In praise of short lessons

At my school our lessons are 35 minutes long and there are 41 timetabled lessons a week. Years back I used to shake my head at such an old fashioned structure, unfriendly to pupil centred approaches and staging exciting role plays or other set piece lessons. After moving from a school with longer lessons to my current school I would dismissively exclaim at the way 35 minute lessons encouraged didactic teaching… It is also true that longer lessons are chosen in schools that have more issues with behaviour as transitions are a problem.

As the years have passed I have done many fewer of those time consuming set piece activities in my lessons and have learnt a really useful golden rule in teaching. If you find that you continually reject certain approaches in your day on day planning, despite believing you should use them, it is probably not that you are lazy. Actually the sensible part of you knows they won’t work so well, whatever you think you believe.

The traditional 35 minute lesson has been preserved in my school perhaps because public schools tend to market themselves on delivering a traditional education. Such schools are sheltered from shifting winds of change in education, experiencing them as mere breezes that are felt but have little impact. There are strong arguments in favour of preserving tradition. It is the combined wisdom of past generations and often we don’t even know what we lose when we change things. Recently I had a blinding realisation. – that there were good reasons why short lessons used to be common.

1. Memory: When you see your classes more frequently in a week you have many more opportunities to recap and revisit concepts at spaced intervals.

Kirschner, Clark and Sweller point out: ‘if nothing has been changed in the long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’ So how can we help students remember what they’ve learned? Cognitive psychologists such as Bjork are in agreement about what is best:

a.Spacing (rather than massing) practice: information that is presented repeatedly over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals.

b. Interleaving: although people think that they learn better when content is blocked, rather than interleaved, people actually learn content better when it is interleaved with other content.

c. Testing: using our memory improves our memory: the act of retrieval helps us remember the things we recall.

So by having more frequent lessons we really help our students remember i.e. learn.

2. Time efficiency: Although we have 5 minute gaps between each lesson, with short lessons you waste much less time on extraneous activities added to give pupils a breather or buy their flagging attention. You can teach something in the most efficient way, in fact you are forced to be time efficient to ensure there has been adequate progress in the lesson. If ‘time is the currency of education’ (Daisy Christodoulou?) 35 minute lessons lead to a frugal approach. You simply can’t fit in redundant starter activities, there just to ‘warm everyone up’ but it is amazing what you can fit into 35 minutes if you have to. When you have chosen to do a ‘jazzy’ lesson, it has to fit into the time available, leaving plenty of teaching time left that week for other stuff.

3. Class management: it is much easier to keep track of missing homework, pin down recalcitrant pupils and feed back promptly when you see students more frequently.

4. Formative assessment: If a lesson goes badly not so much damage has been done and there will be another lesson along soon to put things right. There is much more unavoidable use of formative assessment as you adjust each lesson in the light of the last. I sometimes find that having only lost 35 minutes on a ‘write off lesson’ I am able to plan a belter for the next lesson, when I make good use of what I have learnt from the last failed attempt to build better understanding than if things had gone fine in one longer lesson. With short intervals between lessons misconceptions are quickly corrected.

5. Timetabling: Short lessons create a flexible timetable model. You can create more balanced timetables, including for part-timers. It is possible to have doubles for art and singles for languages and maths within the 35 minute structure. A mix of a double and two singles at GCSE or A level also works well.

6. Planning time: I know I will sound lazy here but I am not, I spend hours planning. I am totally committed to getting the best from my students and absolutely want them to appreciate my subject. However, I am a pragmatist. I think very long lessons require more planning time (teaching minute for minute) compared with short lessons. This is because it is more of a challenge to keep pupils’ attention and variety must come through changing activities, rather than moving to a new subject in a new classroom. Time is precious and there is an opportunity cost here. I am not arguing for boring, lazy teaching but I don’t think students really benefit educationally from the current obsession with all singing, all dancing jazz hands lessons and I think that students can learn and enjoy a lesson despite a predictable format to it.

There may be good reasons for choosing longer lessons but I don’t think the advantages of short lessons are widely appreciated. As I said, traditions evolve for good reasons and we often dismiss them as dated, unaware of their advantages. Unfortunately, I may just have realised the value of short lessons but it seems my school may soon be attempting to modernise, moving to a new format with much longer lessons…

Bother!

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13 thoughts on “In praise of short lessons

    1. Inevitable they will actually prefer singles to doubles. The walk is a chance to chat. I’ve heard plenty of groans about ‘double maths’ but never any moans about the walk between two singles. Their days end up as a mix of singles and doubles so there aren’t so many transitions.

  1. Another excellent analysis. I have taught every lesson length from 35 to 100 minutes and every timetable from a nine period day to three. You are quite right except for practical subjects, which need longer sessions. If you objectively measure unproductive time in long lessons it usually exceeds that lost between shorter ones. The students also like the variety. However, there are some benefits to starting and ending on breaks (set-up and follow-up) so: ‘every cloud’!

    1. Thanks! Yes, there are pros and cons for different formats, a comfort when you are moving from a format you like! I really like it when I get a double with break between the two halves. You get many of the benefits of a longer lesson with fewer of the drawbacks.

      1. Yes, a double with a Break in the middle is easier to timetable than a traditional double …and has some pedagogical advantages.
        For example, a Maths lesson [which as a “language” would normally be better as a single period every day], if it has to be a double, then this split kind of double allows:
        –a ‘lead lesson’ where a new topic is introduced, with some practice,
        –followed by a Break (but all their books are left in place), while they relax in the playground and their brains assimilate what they’ve learnt so far,
        –and then they return to their desks for more practice to consolidate that learning.
        So, an advantage for the learners …and as I said, just as easier to timetable as a double with no break.
        Keith

  2. Some interesting ideas here. As a science teacher I would like the mix of singles and doubles and I expect that you view the week as a whole when planning rather than individual lessons. I know our younger, weaker pupils sometimes struggle with an hour, even with a range of activities.

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