This We Believe (NMSA, 1995) defines a developmentally responsive middle school as one in which the organizational structure is complementary to the students it serves. This structure encompasses team teaching and how team teachers use the time allotted them in regard to instructional parameters. The traditional departmentalized schedule is characterized by a fixed number of daily periods of uniform length, with delivery of instruction strictly adhering to departmental classifications (Hackmann and Valentine, 1998). Meehan (1973) indicated that uniform scheduling makes instructional experiences such as lab activities, field trips, and cooperative learning difficult. In contrast, flexible block scheduling permits the freedom to schedule what is important to a school community. There are many different kinds of block schedules. Two of the most common forms of block scheduling are the alternate day plan and the flexible block. These are the two forms of scheduling to be discussed during the research summary.
The alternate day block schedule may be adapted to meet the needs of schools that offer six or eight courses. In such schools, half of the classes meet in double instructional blocks (i.e. 90 minutes) one day, while the remaining classes meet in double blocks the next day. Many schools have students meet in all six or eight classes one day each week for shorter periods of time (Edwards, 1995).
The form of block schedule often associated with the middle school is a flexible block of time. The primary purpose of using flexible block scheduling for adolescent learners is to support a range of integrated activities. The integration model is typically characterized as two to five teachers who "ignore subject area lines and instead draw from any subject on the problem or issue at hand," which is of interest to the students (Beane, 1990, p. xiv). A teaching team may develop a model that promotes inquiry about student interest areas such as school violence, local environmental issues, or social issues. The concept of flexible block scheduling is rooted in concerns about creating sufficient time to immerse students in the learning experience. Flexible block scheduling is a vehicle to support the efforts to implement the Turning Points (Carnegie Council, 1989) recommendation for teacher teams, clusters of students, and planning time.
The use of block scheduling and interdisciplinary team organization are both popular ways to restructure middle level schools. However, to be an interdisciplinary team, the team teachers do not have to be scheduled to teach at the same time. Flexible block scheduling requires that the teachers involved are, in fact, teaching at the same time. Ideally, all interdisciplinary teams are scheduled on a flexible block basis (Merenbloom, 1986).
The flexible interdisciplinary block schedule has become a trademark of middle level education. Block-time scheduling assigns a group of students to a team of teachers (i.e. 120 students) and provides a period of time in which two to four class periods of 45-60 minutes each are in session. The team usually becomes responsible for instruction in math, science, social studies, and language arts (Romano and Georgiady, 1994). The goal is to establish a school within a school, which nutures a bonding between students and teachers.
It is also important to differentiate between the block scheduling model as it is commonly recommended and used in high schools, and block scheduling as commonly recommended and used in middle schools. The high school block scheduling model typically schedules a four-period day, in which students take two core and two elective courses in one semester to earn a year's credit. Typically the high school instructional blocks are approximately 90 minutes. The focus in the middle school is entirely different.
Effective middle level schedules are based on the philosophy that schools should be flexible and responsive to student needs. A flexible and responsive schedule supports blocks of instructional time, appropriate planning time for staff members, advisory time, flexibility for special schedules, and both elective and core programs.
Middle school students are not earning credits as they progress through grades 5 through 8. The purpose of flexible scheduling is to allow teachers the freedom to make time frame decisions to meet the instructional outcomes for ultimate student achievement. For example, core teachers (math, science, social studies and English) plan to teach an integrated unit on indigenous people of the area. In their planning, they may decide that on Monday and Wednesday for the next month they will block students into 90-minute periods to allow students project time to investigate sources or plan with peers.
Another scenario is the science teacher may want to perform an archeological dig activity that necessitates a three or four period block for two days to allow students an appropriate amount of time to complete the activity and process the information. The other team teachers adjust their curriculum for this activity. Half of the students will be involved in the dig, while the other half work on a cooperative project with the other teachers. The schedule is flexible to meet student learning needs. Teachers are empowered to make curricular and instructional decisions. In this example, the students are more likely to meet the curricular objective by performing an archeological dig for three hours in contrast to only reading about the site because the schedule is not flexible.
Successful flexible block scheduling requires that the curriculum be reviewed in order to meet the designated learning goals set for the students by the school. Lammel (1996) states that the key to successful integration supported by flexible block scheduling is to emphasize student-centered instruction developed around active learning programs. Middle school is the time for students to explore a variety of learning opportunities. A flexible block schedule supports this approach.
