A guy I work with said a few years ago, “We don’t know how long it takes to learn Algebra 2. We know how long it takes to teach it – it takes 9 months – but we don’t know how long it takes to learn it.”

In a recent conversation about work/life balance, someone commented that our shift from an eight-period day to a seven-period day pushed more of her prep and grading to the evening because of there were fewer periods for the meetings that happen each week. My colleague’s earlier comment immediately ran through my head: we don’t really know how much time we need for our meetings. We know how long they take – they take 45 minutes because that’s how long our periods are – but we don’t know how time we actually need.

The decrease in free periods has also reduced our ability to watch each other teach, so our Faculty Council recently incentivized class visits: if we get a group of five people together and visit each other’s classes, the school will pay for us all to go out to dinner and talk about what we saw. This has been incredibly effective. I recently visited a World History class for the first time in my 19-year teaching career, and on Friday I added Engineering and Fiber Arts to that list.

Our Engineering class is self-paced and self-directed. Students work through a curriculum, and the teacher is in the room to help and troubleshoot, but the students drive how much gets done each day. When I visited, some groups were building a spreadsheet to determine gear ratios for a robot. It was pretty cool to watch, but I was struck by the fact that no matter what the students were doing, when the bell rang, the work was done. Groups in the middle of tracking down a formula mistake had to stop, save their work, and move on to their next class. They needed more time, but they couldn’t have it, because we don’t know how long it takes to debug a spreadsheet but we know how much time they have to do it: 45 minutes.

Fiber Arts is not unlike Engineering. There’s a little more instruction and there is time when the class stops to share or critique work, but ultimately students work on their own projects at their own pace. I was struck not by this similarity but by the use of time in that class. Several students had projects where they would do some work and then let it sit for at least a few minutes and in some cases overnight. Watching them, I got to thinking: what if…

- …the students’ time was more flexible?
- …they had the opportunity to work on their art projects, and when it needed time to dry they could turn their attention to their troublesome spreadsheets?
- …they could work on their spreadsheets until they had resolved the issues and hit a good stopping point, return to their art project to complete the next step, and use the subsequent down time to review the teacher’s comments on the rough draft of their World History term papers?
- …the students had a target they had to hit at the end of each day, or each week, but they had more control in how they went about it?
- …we no longer measured learning in 45-minute increments but in increments of days, weeks, or months – or maybe not in terms of time at all, but in terms of projects completed?

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. For a few years, a colleague and I co-taught a course in physics and precalculus. Our class was double-blocked, meaning we met 90 minutes three times a week and 150 minutes once a week. Some days we divided the time evenly. Some days we focused mostly on one topic or idea. And some days, we made decisions on the fly to reallocate time based on where the students were. If it worked for two of us, could we make it work for six of us? Could we put 60 students and 6 teachers together and build a community where students learned in increments that were determined not by bells but by the needs of their work at any given time?

I think we could. I think we should. And in doing so, I think we could do school in a more fun, effective, and productive way. I’m not the first to say it, and I certainly won’t be the last. But maybe if enough of us say it, schools will actually move in this direction, so consider this my contribution to the cause.