10 August 2015

How Time Structures School | Part 2—Beyond Genius Hour

In Part 1 I tried to lay out a theoretical case for rethinking the way school views time as a defining structure; specifically looking at the way timetabling defines the learning environment, and therefore the knowledge and communication architectures within. In this post I’d like to explore three specific ways that school can start to re-imagine how time structures school: 1) within the classroom; 2) within the timetable; 3) within the school. We can also view these three as moving from least to most innovative (disruptive?) and in turn transformative from a “new learning” perspective.

Within the Classroom

For over 100 years traditional approaches to the use of classroom time have more or less been defined by the teaching of discrete subjects within a discrete timetable cell within defined walled spaces. While this format has worked well (and still works well for some students and for topics) the argument can be made that this model also creates barriers to a broader and bolder conception of what school can and should do with respect to teaching and learning in the 21st century (footnote: Is it time to stop calling for 21st century education? It is 2015. 2030 is closer in time than 1995. Why are we still talking about education as needing to move into the 21st century? We’re already here! 21st century education is the new normal, isn’t it?). Many classrooms therefore have begun to experiment with how time structures pedagogy and content within their own four walls.

The most salient example, I think, is the use of 20% time, Genius Hour, or Passion Projects within a classroom. Based on a principle first used by 3M and popularized by Google, the Genius Hour approach to re-structuring the time and therefore the pedagogy and content structure within the classroom has proven to be a powerful innovation. Genius hour empowers students to take educational ownership by giving them the choice and the time to pursue independent academic interests. The idea is to give students dedicated time in a classroom, every week, to pursue an inquiry-driven and/or choice driven learning model. The most common form is to give students one period a week, or roughly 20% of their week, to pursue an inquiry-based learning experience. This type of flexible time is generally undertaken by individual classroom teachers (although some models have cross-disciplinary teachers teaming up) and is not implemented school-wide. 

A great introductory resource to find out more information on 20% Time in Education can be found here. For a critical look at Genius Hour and whether it truly achieves it’s aims, Ewan McIntosh of NoTosh.com wrote a very good blog post here

The Project Based Learning, Problem Based Learning, and Inquiry Based Learning movements also, to varying degrees, play with how time structures the learning environment within the classroom. All empower students in different ways to take control of the learning by allowing them to use time in varying and different structured ways. The main limitation with both the movements above, and the Genius Hour approach, is that the learning environment is still defined and thus limited by the timetable cell. Robust conceptions of true multidisciplinary learning (or phenomenon teaching as Finland is calling it) are still effaced by the structure that the timetable places upon not only the learning environment, but also the way the learning environment is thought of. Students will still think of going their Genius Hour in Geography class with their Geography teacher, even if the project crosses the investigative boundaries traditionally set by the class title and content.

School, to take proper advantage of the learning affordances being brought in by the age of new learning, should be thinking broader and bolder, and encourage a move beyond Genius Hour. 

Within the Timetable

One way to circumvent the overarching way timetabling defines the learning environment (without throwing the timetable out) is to include within the timetable a cell for the type of broader and bolder multidisciplinary collaborative “21st century” learning environments valued. 

Flexible learning time is a concept that incorporates within the timetable a designated celled time for students innovating, creating, and exploring, often via in self-organized learning mechanisms. In practice flex-time might look something like this (the International School of Brussels High School successful operates a similar model):

Block Schedule with Flex Time
Block 1
Flex Time
Block 2
Block 3
Block 4
During flex-time students can self-organize around problems or questions they hope to explore, find a mentor teacher or teachers to help them with their investigation and exploration, and then follow through to the creating and innovating stage of their prototyping and problem-solving. They can also connect with the community, create student-led organizations and/or clubs, do independent research, among other options.

Another varient that I conceptualized but haven't seen adopted (and which I have tried to pitch to my school, unsuccessfully, for two years) is a "Friday Flextime" idea.

