Education Commentary

To Block Or Not?

By James T. English — July 09, 1997 4 min read

The current vogue in block scheduling is arousing interest and reform on many levels, yet it seems to be one more manifestation of what educator and writer William Damon calls the “false oppositions.” The block question, as I understand it, is whether a school should either stay with its traditional 45-minute, seven-periods-a-day schedule or merge these shorter classes into a series of blocks. The argument for blocks is compelling: more project-oriented work, less time lost to transitions, an embracing of " less is more.” Yet isn’t this one more example of the kind of “either-or” thinking that has so limited schools? The educational landscape is littered with the detritus of such false-opposite battles. As Mr. Damon notes, will it be phonics or whole language? Character or academics? Rigor or playfulness? The real question, as many others before me have noted, is not “either-or” but achieving “both-and.”

In the middle school where I work, there is a team of teachers who have used variations on the block-scheduling concept for several years now. They didn’t come to this because of some article they’d read in an education journal, or via a suggestion from me, but because blocks of time fit some of their needs.

These four faculty members, part of a middle school team of 60 students, teach four classes a day in addition to their other duties as advisers, coaches, and members of various school committees. For a good part of every week, they work within the traditional, 45-minute setting, since that’s the optimum format for what they want to accomplish and what they feel typical 12- through 14-year-olds can handle.

But at least once a week (and more often when the need arises), these four teachers trade time with each other to create blocks. The history teacher, Dennis Dobbyn, finds the possibilitybut not the requirementof blocks very helpful, as he often invites guest speakers to his class to talk about American history. Recently, the guest was a teacher in another division of our school who had been interned in a Japanese concentration camp in the Philippines during World War II. She would not have been able to talk about the background of the war and her experiences as a young girl, while also leaving time for questions, without a large block of time.

When Dennis wanted to illustrate the tension between labor and management in American business, he founded a mock company (named Dufus Manufacturing Inc. by the students), appointed company officers and union representatives, showed them the finances of the company, and then organized a debate between labor and management over salaries and health benefits. This, too, would not have been possible in a 45-minute class.

While Dennis’ students are working in a block class, one of his team colleagues “backs” a class against his to keep the four team sections coordinated. One week, it may be the English teacher, Raya Goff, who plans for her students to present their poetry projects or read their memoirs (from a unit called “20th-century childhood memoirs”). Or it may be the science teacher, Tony McClellan, who needs to take his 6th graders off campus to collect data for their river project or visit the Narragansett Electric Co. Or perhaps it’s the week when the math teacher, Patricia Savage, is giving the algebra midterm, and she needs a double period for that. The curriculum, mirabile dictu, drives the schedule.

Indeed, these teachers would be even more creative with their schedule if I hadn’t tied their hands by “locking” the first period each day across teams, so that a handful of 7th graders from a different team could come to Patricia for 8th grade math and a handful of 8th graders could leave Patricia’s class and travel to our high school for geometry. (This is the price we pay for trying to grapple with another “either-or” question: Do we ability-group or not? Again, we’re seeking a “both-and” solution. Right now, we only track in advanced sections of math and foreign language, where knowledge is more cumulative and individual differences seem most salient.)

Once, I asked these teachers, “Would you like your schedule to be all block classes?”

No, they said. Many days, a 45-minute class is ideal for early adolescents, whose restlessness and hormonal surges make them function best within shorter parcels of time. The transitions between classes, rather than being viewed as lost instructional time, become a moment for students to stretch their legs and clear their heads. These teachers like the freedom of choosing which time configuration fits best.

I asked the same question, in writing, of the Spanish class I teach. “I would never want to do block scheduling,” one boy wrote. “I would rather have shorter classes because they make the day go faster.” A girl wrote, " I think I’d get really bored with this idea. For me personally, I can’t sit still for a long time.” When we went around the room, sharing opinions, the students’ sentiments were universally anti-block. One boy said: “I would never last through a 90-minute period. It would drive me insane!” There was one exception, however: “If it means we’d have a double period of PE,” a boy said, “I’d be interested.”

And then there was the student who wrote that “the depletion in classes would prohibit kids from seeing other friends in the same day,” meaning, I think, that our present transitions offer good social time.

As for the girl who said she would “get really bored with this idea” and " couldn’t sit still for a long time,” she is a member of Dennis Dobbyn’s team. She has been attending carefully planned, judiciously scheduled block classes in history, English, science, and math for the past seven months. Apparently, these don’t count.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week