Developmental and Programmatic Reasons for Block Scheduling
The scheduling configuration allows a school to facilitate its program goals and purposes. In the 1940s and 1950s many junior high schools organized single-teacher block-time programs under such titles as "core," "unified studies," and "common learnings" (Vars, 1987). Although the actual curriculum emphasis varied in practice, these core programs were intended to promote use of units organized around social issues using interdisciplinary approaches. Fanaticism over separate-subject academic learnings, not unlike that of the 1980s, led to the dismantling of core programs following the launching of Sputnik in 1957 (Beanie and Lipka, 1987).
Schools must implement schedule changes in relationship to the context of the specific school environment. Preparing a middle level schedule can be an opportunity to address goals, promote innovation, strengthen problem-solving skills, and better serve the middle level student. Scheduling can be broken into four distinct phases: (1) planning and preparing, (2) collecting data, (3) developing the schedule, and (4) implementing the schedule. Scheduling is a vital function for middle level administrators for several reasons. The schedule is merely a tool to serve students. The structure of the student day and the ease with which students are able to access a school's curricular program are either helped or hindered by the school schedule. The schedule also promotes a particular philosophy about the way teachers and students interact, and either creates opportunity for improved service to students or creates hurdles that inhibit the instructional program. Scheduling promotes delivery of the curriculum and addresses the instructional needs of staff and students. The schedule determines whether or not all students are able to have equal access to curriculum offerings (Williamson, 1993).
Block Scheduling Advantages and Concerns for the Middle Level Learner
Middle level educators and policy makers have a responsibility to provide a schooling experience that is developmentally responsive (Vars, 1997). It is important that a well-designed schedule be the foundation for an exemplary middle level school program. Conversely, a poorly developed model will not only undermine a faculty's efforts to implement effective middle school components, but will destroy any progress that has been made to make a school responsive to the needs of the young adolescent (Hackmann and Valentine, 1998).
The development of the middle level schedule is an unavoidable task that must be accomplished so students and teachers can attain maximum instructional benefits from the allotted time. The creation of an effective schedule is paramount to the development of a well-functioning middle level school. When determining a schedule that best meets a school's programmatic needs, it is helpful to compare the various scheduling models with their effectiveness in meeting a set of factors that support a student-centered middle level philosophy (Hackmann and Valentine, 1998). A flexible block schedule allows time for "hands-on" instruction, class projects, cooperative learning groups, and flexibility in assessing students knowledge (Canady, 1995; Carroll, 1990).
The high school 4x4 block schedule is problematic for implementation at the middle level because courses are offered on a semester or trimester basis, and students cannot be enrolled in all required core classes the same semester. Consequently, it is impossible to design and implement interdisciplinary units that fully integrate language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science (Hackmann and Valentine, 1998).
Several positive effects, such as providing students with the opportunity to engage in projects which require in-depth investigation and critical thinking skills, are enhanced through the flexible block schedule. Block scheduling and the accompanying student-centered pedagogical strategies appear to be more successful in some schools than in others. It is important to view scheduling as a vital piece of the larger picture of middle level change. It does not stand alone, but must be used in conjunction with other Turning Points (1989) recommendations. Felner and his colleagues (1997) support this comprehensive approach to school improvement. They also note the importance of on going, targeted staff development.
Specific Examples and Outcomes of Schools that Implement Block Scheduling
Flexible, interdisciplinary block scheduling has become a landmark for the middle school movement in the 1990's. The number of schools implementing a true integrated schedule has increased from 33% in 1989 to 57% in 1993 (Valentine, Clark, Irvin, Keefe and Melton). Four examples provide a sense of the diverse ways schools implement block schedules.
Memorial Middle School in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, uses a nine period flexible block schedule. Teachers instruct six periods. The schedule includes an advisory period, exploratory classes, and a large-group academic period. This schedule requires the school day to be extended (NASSP, 1999). Becker Middle School in Las Vegas, Nevada, uses the seven-period day. Teachers have a 2-period personal and team preparation time. The block consists of the remaining 5 periods in which teachers manipulate time as needed to meet student curricular needs (NASSP, 1999). Mt. Anthony Middle School in Bennington, Vermont, places students in unified art classes for two hours a day and in core classes for three hours a day (NASSP, 1999).
Sixth grade students at William Diamond Middle School in Lexington, Massachusetts, devote their time to intensive, independent learning projects, one each quarter in science, math, social studies, and English. Fridays are spent working only on this designated integrative project. At the end of each quarter, students move on to another core discipline project. The sixth grade teacher teams have common objectives:
- to foster student engagement, independent learning and thinking skills
- to allow for different learning styles
- to incorporate multiple intelligences as defined by Howard Gardner (1993) and
- to require students to make decisions about their own learning and manage time and materials effectively (Murdock et. al, 1995).
