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45 minute class period
High school junior Tania Toriz, 16, and sophomore Jade Boling, 15, fix a screw on the top of a shed that their “Geometry in Construction” class constructed at Ritenour High School near St. Louis, Missouri. Credit: Kristen Taketa for The Hechinger Report

Schools have been trying to move toward a more personalized approach to learning for decades, but most of them lack schedules conducive to this kind of education.

Instead, teachers are constrained within a traditional school day with six or eight periods of an inflexible length. This so-called “bell schedule” influences how we teach and even what we teach: Content coverage over deeper learning, lecturing over fluid grouping, tasks over projects and one-size-fits-all over personalized.

Research shows that teachers can more effectively personalize instruction when schools move away from traditional schedules.

Related: Extending school far beyond the classroom walls

In a study that included almost 50,000 students in Broward County, Florida, the majority of teachers who used a non-traditional schedule reported that they implemented a variety of new teaching techniques, increased the number of learning activities, experimented with different student evaluation techniques and provided more individualized attention.

Jo Boaler of Stanford University and Desmos chief academic officer Dan Meyer often talk about so-called low-floor, high ceiling math problems that “require a simple first step but which stretch for miles.” But when your math class is always 45 minutes in length or you don’t have the flexibility in the schedule to revisit math content, it’s hard to go for miles.

Related: Personalized learning gives students a sense of control over chaotic lives

If teachers are provided with longer learning blocks during the week, they will have the space to experiment with such problems. It’s not simply about expanding the length of a class. It’s about providing educators with the flexibility to align the right amount of time when they see fit.

“The schedule influences the choices that teachers make every day about the methods they use to teach a concept. It can constrain or free a teacher.”

Technological limitations on designing master schedules that produce the time and space to experiment with a personalized approach are often overlooked in a national narrative centered on the virtues of personalized learning. For school leaders, master scheduling is complicated by shifts — well into the summer months — in staffing levels, enrollment numbers and budgets.

Imagine, for example, that a school wants to implement projects where students are able to connect with mentors in their communities for feedback and guidance. The students would need large blocks of open time and the ability to adjust schedules as the projects come together and students’ needs come into focus. Pedagogical innovation also requires opportunities for planning and professional development.

Longer periods and better staff optimization mean that educators can get the time they need to discuss student needs and which learning scaffolds are best. Often, this vision is directly at odds with traditional policies and tools. For example, while California recently stopped monitoring the number of minutes per class period, many of the tools that school leaders use to build their schedules still have time built in as a constraint.

Related: Massachusetts districts now trade notes on best paths to personalized learning

School leaders know that the schedule is about far more than how we group students or assign them to staff and schoolwide projects. The schedule influences the choices that teachers make every day about the methods they use to teach a concept. It can constrain or free a teacher.

They are rarely equipped with the tools to unleash their creativity to design more flexible, modular schedules. Frustrated by the gap between what they want and what they can do — and limited by the realities of magnet boards and spreadsheets — most schools adhere to a static schedule, with little optimization for student learning, that remains mostly unchanged for the full 180 days of the school year.

This may soon change. As it turns out, education’s personalization-scheduling paradox is the sort of challenge that has drawn technologists like Yammer co-founder and Abl Schools founder Adam Pisoni into the development of technology for schools. Together with a cohort of school leaders from across the country, he has created software that accounts for variables, with the goal of transforming master scheduling.

It’s a concept that is beginning to empower school leaders to redesign schedules not just for schools and classrooms, but also for groups and individual students.

The potential is profound, if not counterintuitive. Reimagining the schedule can enable shifts toward open-ended projects, personal feedback and deeper learning activities.

In some ways, master scheduling is an exercise that asks school leaders to operate with one foot in the present and one in the future: reimagining the school day while laying the foundation for new school models that will prepare our children for the future.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter

Lee Fleming is the principal of Bonsall High School in California.

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