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Timetabling: A tyranny or a necessity?

The whole notion of the tyranny of the timetable and how it can stifle learning is quite a popular one - see for example Enslaved by timetable tyranny. There are many ideas discussed in the article, a couple of which included:

A primary head said to me recently: "Wouldn't it be marvellous if we could do the daily literacy and numeracy hours Monday to Thursday, and then have Fridays free for more flexible approaches?" One of the best literacy activities I do involves children acting as radio journalists and compiling a radio news bulletin. It needs a whole day, however, if a visit to the local radio station is to be included.

A newly-appointed geography teacher in a very academic grammar once persuaded his head to suspend the timetable for two days so the whole school could do Project Africa. It was a knockout, and he went on to be one of the best heads of his generation.

There is also the negative effects that timetables can have on the teachers. For example, in this paper Living by the clock: the tyranny of the secondary school timetable, Kathy Brady quotes:

Bells ring to signal the passing of classes, each of which will spend some parcel of time with the teacher in his or her classroom. Though students may move throughout the building, high school teachers often never leave their rooms in the course of a day. For every ‘period’ or ‘hour’, there is a routine: taking attendance, continuing from yesterday, introducing today’s material, winding down. Repeated five times a day. (Johnson, 1990, p.6)

I wonder if some of the notions about organisation and standardised assessment tend to go hand-in-hand with timetables?

I know, from a personal point of view, when I am learning something it can take ages to get my head down and 'into it', and sometimes it's really frustrating to have the flow broken. And when you get back, sometimes those good ideas will have dissipated...along with some of the motivation to continue.

I would say, though, that in my experiences with working with students, there needs to be quite a lot of initial support and guidance up front with a less formal, time-tabled structure...and skills to be taken on board such as time-management, digital literacy, research skills, self-reflection etc. (see, for example, Meeting diverse learner needs through blended learning). A continuum where you move from a relatively teacher-led approach at the beginning of a year, to a student-led/directed one by the end of the year seems to be fairly effective, and helps ensure that differentiation can be built into a programme...especially if a blended approach is used.

What are your thoughts? Are you tyrannised by a timetable? Or do you and your learners have heaps of freedom?

Image:  'Alternative Pedagogies, hosted by Barry Joe &+Jill+Grose Found on



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Comment by Hazel Owen on June 11, 2013 at 21:40

Thanks for your comment, Ruth. It is interesting that the timetabled day appears to have been developed for the convenience of the school rather than any acknowledgement of the way we learn as humans. As you say, it's choice. It's being quiet and listening to a conversation (or reading a post), and then mulling it over for a couple of days before, usually at some odd time of the day or night, developing a response or extension or question. It's about figuring out what time of the day works best for you for learning. And for those learners from backgrounds where family life might not be ideal, it's providing safe, supportive, warm, comfortable spaces, low-stress spaces...for chatting, catching up on sleep, catching up on a meal...and then moving into a head space for learning.

While I feel some structure is important, and too much choice can be incredibly overwhelming if you're not quite sure what your focus is (I'm thinking of 20 kinds of coffee beans at the supermarket type choice here :-p), choice can be provided in a way that frees up and empowers students. The background thinking around aims, purpose, and well as skills such as reflection and planning next steps...are all part of the structure that enables any of us to feel comfortable with making (hopefully) informed choices. So, these are aspects that need to be designed into pretty much all learning experiences - something that experienced learners often do almost subconsciously, perhaps, but that at some point we all need to learn how to do :-)

Comment by Ruth Bourchier on June 10, 2013 at 18:35

Classical timetabling is definitely a tyranny from my point of view. The compartmentalising of the day just doesn't work for me. With my own learning I need time and space to be non-linear and I love the many unexpected pathways it leads me down. I feel that when I'm in a less structured environment I delve much deeper into things. The other key thing for me in effective learning is CHOICE. If I don't have it I can nearly always predict that I won't engage with the learning. I'm therefore surprised that so many of my students seem uncomfortable with choice.

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