Don’t Return to Your School’s Pre-Pandemic Schedule. Improve It Through...

Opinion | PK-12 School Models

Don’t Return to Your School’s Pre-Pandemic Schedule. Improve It Through Brain Science.

By Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher     Jan 25, 2022

Don’t Return to Your School’s Pre-Pandemic Schedule. Improve It Through Brain Science.

“Don’t go back!”

This is the advice we’ve been giving district and school leaders across the country about their daily schedule. No amount of money or professional development and design time could have had a greater impact on school schedules than COVID-19. Most schools, for the health and safety of their communities, adjusted them in a variety of ways, often making them more “brain-friendly” and aligning them with promising research and strategies in the science of teaching and learning, or what we like to call, Mind, Brain and Education (MBE).

In addition to teaching at our Maryland independent school, St. Andrew’s, we also help run the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, which trains educators in MBE and other research-based strategies. In 2019, we wrote about our school’s journey in revising its 20th century schedule to align more with the most promising research in MBE, prioritizing things like sleep (i.e., later start times), longer and fewer class periods each day, executive function, retrieval practice, meta-cognition, community space and building relationships with teachers. Eighteen months into the new schedule, like so many other schools, we found ourselves adjusting it as we finished the 2019-20 school year fully remote, and then again as we transitioned into a hybrid model the following year.

How schools and districts use and design time says so much about their understanding of how the brain learns and the important role the daily schedule plays in both the academic and social-emotional development of each student. It’s one of the first things we ask for when we visit schools around the world. Start and stop times of daily schedules are often driven by bus schedules and antiquated thinking about the design of a school day. They’re designed for an assembly line economy versus the creative, collaborative and knowledge rich world that students will inherit.

So when schools called us during the summer of 2021, they often asked whether they should stick with the schedules they created for distance, hybrid or safer in-person learning or return to a more traditional format. Our consistent answer is: “Don’t go back!” The truth is, some do and some don’t.

Despite having students back in school and on campus, this school year remains complex and anything but normal. A lot of great talk was given to making sure we care for student’s wellbeing and mental health, and organizations such as TurnAround for Children, Challenge Success and CANDLE at USC have been providing resources and research for teachers and school leaders to do just that. But with learning gaps continuing to widen, the response from many schools has been to pack the day with more academic time and homework, reduce time dedicated to building relationships and play, and cutting back on arts programs.

As we have worked with teachers and schools this year we have often shared this chart.

Current Grade School year (2021-2022)
Last Full, Cohesive, COVID-Free Grade (2018-19)
12th 9th
11th 8th
10th 7th
9th 6th
8th 5th
7th 4th
6th 3rd
5th 2nd
4th 1st
3rd K
2nd PK
1st -

One of us, Glenn, teaches 10th grade history, and the last time his students had a non-mask wearing, COVID free school year was in seventh grade. A huge amount of academic, social and emotional development takes place during those years. Schools that see cognition and emotion, achievement and wellbeing as not mutually exclusive can use their schedules to address all the gaps—the academic, social and emotional—along with the inequitable school experiences so many students faced over the last two years. We know from brain research that cognition and emotion are highly interlinked. For our students to flourish, we need to design a schedule with this as a priority.

So, what have we done differently with our schedule this year?

Our first class for middle and high school students now begins at 9 a.m. Passing periods are 10 minutes long to give students an extra break. And we returned to three 60-minute class periods a week for each course that, not counting the weekend, often have a day between them. We do this intentionally to create a little extra time for some “good forgetting” and rustiness. Teachers use that to their advantage by beginning the next class with some retrieval practice and interleaving, learning science strategies that can boost knowledge retention. Classes meet at different times throughout the week to add variety—Ian’s physics class Friday at 9:00 a.m. has a different feel than Wednesday’s at 1:40 p.m. and different students shine—but each week’s schedule is the same to reduce cognitive load.

An advantage for teachers of moving from four to three classes per course per week is that they now have one less class to design a week in each course—so more time to prepare for each class, and a bit more time to breathe. For balance, we elevated the number of office hours available for students, and reminded teachers what research-informed homework should look like (quality has a greater impact than quantity). Our longer class periods help practicing, discussing, exploring and creating lay alongside content delivery.

Too often when we think of daily schedules, we tend to think about their impact on secondary school. But students in elementary school experience some of the most important growth in relationship building, knowledge, skill development and sense of self. Our Lower School (grades PS-5) set aside time for equally important courses, including daily physical education, visual arts, performing arts, languages, science and quality recess time, while also focusing on literacy, math, executive function, play and SEL.

We still have work to do at St. Andrew’s. There remains an urge to do everything (sometimes the same way) that we were doing pre-March 2020. We have struggled with the right amount of freedom for students, which we know elevates student agency, with the necessary restrictions that help us limit and track potential “close COVID contacts.” But we know that we are in the midst of another complex school year, and that returning to normal should not be the goal right now—we need to make this year work. And our insights from this year will help us design a better “normal” when the time comes.

For those schools that changed their schedules during these disrupted school years due to the pandemic, we urge you to stay the course and continue to use science of learning research to inform your next steps. For those schools that went back, take a moment to consider the social and emotional wellbeing of your students and staff, and how your current schedule aligns with what we know from research on what helps students learn and adults thrive.

At various meetings at our school you might hear the statement “time is the prize.” We prefer to think of it as “time is the choice.” The opportunity that so many schools have seized upon in this crisis was to change their schedule. We urge you, don’t go back. It is one of many ways your school or district can signal that you understand how brains learn and that you want to create more impactful learning experiences for all of your students.

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