3 reasons why your school timetable is wrong

In the latest Tes Podagogy podcast, Jared Cooney Horvath warns that school timetables go against cognitive science

Jon Severs

Cognitive science: Why schools have got timetables wrong

“Is there any research that says the school timetable we have adopted around the world is the right one?” asks Jared Cooney Horvath, a cognitive scientist at the University of Melbourne. “Believe it or not, there's little to none. Everyone just kind of assumes this is what it's going to be, this is what it always has been, let's go with it.”

Speaking on the latest episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast, Horvath goes on to explore how we can translate the research we do have into insights about how we might want to structure the school day differently. During the coronavirus pandemic, when schools are adapting timetables more than ever before, he has some rather useful advice.

So if we were to build a research-informed timetable, what would it look like?

First up, we need to look at attention thresholds, says Horvath.

School timetables: How long can a pupil concentrate on learning?

“There's a lot of noise coming into our brain all the time,” he explains. “So the brain has to have some sort of mechanism to block out irrelevant stuff, and allow you to focus only on what's important. Essentially, your brain has a very hard limit and it says, 'OK, anything that's stronger than this limit, you can choose to pay attention to it, anything weaker than this limit, we're just going to ignore it and you have no choice whatsoever.'

“Now what happens is that your threshold changes with time. So when you're in a situation and you're getting used to it and you're getting calm and you're getting comfortable, your threshold just slowly starts to creep up. And that's a sign that your brain is saying, 'Cool, we figured out this realm, everything is safe here. Let's lock all of this out so if anything different occurs, you have all your attention energy resources ready to go right to that change to something new.'

“You've got about a 10- to 15-minute window until your threshold will creep up, which means if we're sitting in a classroom, and a teacher is talking to us, it’s going to be harder and harder and harder for pupils to pay attention and you start to see this in research: we start to see how long kids make it during a lecture, before they either start multitasking or just tune out. And it's right around the 10- to 15-minute mark.”

How long should a lesson be?

That does not mean he is advocating 15-minute lessons. Rather, whatever length of lesson you have, you need to bear in mind that after 10 to 15 minutes you need to change the context if you want pupils to stay paying attention.

Watch the interview below

“Video games and Hollywood are incredible at it,” Horvath says. “What films do is they keep alternating sequences, they keep alternating scenes. So, as a teacher, the context just has to surprise the pupils for a second, the predictability has to disappear, and you should be back to normal, you have bought yourself another 15 minutes.”

How much energy is required for learning?

The second factor Horvath believes we need to consider is how far a pupil can stay in "active learning" mode.

“Your brain can sit in two what we'll call modes: one is active learning mode, one is passive prediction mode. Around 90 per cent of the time you're in passive prediction mode. We are ridiculously good prediction machines and we don't need to live in reality, we can draw upon years of experience to say, 'Yep, been here, done that – I know what's about to happen.'

“Now the reason we have this mechanism is because your brain, even when you're in pure prediction mode, uses 20 to 25 per cent of all your body's energy. In order to learn something new, your brain needs even more energy, and it can't get it from the blood any more. There's just not enough glucose that can be carried in there to get it to a learning level.

“So when your brain kicks into active learning mode to actually take in new information, it taps into a secondary energy source, which we believe is stored between the neurons in your brain.”

Shorter, sharper lessons

That energy source is finite across a day, he explains, and is refuelled when you sleep.

“It means you have got a limit as to how much energy you have and so how long you can be in that active learning mode," Horvath says. "During one day, depending on how much sleep you got the night before, we reckon you can only have enough energy for 30 minutes to four hours or so in that mode. Beyond that, you tap out, and any teacher who has been to a six-hour professional learning session knows that the first two or three sessions you're in, you're having a good time, but by the afternoon sessions, there's nothing left. There is no juice in there.”

What does this mean for lesson planning?

“Why don't you just cram pure learning at the beginning of the day when we know they've got all their energy, all that secondary energy, too, so you just have six 30-minute classes that do nothing but bring in new material?” Horvath asks. 

What is flow?

That leaves open the question as to what we do with students in the afternoon. This is where Horvath’s third crucial element for timetabling comes in: flow.

“OK, we've got active learning mode when the brain is chugging away sucking up that extra energy, we've got passive prediction mode where the brain is just running off blood glucose and that's where we sit most of the time. But we also have a third thing, which is a very weird state that we're still trying to wrap our heads around called flow state.

“Flow state happens when you're doing something that you're deeply engaged with, so for me it's painting: whenever I'm painting, after about 20 minutes of painting, I just lose track of time, and now it's five hours later, and I'm like, ‘Whoa, what the heck just happened?'

“When you hit flow state, we don't believe your brain requires that extra energy source. So technically, you could be in flow, all day, and never tap out of energy, as long as you have enough blood sugar you should be totally fine.”

Conditions for learning

To get into this state, you need some very specific conditions.

“You can only get into flow when you're doing something that you're familiar with and that's just kind of at the cusp of familiarity, so you'll never get into flow when you're learning something new or when you're practising something hard,” says Horvath. “You also can't coerce it, so I can't force a kid into flow – it has to happen naturally through something that they want to engage with. And three, it takes a bit of time – it takes 20 to 30 minutes for flow to kick in.”

In an ideal scenario, says Horvath, schools would have long, three-hour blocks of learning in the afternoons for project work where pupils can be enabled to work in a flow state. This would complement the new learning done in the mornings.

“Right now we're doing 50 minutes a day because we have to. And we're doing that for all courses because we have to. But we could do things differently.”

Horvath expands on these points in much more detail in the podcast, and he also explains why the school year structure also needs to change.

You can listen to the podcast on the player above, by clicking here, or by searching for ‘Tes Podagogy’ on your podcast player, including Spotify.

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