons into this restructured time frame. Teachers soon learn, however, that they cannot take the simplistic approach of using the same methods they did before, only for a longer time, since nothing will disengage a group of students from the learning process more quickly than lecturing for an entire class block. Students (and adults, for that matter) are rarely excited about sitting passively for hours at a time-they become excited when they are physically engaged in authentic and challenging learning activities.

When teachers initially attempt to redesign block-of-time lessons, they frequently ask about the format of a typical lesson. Numerous creative instructional approaches are possible within longer time frames; therefore, teachers should be cautious about relying too heavily on familiar daily instructional routines. As a general strategy, however, teachers might consider planning 3-4 activities during the instructional block, ensuring that at least one activity will involve direct and substantial engagement of students in the learning process. A block-of-time lesson could be structured in the following manner:

Review previous learning. Through such means as checking homework, teacher questioning, and student self-assessment in learning pairs, teachers can quickly assess student mastery of previously taught concepts and engage in appropriate reteaching strategies. Time devoted to review and reteaching will (probably) not exceed 15 minutes.

Instructional input. Important new concepts should be delivered with primary concern for active student involvement. Direct teaching, demonstrations, multimedia presentations, Socratic Seminars (Ball and Brewer, 1996), concept attainment, use of graphic organizers, and inquiry methods are a sampling of effective approaches for ensuring that students receive instruction on the day's concepts.

In a sense, teachers who have previously employed traditional direct instruction methods should feel fairly proficient with this portion of the lesson provided, of course, that they include opportunities for direct student involvement. Approximately 20-30 minutes could be allocated for instructional input.

Student performance. Group experiences provide students with an opportunity to master the lesson content while engaging in hands-on activities. Experiments, cooperative learning, role-playing, case studies, and computer simulations can each be used to provide effective experiences. Approximately 30-40 minutes of the lesson may be devoted to this activity.

Guided practice/reteaching. Individual student mastery remains the foundation of effective teaching, and it is appropriate to incorporate guided practice (individually or with a group) so teachers can assess levels of student understanding. This component is especially critical for schools with alternate-day schedules, since students will most likely not have an opportunity to correct learning errors for two or more days. Teachers should reteach and reinforce the day's objectives, provide closure, and assign homework. Time allocated for review, reteaching, and homework should be 5-15 minutes.

A cautionary note: Larger blocks should not be viewed by either teachers or students as a method for routinely permitting students to complete homework assignments in class. Valuable instructional time will be forever lost, with resultant decreases in student achievement.

Instructional Strategies

Noting that any rich topic can be taught in a variety of ways, Gardner suggests that teachers should consider multiple "entry points" for students to learn new information (1991, p. 245). The following suggestions are offered to assist teachers with developing creative instructional approaches in blocked classes.

1. Continuously engage students in active learning.

Teachers should embrace the concept of "teacher as coach" advocated by both the Coalition of Essential Schools (Sizer, 1986) and Breaking Ranks (NASSP, 1996). Teachers should strive to facilitate student learning, rather than always using the direct delivery method of instruction. Whenever possible, students should complete the activity. Lessons should be active, with reduced emphasis on such passive activities as listening to lectures and completing worksheets. Lessons should be planned in which students learn through discovery methods or teach important concepts to their classmates. Transitional activities that require students to physically move about should also be included. For example, groups of students could be assigned such daily classroom tasks as distributing class materials, handing out papers, and collecting materials at the end of each activity.

It is frequently necessary for teachers to deliver brief lectures so students can fully master critical concepts. Even during lectures, however, teachers can include active student participation, using such activities as the following:

Think-pair-share. The teacher poses a question and asks each student to think about appropriate solutions. Students are next asked to discuss potential answers with a partner. Finally, the teacher calls on students randomly or asks for responses from volunteers.

Learning journals. Students can routinely write new concepts they have learned in daily journals. They should be prompted to focus on connecting this new information to previous topics or other interdisciplinary areas, and to write down the concepts they still have not mastered. Guided notes. Teachers can prepare handouts that summarize the lesson's major concepts, with significant portions left blank for students to complete during the lecture.

