There is an Art to School Timetabling

By: Jan Stipek, Principal – Secondary Years

A timetable is probably the most complex thing at the school: it does not only determine who is where when but it also makes an important statement about the school’s approach to education philosophy and values.

Gone are the days when the timetable was uniform – 5 days a week, all lessons the same length. As with many things in education, tradition plays a more important part than we would like to think.

Here is an example: Students love their summer holidays, (of course they do!) but the reason for this 6-to-8 weeks off period is not neuroscience and research telling us the brain needs this time to ‘recharge’.

The real reasons date back to the European education reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries and are rooted in our agricultural heritage – children were simply needed to help out with harvest in the summer.

One societal norm leads to another and though the concept of ‘year-round schooling’ with shorter school breaks distributed fairly equally over 12 months makes sense. There are very few schools around the world ‘off the traditional academic year grid’.

Back to the timetable: an effective timetable provides the rhythm to a school day and maximizes learning opportunities for all learners, both in and out of the traditional class setting. While there isn’t the one perfect model, some of the common attributes of an effective timetable are: 

  • Rotates to avoid the ‘same last lesson on Friday’ syndrome and the same lessons being ‘lost’ due to public holidays and other non-teaching days
  • Recognizes that different subjects may need different lesson lengths
  • Meets prescribed curricular/programme requirements
  • Maximizes course selection flexibility, (for example for Diploma Programme subject choices)
  • Builds in regular study hall or literacy time to reflect and consolidate knowledge

And, of course, the ideal timetable would consider developmental and age factors so that our teenage students could start their day at 10am or even later. But just like with the summer holidays example above – established norms and some practical reasons do not always allow this.

There is a complexity behind timetabling and progressive schools review their timetables regularly to ensure they keep meeting their students’ needs.


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