David Naylor, the principal of Model Laboratory School at Eastern Kentucky University, heard the popular author Daniel Pink, speak at the Indiana Principals Association last year. And Naylor immediately decided that he needed to go back to the drawing board on his school’s schedule.
In his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink cites research from Mareike Wieth, a professor at Albion College in Wisconsin, and others explaining that when it comes to academic subjects, young children do their best learning first thing in the morning. Creative tasks, on the other hand, are better left until later in the afternoon, when the mind is less likely to stifle brainstorming.
“In elementary school, the earlier time is when your focus is going to be best,” Wieth said in an interview. That, she noted, is a great opportunity to work on math and reading. On the other hand, during the “nonoptimal time of day, the walls are much thinner, things go easily in and out.”
For younger children, that means the afternoon is a great time for “free writing, art class, music, anything where students have a little more leeway.” She said she hadn’t heard of a school putting that part of her research into practice.
But Naylor’s school has taken it to heart. Starting next school year, his students in kindergarten through 3rd grade will kick off their day with a 90-minute reading-fluency block—essentially the class that teaches them how to read. Right after that, they’ll have mathematics. The afternoon will be reserved for specials, like arts and music. A second session of English/language arts will take place in the afternoon, this time focused on writing, which Naylor sees as a more creative activity. Science and social studies are not part of the strategic scheduling.
Older students—4th through 6th graders—will have a flexible schedule. Teachers will discuss how much time they need each day to teach a particular subject. And students’ schedules will be tailored to their strengths and weaknesses—those struggling the most in a specific class may be assigned to it first thing in the morning, for instance.
Naylor is hoping that if the changes are successful, neighboring schools can learn from them, fulfilling part of the public laboratory school’s mission of putting research into practice. Even though it’s hard, he said, “you have to break the normal barriers of what a schedule has to look like.”
Academics in the Morning
Teachers are looking forward to the change. “The one thing that really beats us up is time—do we have enough time to be able to do what we need to do during the day?” said Mary Tom Emanuel, a 3rd grade teacher.
In elementary school, the earlier time is when your focus is going to be best.
Emanuel thinks the proposed schedule will help the school squeeze more learning out of each minute. And Pink’s conclusions jibe with what she’s already noticed about 3rd graders: Her students are much more open to learning first thing in the morning. “You’ve gotta strike while the iron is hot, you’ve gotta get them when they’re ready to perform,” she said.
Moving academics to the morning for the youngest students is nothing new. But while many schools report making it a priority, they say that there are limitations to how far they can take the approach.
For instance, the Hudson school district, in western Wisconsin, has been front-loading its literature block for its littlest learners—K-2—for years. And when possible, the district tries to make sure this group of students gets mathematics in the morning, too.
“When you’re talking about kindergarten and 1st grade, you get toward the end of the day, and they start getting tired,” said Nick Ouellette, the district’s superintendent. “Since we feel the most important thing we do as a school district is teach kids to read, we put the first thing first.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Smart Scheduling Puts Students First