Active questioning. Asking questions of individuals is an excellent way to determine if a student understands the concept being presented, but this is an extremely inefficient method for assessing all students' levels of understanding. Teachers can pose questions to the class, allow sufficient wait-time, then call for "thumbs up-thumbs down" responses from everyone. Students can raise their left or rights hands to answer true-false questions, or can call out or display numbers that correspond to the correct answer in multiple-choice questions. The point is, all students are involved, and the teacher has a quick and accurate method to assess student mastery of new material.

2. Include group activities to encourage student participation.

New concepts are more likely to be retained in long-term memory when the learner is permitted to state them orally or to physically engage in activities. Group activities can range from brief discussions with a partner to carefully crafted activities that may require the majority of the block. Some possible group activities are the following:

Cooperative learning. A substantial body of research exists documenting the effectiveness of cooperative learning strategies (Johnson and Johnson, 1989; Slavin, 1990). Any faculty that is considering implementing block scheduling should seriously consider cooperative learning training for all teachers and make this instructional method the cornerstone of lesson planning. Writing groups. Students can critique their fellow group members' writing for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, word choice, and sentence structure. Oral and written feedback will help students improve their writing style as they learn to write for their peer audience. Case studies, role playing, and simulations. Case studies allow students to view situations through the depersonalized actions of a story character ("I agree/disagree with what he/she did because..."), rather than risking peer disapproval for personal solutions. Class discussion, consequently, remains focused on finding appropriate solutions rather than confronting conflicting student values, beliefs, and feelings. Through role plays and simulations, students have an opportunity to employ their dramatic talents, in addition to experiencing how a person in that role may actually feel or react when confronted with the situation. 3. Incorporate activities addressing the multiple intelligences.

Gardner (1983) suggests the following seven categories of human intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Teachers should incorporate these dimensions into their lessons so students can experience learning through a variety of modalities. In addition, students could be offered opportunities to complete alternative assignments that explore the intelligences and capitalize on individual student strengths.

3. Use creative thinking activities.

Though teachers today are generally familiar with the taxonomy of educational objectives in the cognitive domain (Bloom et al., 1956), they are likely to be less aware of similar taxonomies in the affective and psychomotor domains (Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia, 1956; Harrow, 1969). These latter two domains include learning activities that challenge students to develop skills in such areas as organizing preferences and developing confidence.

Lessons that attend to the affective and psychomotor domains, in addition to the higher levels of the more traditional cognitive domain, provide opportunities to emphasize the more spontaneous and creative capabilities of students. Examples of classroom attention to creative aspects of learning include assignments to develop illustrations of solutions to current affairs problems in social studies, or to exchange and solve student-created problems in math. Having students describe how they arrived at answers to assignments that require higher order thinking is also of great value in encouraging nontraditional thinking.

4. Move outside the classroom.

Approaching instructional time with a commitment to including "outside-the-classroom" resources and processes as much as possible helps teachers and students focus on the real-life applications of their classes. Using community resources within the classroom, such as guest speakers and community artifacts, effectively ties community and school together, while simultaneously building invaluable community support for the schools (Schmitt and Tracy, 1996). Similarly, the use of integrated field trips and assignments to gather information from the immediate community through "community scavenger hunts" helps to create relevance in the students' learning.

5. Employ authentic forms of assessment.

Traditional paper-and-pencil tests are limited in the types of learning activities for which these methods of assessment are valid. If emphasis in classroom strategies is placed on less traditional and more creative learning, less traditional and more creative forms of measuring the results are needed.

Demonstrations of a wide range of student behaviors, such as cooperative problem analysis and resolution with a classroom partner, or use of technology in accessing, manipulating, and presenting information are more characteristic of situations students will confront outside the classroom, and more telling of the level of integration in multi-domain learning. The use of others besides the classroom teacher to assist in evaluating student growth, based on clearly-defined objectives also helps to make assessment more authentic.

6. Integrate and reinforce basic skills throughout the curriculum.

Students can engage in the writing process in all classes; science and math concepts can readily be integrated; and history can be infused into foreign languages, art, and music. Students can make connections and transfer knowledge more readily across these artificial disciplinary boundaries.