Core classes

Core classes

Core classes

Core classes
Core classes

Core classes
Core classes rotation
Core classes

Core classes

Core classes rotation
This large block of flex time could be reserved for student initiated and teacher mentored transdisciplinary Project-based learning—"passion projects," and student clubs and organizations in predetermined chunks of time (ie 1 hr for student clubs and orgs and 2 hrs for "passion projects"). It could be collapsed to do full half day activities (ie on and off campus service & experiential learning, guest speakers and workshops, etc)

The main change flex-time initiates is the idea that learning takes place in a discrete time, in a discrete location, within a discrete subject—and almost always with a age-based cohort of peer students. In contrast to 20% time, which is generally limited to specific classrooms, flextime becomes a school-wide change. Flextime provides for numerous possibilities with regards to providing spaces for inquiry-driven teaching and learning. Flex-time breaks down these artificial barriers, and allows for the learner to self-create a pathway and/or roadmap to and through learning objectives, with students and on topics of their own choosing

The inclusion of flex-time shifts the scheduling away from all learning in discrete, discipline specific timetable cells. Instead, flexible time is given to pursue non-linear, non-discreet, non-discipline specific teaching and learning by giving students dedicated time within the school day to innovate, create, explore by pursuing independent or collaborative projects, multidisciplinary project-based learning, and/or maker projects, among other things (creating “MakerSpaces” would be a great addition to the model of flex-time). 

Within the School

While flexible learning time has the potential to be quite powerful—if for no other reason that it breaks down to some extent the walls and cells—there are two inter-related but distinct concerns: 1) it falls short of a true multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning; 2) it lacks certain design constraints and structures to help students maximize their results. What would re-designing and re-imagining time within school look like? It is important to state from the outset that the goal is not necessarily to create an ideal model, rather it is more to promote a changing perspective, or point of view.

There are still very good reasons to view some traditional structures of school and curriculum as necessary—students do not always know their needs, and many times they have misconceptions (sometimes drastic) about the world around them. Lessons in grammar, math, writing, researching, close reading, etc are all necessary components (most would argue and agree) of a well-rounded and complete student. But the question remains, can we balance this out more? And should we?

Finland’s new Phenomenon teaching requirement is a good starting point for a conversation on this shift toward a more balanced approach to teaching and learning, one that acknowledges the scaffolding needs of building block knowledge, while also projecting forward the needs of the new realities of teaching and learning in the digital information age. 

“The next big reform taking place in Finland is the introduction of a new National Curriculum Framework (NCF), due to come into effect in August 2016…The concept of “phenomenon-based” teaching – a move away from “subjects” and towards interdisciplinary topics will have a central place in the new NCF…What will change in 2016 is that all basic schools for 7- to 16-year-olds must have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, phenomenon-based teaching and learning in their curricula…The NCF [also] states that students must be involved in the planning of phenomenon-based study periods and that they must have voice in assessing what they have learned from it.” 

Finland isn’t ditching traditional school subjects. Rather they are starting the conversation about the idea of a larger, transformational shift in education, “that breaking down the dominance of traditional subjects and isolation of teaching is an opportunity to more fundamental change in schools.” 

To be sure, this is not a revolutionary idea either. A.S. Neil’s Summerhill School, John Dewey’s progressive schools, trade schools, and some “alternative school” models have all used variations of this restructuring of school. However it has always occupied a very small niche within school writ large. But school write large hasn’t had a foundational shift in structure in over 100 years. Maybe now is the time. 

For examples of a few select schools playing with this model, see the following links: 


  1. The conceptions you described are very interesting. Time is the largest constraint there is in our current education system, and is probably the case in most other industries. Developing a master schedule with an innovative approach to time is essential for not only 21st century learning, but also for developing positive relationships. I teach in an urban high school in Saint Paul, MN and many of the youth I teach struggle with interpersonal skills. This eventually affects their academics. I would like to see my school, and other schools in a similar situation of needing to focus on building relationships, strive to be innovative with time and scheduling. In my district there is one high school that has one hour a week called foundations where students get interventions or work on special projects. In addition, each day they have an extra hour where students can take an enrichment course, sport, or support class. This high school has made significant academic gains according to the Minnesota Common Assessments. Last week, I was able to tour this school and my observations were that the students were more calmed and focused, perhaps this is by having that time carved into their schedules. Do you know of any research or school implementing the phenomenon teaching model where there is a significant population of students who are at risk, refugee students, or with a high percentage of IEPs?

    1. Hi, I do not have any good research that I can point you to off the top of my head. Great question though. Traditionally a school that pushes away from the traditional model it has usually been called "alternative education," right? That needs to change.


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