There’s no ideal lesson length. I’ve taught 35, 50, 60 and 75 minutes and in September 2011 introduced 100 minute lessons at St. Mary’s Catholic College. Irrespective of the length of the lesson what really matter is the quality of teaching in whatever time period is available.
Primary schools tend to be less explicit about lesson length. With one teacher taking the class for the majority, if not all, of the day the ability to change from one subject to another is much more fluid. Placement of breaks, lunches, assemblies and activities like swimming tend to be their bookends of lesson length. In contrast secondary and post-16 institutions, with numerous teachers each teaching their own subject to a class, require an explicit agreement on when students will move from one lesson to another. This agreement is usually enforced by a bell. Consequently, decisions are built into every teacher and student’s timetable about lesson length.
In November 2010, following extensive consultation with staff by Julia the Deputy Head teacher, we met as senior leaders to finalise our curriculum for September 2011. I split the SLT into two groups and asked them to consider the discussions and responses to the different lesson length options; 50 minutes, 60 minutes (status quo), 75 minutes and 100 minutes. Both groups came back and went unanimously for 100 minutes. I had deliberately not been involved in any of the discussions nor had I expressed an opinion. I’ve also never admitted before that my vote would have been for 75 minutes!
The discussion didn’t come out of the blue. In those hedonistic days of the noughties, a lot of discussions following the grading of lessons was a frustration that too often we were seeing really good lessons; learning constructed from factual knowledge or mastery of simple skills, the formation of ideas or more complex skills … followed by a bell and everyone moving on … just when it was about to get interesting and the learning would go really deep. This was on the back of the extensive professional development over a number of years. We also had a “Wonderful Wednesday” when a teacher would have the same class for a whole day; could be an examination class doing coursework or in Key Stage 3 a themed day. All teachers thus had experience of teaching a class for an extended period of time. We were involved in Building Schools for the Future; whilst part of the thinking was driven around the need to be innovative the 100 minute lesson also massively reduced student movement between lessons on what was about to become a complex, multi-year building site.
Learning Point: Significant professional development and planning of schemes of learning must precede changes to lesson length
The proposal for three one hundred minutes per day – registration, period 1, break, period 2, lunch and afternoon registration, period 3 then home with Thursday consisting of three ninety minute lessons – went to staff consultation in January 2011. On a Thursday students go home thirty minutes earlier, at 2:40 p.m., and staff have CPD and meeting time every week from 3:00 – 5:00 pm unless there is an Open Evening or Parents’ Meeting. To reduce queuing for students to get lunch, one of their pet hates which they had complained to me about for a decade, I also proposed a split lunch to alleviate this problem. There was a near mutiny by students about the split lunch and the possibility they might not be able to meet up with their friends.
It is one of the few handbrake U turns I’ve had to do as a Head teacher. This structure is still in place now and the introduction of weekly CPD, which preceded this curriculum change and was part of the Wonderful Wednesday, has proven to be a godsend over the past decade.
Many Mathematics and Modern Foreign Language teachers tend to have a clear narrative that their subjects require more frequent but shorter interactions. They were less in favour of the longer length lessons but not surprisingly Technology, PE and Science, in terms of practical lessons, were strong advocates. Having experienced the Wonderful Wednesdays just about all other staff and departments put on a very positive public face. However, the frequent collection of thoughts, often linked to the BSF process, revealed a lot of nervousness and apprehension.
Learning Point: There isn’t a perfect lesson length including your current one; you won’t please everyone
Learning Point: The change is massive; it effects every working moment of a teacher’s and student’s day.
Learning Point: There is a huge emotional dimension as well as timetabling one.
“The first steps have been taken towards this with the new three-period timetable. While there are clear benefits of this, particularly seen in sixth form teaching, the school is aware of the need to closely monitor progress across all year groups and subjects to evaluate the suitability of the new longer lessons.”
Inspection report: St Mary’s Catholic College, 16–17 November 2011
Ofsted landed about five to six weeks into the new academic year in which we introduced 100 minute lessons; oh joy. You could sense the uneasiness of the inspection team. The lesson length was very different to anything else they had experienced or seen and they didn’t really know what to make of it. As ever, I blustered my way through the inspection and since they saw such a lot of good teaching they moved on to other things. In honesty they weren’t the only ones who were uneasy; it was a massive change for us and I was pretty nervous introducing it. We have reviewed our decision a number of times with staff and students. A few years ago I initiated a review to see whether 100 or 75 minutes should be our lesson length (remember my original thoughts) but there was little appetite for change and many staff wanted to retain the 100 minutes, so we did.
Like all decisions you make, unless it proves to be a pretty daft one, you have to stick with it and go through the implementation dip and allow staff and students to get familiar and comfortable with the change. Invariably staff will make it work.
Learning Point: The 100 minute lesson is a choice not a quick fix
“You Can’t Wing 100 Minutes”
I’ll never forget this throw away comment made by a member of staff, in a casual conversation, not long after the introduction of the new longer lessons. You reveal your anxieties as a leader; my first thought was, “Oh no, how many people have been winging lessons” on the basis that clearly I never did anything like that. You can’t waffle your way through 100 minutes; short and snappy they are not. Being a bit controversial for a moment, I think 100 minute lessons expose your teaching ability, for better or worse, than shorter lessons. The longer lessons also place a much greater demand on teachers in terms of planning. Whether you start by sticking the content of two one hour lessons together (minus movement times they fit neatly) or trying to stretch a one hour lesson to the full 100 minutes; planning requires greater time and thought. Over the years staff have individually and collaboratively planned their way towards the most effective use of 100 minutes. Lessons have a different rhythm and pace and it takes some getting used to; it opens up the possibility of deeper learning but this opportunity needs to be exploited rather than squandered. As ever the quality of the teacher and his/her teaching is the determining factor in whether 100 minute lessons work.
On a practical basis you see pupils less frequently so collection of homework can be more difficult and if you or they miss a lesson then there can be a big gap. On the flip side if you are both present you can do a lot in 100 minutes. There are no back to back lessons, every lesson is followed by a break and much less time is lost moving around the school. The school feels much calmer. Our Behaviour Policy, involving three steps with the third one being removal from class, means students have to behave for a longer length of time or face the consequences. There are far fewer chances than in the more typical five or six period day.
Learning Point: 100 minute lessons reduce the hectic nature of the day but increase planning requirements
Learning Point: 100 minute lessons have a different rhythm and flow to shorter lessons
Thanks to Damian Benney, Debra Kidd and Chris Moyles who prompted this post.
Great good for thought. The views of someone overseeing the change and reflecting 5 years down the line is invaluable. We’ve debated 50 v 60 but never thought about longer. We certainly will think about it now as we always want the best and most effective set up for our learners. Huge thanks Stephen.
You’re welcome Damian
We were the first school in the country to have a 3 period day over 20 years ago – it just makes so much sense !
For me (Maths) I really value seeing students often. I currently work in a 60min school but previously was in a 50 min school. I feel the 50 was more effective – partly as I saw my classes 4 days per week.
A 6×50 model is really a hybrid model. You set it up as p1, p2 – break – p3, p4 – lunch – p5, p6
Quite a lot of subjects had ‘doubles’ (sci, tech, art, Dt, pe …) and you have 3 ‘double blocks per day’ (much more flexible than hour lessons when you only have 2 doubles per day and an isolated single – which places massive restrictions on timetabling doubles etc.).
Moving to 60 mins lessons I found the pace slowed from previously – lessons were less punchy perhaps as there was ‘no need to rush’.
The bottom line is it probably makes very little difference one way or the other.
Really enjoyed this! Like you I’ve taught every conceivable lesson length. When starting a new academy and amalgamating 2 disastrous schools I went for 2 lessons: morning and afternoon. This was a) to avoid student movement as we settled the communities and b) because you can’t possible “wing it” in 135 minute lessons. It did what it was meant to do but we moved to 3×90 min after a couple of years as pace was clearly becoming a huge issue. The message was that we wanted the same learning in 90 minutes as we had had in135 mins and I think we pretty largely achieved that. MFL was never solved with long lessons. Ideally they need 30 mins every day and we experimented with having MFL visits into the 135 min lessons as a kind of “brain gym / break”. Resourcing this was hugely problematic and I never got what I wanted from it. Towards the end of my time with the academy we moved to 4×70 min lessons; while this was desirable for amount of student contact within a week for Maths, Scoence and English, I’m not sure it was the smartest move for PE, Technology or Arts. The over-riding issue is that different subjects require styles of pedagogy and hence optimum lesson length. Smarter and iconoclastic thinking about time tabling is required. I was always fond of saying the timetable should be the servant of learning rather than the other way around – but I never found the answers!
Cheers Ros. Great comment.
We have the best/worst of both worlds – 60s + the occasional (twice a fortnight) double (120mins). As these are so unusual and introduced due to teacher timetables and not anything else, they are generally viewed by staff and pupils as a hideous inconvenience – best served by wedging together the content of two singles. It’s a wasted opportunity, but without the time or investment in CPD and curriculum design, it will almost certainly be seen as two hours of attrition, rather than a space for deep-learning.
Sadly, a top-down, arbitrary decision!
A lot of our KS4 lessons are double(120 min) lessons and not evenly spread over a two week timetable, so some of our yr 9s and yr 11s go nearly a week between maths lessons at some points which i fear will be detrimental to those doing the new GCSE. I have had some great 120 min lessons with my top set, however the lower the ability of the class I find, the less productive time you get out of a double as some students simply don’t have the concentration span. I try to do something very practical / messy where the extra time can be embraced and used for setting and clearing up / moving furniture / changing venue etc
What is the evidence about the effectiveness of different lengths of lesson. Last time I looked, the answer was ‘not much’. Any change?
Not as far as I know hence my comment; it’s about what you do in the time you’ve got
Thanks for this interesting post, I’m glad it has worked out well. That’s a big change and, as you say, increases planning demands. Was the initiative entirely driven by the consultation within school or had you experienced examples of longer lessons working well elsewhere? In practice most schools operate a half-way house, often with ‘double lessons’ in practical subjects.
Almost all driven from practice within the school and the consultation. At that time 100 minute lessons were rare.