A natural progression to this concept is the development of an interdisciplinary approach to the curriculum. Faculty members can begin this process by sharing curriculum content, agreeing upon times during the school calendar when major concepts could most appropriately be integrated, and identifying overarching themes and learning activities that would connect the various disciplines.

7. Incorporate technology.

Technology is an excellent learning tool when it is purposefully crafted to facilitate student understanding of concepts, and it can be used effectively for both whole-class instruction and individual drill-and-practice. Technology should never be used as the "lazy teacher's lesson plan," however, since it is extremely easy to throw a 90-minute videotape in the VCR, sit back, and enjoy the show.

On the other hand, countless teachers are discovering the power of teacher-developed multimedia presentations and the benefits of the Internet as a student research tool. Teachers should exercise caution when planning activities that incorporate student use of the Internet, however, since students can spend inordinate amounts of time "surfing" and exploring areas that have little or no educational value. Lessons using the Internet should direct students to appropriate sites for specific purposes so this technology is actually used as an educational tool.

8. Share resources and ideas with colleagues.

One of the major fears of making change lies in confronting the unknown. When teachers change their instructional patterns from the triedand-true methodology of the past to the uncharted waters of teaching in a block schedule, having the support of colleagues is invaluable. Patterns of "lone ranger" efforts to achieve should be replaced with active seeking and giving of both information and support in a collaborative forum that brings teachers together. Longer periods of time and more flexibility in the schedule allow teachers to plan and work together in ways not previously available.

Teachers can capitalize on this advantage by being open to sharing both successes and roadblocks that occurred in implementing new instructional strategies. Besides helping one's colleague think through the "whys" of the situations discussed, the process can be directly helpful to the other teacher. Often, what did not go so well for one teacher may be an excellent strategy for someone else in another setting.

Building administrators can support this process by encouraging teachers to take risks in the classroom without fear of reprisal. Time can be set aside in faculty meetings for teachers to share both successful and unsuccessful classroom experiences, so teachers can receive suggestions and feedback from their peers. In this way, teachers begin to develop a learning community while modeling the practice of continuous learning for their students.

9. Plan ahead for support activities.

Longer periods of teaching time require longer-range thinking and planning. Informal learning activities that enrich and supplement the formal instructional objectives of the class should be readily available and carefully planned, especially for classes that include more complex learning and/or diverse student populations, or for those times when students are just not ready to engage in additional formal learning activities. Educational games of various kinds, whether commercially prepared or student created, relieve the stress of long periods of intense instruction while also supporting the learning goals of the class. "Brain-teasers" that capture the content of the class in new and unusual patterns, such as visual presentations of ideas or cross-disciplinary applications of the day's lesson, provide opportunities for students in pairs or teams to review curricular content and to develop cooperative learning skills.

Conclusion

Block scheduling is a needs-driven, research-based approach to the problem of restructuring the time element in the secondary school paradigm. It is a restructuring that has been successfully implemented in many locations across the country, and indeed, internationally (Furman and McKenna, 1995; Hackmann, 1995; Schoenstein, 1995; Wilson, 1995; Fritz, 1996; Reid, 1996; Wyatt, 1996). This change in the time structure of the secondary school has become the springboard for both organizational growth and reexamination of instructional goals. New paradigms in one area of the educational arena call for new paradigms in other areas.

Much of the success that has accompanied the move to block scheduling is due in a direct way to the willingness of teachers to make changes in their instructional methods and in the willingness of their principals to support teachers in their efforts. Such a move calls for openness to the change process on the part of all concerned, a structure for honest and open dialogue preceding implementation about the pros and cons of the change, and forward-thinking leadership with accompanying organizational support throughout the process. With this type of planning and sustenance, both material and moral, the likelihood that block scheduling will make a difference in student outcomes, and result in professional and organizational growth, is indeed great and more than worth the effort. 

References

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Reference:

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Reference:

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Author Affiliation:

Donald G. Hackmann is assistant professor of educational administration and foundations at Illinois State University, Normal; Donna M. Schmitt is professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti.