About Time… Handing The Timetable Reins Over To Students

Image C/- Justin Pelletier

If you had the ability to overhaul your timetable to best meet the needs of learners, what would you change? What would students choose to do?

As a teacher, I can happily chop and change between several different subjects each day. As a learner, I hate it. Writing is a case in point. If I can’t block out at least a couple of consecutive hours to dig into a blog post, I might as well not bother because I can’t get into a flow. When I try to write in short bursts, I usually just end up with several discombobulated thought bubbles that never see the light of day.

When it comes to timetables, I have students who sit in both camps, so it’s interesting to watch how learners organise and use their time when they are given control over it. Some like to continually switch between activities, while others prefer to slowly and thoughtfully explore a single task for hours on end. Handing over the timetable reins, first to the collective and then to individuals, is one of the simplest and most powerful changes I’ve made in recent times. Which leads me to ask; shouldn’t students have the opportunity to decompartmentalise their learning if that is their preference?

What are the potential benefits of handing responsibility for managing time over to students? In a blog post titled Timetables: The Enemy of Creativity, Michael Bond-Clegg points out that students often lack time-management skills because teachers or existing school structures control the vast majority of their time. Perhaps most importantly, he points out that,

“A student-driven timetable says to children, “you matter”. It says, “you are able to be the driver of your own learning”. It says “your time belongs to you”. Empowering students to manage their time and projects is a kinder, more humane, more authentic approach to learning and creating — one that we should be advocating for on behalf of our learners.”

I get to spend up to five hours with my middle-primary class every day, so time is a luxury I’m afforded. I have the freedom to choose how we spend the majority of our time, so I choose to give it back to students as often as possible. By doing this, they learn how to prioritise their learning, get the chance to dig more deeply into tasks in search of a flow state and reflect on the success of their goals. We have even moved on to using individual timetables on days when I’m not in the classroom. I used to leave detailed lesson plans and schedules for visiting teachers to follow, but no more. Now I just politely ask them to “be the adult in the room” and support whatever students have planned. Students are happier, they are better at self-regulating their behaviour, and I end up with significantly fewer issues to deal with upon my return.

While enabling students to self-manage their own timetables does present some different challenges to the lockstep industrial model of traditional schooling, my experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one. So why aren’t more teachers doing the same thing? Do many primary educators continue to segregate learning into smaller, disconnected chunks to ensure accountability to the invisible faces of the curriculum map who prescribe the exact number of minutes teachers need to explicitly contribute to each subject area? Or is it due to administrative or parental expectations because “this is the way it has always been done?”

For years, my leaders have required a copy of our class timetable that broke our week down into neatly organised pockets of learning. I have of course obliged, but with full knowledge that there was absolutely no chance that we would actually follow said timetable. I’ve long thought my lack of ability to stick to a structured timetable was a weakness, but as it turns out, it might be a strength.

I have to admit, I don’t always love teaching this way, I like to feel in control. It can seem a little chaotic to passers-by who are unfamiliar with our setup, and it definitely requires a significant amount of trust on my behalf, because I don’t know where students are at every step of the journey. But I trust them, they matter, and I believe they can be the drivers of their own learning.