Practical Suggestions for Implementing Block Scheduling
Although districts may restructure the school day without changing to flexible block scheduling, comprehensive reports such as Turning Points (Carnegie Council, 1989) indicate that the 40-50 minute class is not adequate time to present content, practice skills, and reinforce concepts. Prisoners of Time, the report of the 1994 National Education Commission on Time and Learning, recommends flexibility in time scheduling to better serve students' individual educational needs. Flexibility through the use of block scheduling may, therefore, address one of the basic premises of instruction; we do not all learn in the same way, or in the same amount of time.
Instructional planning should be approached as a fresh beginning rather than a process for adjusting old lesson plans. The full advantage of extended periods is obtained if enriched daily activities are incorporated into weekly and monthly teaching plans. Teachers benefit from training in cooperative learning and other strategies that support the goals of extended classes. Teachers planning, choice of materials, class content, in-class assignments, and homework assignments are different than approaches in shorter or less flexible lengths of class time. Improvement in student skills and abilities are significant if the teacher is prepared for the new challenges of the classroom (Brett, 1996).
Educators need to become proficient with instructional strategies that are compatible with flexible block scheduling. As students are presented with varying blocks of time in which to learn, accommodations in curriculum and pedagogical strategies, as well as a change toward students taking more responsibility for their own learning are needed for flexible block scheduling to become effective (Salvaterra and Adams, 1995). This is also a unique opportunity to individually address diverse learning abilities in non-tracking fashion.
The most important scheduling consideration is the stated mission or philosophy of the middle level school. The school's schedule must provide a structure in which both students and teachers can achieve the mission. The stated mission of the school and the programmatic components of a school should be the primary focus.
School administrators must also consider other local parameters and guidelines. These factors include bus schedules, physical plans, length of the school day, and contractual conditions of employment for teachers and other staff members. These factors do not function in isolation; they interact with each other. Converting to a flexible block schedule works smoothly for certain types of schedules already in place. Schools currently using a seven or eight-period day can more easily convert. Those using a six-period schedule may have adequate facilities, but typically need approximately a 10% increase in staff to avoid increasing class size (Edwards, 1995). Hackmann and Valentine (1998) discuss factors that provide guidance for school faculties as they consider scheduling alternatives. A schedule should support and promote the following factors:
- the interdisciplinary team organization
- an appropriate curriculum
- quality instruction in the disciplines through the expanded and flexible uses of time
- development and supportive relationships between students and teachers
- quality teacher collaboration
- teacher empowerment.
In some school settings the implementation of a full-scale flexible interdisciplinary schedule can be challenging. Resources for effective implementation of issues such as common planning time and proximity of classrooms are often limited. Curriculum design or ability grouping reduces the opportunity for the same set of teachers to create the "school within a school" for a common set of students. Careful, thoughtful transition for full implementation to either alternating-day block or flexible block is essential. Hackmann and Valentine (1998) caution about getting on the bandwagon and moving to a new scheduling model without careful planning.
Effective middle level schedules are based on a stated philosophy and goals that must be flexible and responsive to student needs. A flexible and responsive schedule supports blocks of instructional time, appropriate planning time for staff members, advisory time, flexibility for special schedules, and both elective and core programs. The interdisciplinary schedule provides middle school faculties with the freedom and flexibility to design an instructional program that is most responsive to the needs of the young adolescent. The research evidence is clear that a flexible block schedule to support integrated team teaching is the most beneficial to high quality adolescent learning.
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Research Summary Coordination/Preparation
The staff of the Middle Level Leadership Center (MLLC) has developed this research summary. The mission of the MLLC is to provide research and service to middle level education. To accomplish that mission, Center staff members work with national organizations, such as The National Middle School Association, to disseminate research information about middle level education. MLLC is a program in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The authors of this research summary were:
Karen Wunderlich, graduate student at Northern Arizona University and intern at MLLC.
Tara Robertson, middle school teacher and MLLC research assistant
Jerry Valentine, Professor and Center Director
The authors wish to thank Dr. Don Hackmann of Iowa State University for serving as a reviewer of this research summary. He reviewed two manuscript drafts, providing prompt and valuable suggestions in the refinement of this summary. His knowledge of the topic and the time he invested were significant in the development of this summary.