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.