November 3, 2020

Tipping the Balance of Responsibility for Learning: Middle School Teachers Tinker with the Timetable

Mara Krechevsky

Making room for playful learning in school can be a challenge, especially with older students. To those who consider play a central way people learn, resources such as time, space, and materials can seem scarce. To those who see play as frivolous, promoting playful learning interferes with educational policies that stress efficient coverage of mandated curriculum and externally determined standards (FMI, see our early PoP paper). What happens when a group of middle school teacher-researchers at the International School of Billund (ISB), Denmark, join a team of PoP researchers to explore the paradox between the timeless nature of play and the timetabled nature of school?

The 2017 middle school teacher-researcher team

In the fall of 2017, ISB middle school teachers experimented with tipping the balance of responsibility for learning to the learners themselves by replacing two weeks of the standard school schedule with a ‘student-composed schedule,’ in which students designed their own timetable. Apart from meeting every morning and afternoon in reflection groups, students could choose when during the day to schedule their subjects. Teachers wrote up instructions for the assignments, along with estimated timeframes, and made themselves available for support upon request. Each student also identified a personal project or area of interest to pursue if they finished their tasks early.

Although the experiment got off to a shaky start, as it progressed, many students capitalized on the opportunity to choose where and with whom to work, and began to view each other as intellectual resources.

MYP students reflect on how they learn

Students helped each other in unexpected ways—e.g., native Danish and English speakers spontaneously offered to assist peers struggling to learn the other language. For some students, satisfying curiosity became more self-driven than teacher-driven since students were free to pursue individual areas of interest not directly related to the task at hand. However, because the students themselves were responsible for setting the time frame as well as the task parameters, they needed to weigh the tradeoffs when making their decisions. For one student, this led to the realization that

“My learning is for me and it’s me who takes it into the future.”

PoP researcher Ben Mardell talks about the ’sweet spot‘ between school and play as the point when what the teachers want the students to be doing is exactly what the students want to be doing. The atmosphere created by the student-composed schedule seems especially hospitable to fostering this type of overlap.

To read a more in-depth description of this experience, please see the just-published article, “Frankly It’s a Gamble: What Happens when Middle School Students Compose their own Schedules?” Or, check out this great video produced by ISB.