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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"School Time" in New Zealand

Adam Provost

Burlington High School, VT - Partnership for Change, and VITA-Learn
Teatime for students at Balmoral School, New Zealand

I've interviewed hundreds of people over the last decade about how schools in the United States often choose to structure time. Most often, I pose the question to people in the places I visit, "Can you explain how the school day is structured, and why?"

Whose Opinion Matters?

I've found that many people working within schools are usually split into two camps of thought:

  1. The schedule is fine just the way it is.
  2. We definitely could do things differently . . . but never quite get around to it.

With the majority of students and parents I interview, however, I find they fall into the second category, that the traditional concept of what the "school day" is could use an overhaul.

Of course, some amount of time is required by law in the U.S. (a.k.a. Carnegie Units). But it's flexible, often more so than we might think.

More often than not, we go faster. We add. We get busier.

School Days

I decided to travel to New Zealand (with a great bunch of people through the University of Vermont) to see all the articles I've read about school schedules there come to life. Here's how the general school day mapped out in the eight schools I visited, elementary through high school:

Start time

Class 1: 1:10

Morning tea: 20 minutes; student recess/snack, faculty "teatime"

Class 2: 1:10

Lunch: 40-50 minutes

Class 3: 1:10

Afternoon tea: Student recess/snack, faculty "teatime"

Class 4: 1:10

End of day

Once per week, school started later to accommodate a morning faculty meeting.

School departments are on a six-day rotation. Each department takes off a half or full day every six days for a professional development session. I sat in on one of those PD days with the technology teachers at the Takapuna Intermediate School. I observed as they mapped out new ideas, discussed students and the approaches they'd take collectively to offer assistance needed, and we shared many ideas on PBL, assessment, educational theory, and quite a few good stories about our craft.

Sound luxurious?

It was.

Yet I could easily see that these teachers were connected to their students, craft and each other. It's a trait I discovered at every school I visited in New Zealand.

Not Your Average Cup of Tea

Like most of the folks on the trip that were new to New Zealand schools, I wondered just what "morning tea" might look like and what its effect was on school climate and culture. Each teatime, morning and afternoon, started with folks getting something to drink in a faculty lounge. At every school, this lounge sported a small kitchen and community seating. On occasion there were announcements, but they were always given very succinctly. The majority of teatime was geared to promote collaboration and to see colleagues. Once per week, a department was in charge of putting on a feed for the collective. It was a competitive endeavor, so I learned. Very social . . . and very fun.

Think about it. If you've worked in schools, how often have you joked with colleagues about never seeing them? Perhaps you've said, "Wow, if I only knew you were doing that we could have . . . "

I interviewed many adults at these morning teas throughout the week. Every person I interviewed thought that all these collaborative times, when added up, were essential to teaching students and not just subjects. Adults felt like they had time to share concerns with peers, grow philosophically, innovate. Most importantly, when something went wrong at the school or needed to be done, the collaborative time was built in to handle it. And then they got back to innovating and discussing students.

Perhaps most importantly, every student I interviewed thought the collaborative time was essential, too. One student described the breaks as "a great time to decompress. I get time to think about what we've done. It's easier to go back to another class. I'm ready to go back to class." On a few of these teatimes, I went out to see what students were up to. I found them talking, organizing games or eating a snack. They decompressed. They relaxed. They talked to each other.

The impact on classes after these breaks during the day was also evident. Every class I saw was focused, engaged and in all instances highly participatory.

Adding It Up

Here's an outline of what that collaborative time looks like over a six-day period:

  • Forty minutes per day from "teatime": 240 minutes = 4 hours
  • One morning meeting per week: 30 minutes
  • One half to full day of PD per six days: 5-6 hours

So in a six-day rotation, teachers and students in New Zealand have roughly ten hours of collaborative professional development time built into the schedule.

In many U.S. schools, half an hour of PD time per week would be considered luxurious.

On the time front, I also asked questions about homework. One Head of School in New Zealand said it this way:

We encourage teachers to assign homework when necessary, not because we feel like we have to. If we're serious about students living healthy lives at home, having a home life, and pursuing their interests, they must have time to do so. Our job is to inspire them to want to learn, not to work them to death. When you're that busy and that stressed, it's a recipe to hate education, to hate learning, to hate school.

Indeed. When's the last time you had, let's say, a 14-hour day and then sat down to learn something for fun?

I thought so.

With all these collaborative adjustments to the school day in New Zealand, academically I saw no difference in the quality or capacity of work the students do compared to what I'd consider the best schools in the U.S. I think they just did so at a much more civil pace.

Do. Make. Create. Tech Class at Blockhouse Bay Intermediate School, New Zealand

Credit: Adam Provost

What Are We Magnifying?

I've felt for many years now that how we handle time in schools magnifies many societal woes. We yearn to shift some of the things we complained about when we went to school -- and still complain about. We yearn for more collaborative planning time. We often lament, "Kids today don't have social skills," yet we have done little to rethink how we structure time and its effect on the people within schools -- and what more collaborative school initiatives could do within that new time frame.

I think that needs to change. I think that addressing how we utilize time in schools is an essential step.

The best part? Shifts in the traditional school schedule really don't require any more money. It's a cheap shift, likely costing nothing.

Cross the International Date Line to New Zealand, essentially stepping a day into the future to study time. Go figure.

It's Not a Recipe, It's a Challenge

The New Zealand model might not be a recipe for us to copy hour for hour. It's a model that works for them. They have the space at the schools to do it, the places for students to go. What their schedule does for the rest of us, hopefully, is encourage us to ask ourselves:

  • What are we doing currently, and what's its impact on quality of learning and student (and family) lives?
  • Does this schedule promote or hinder collaboration? For students? For adults?
  • What could we do differently?
  • What do we need to do?

Just one section of "Matt's outdoor classroom," Whangarei Heads School, New Zealand

Credit: Adam Provost

Yes, It Is

And yes, if you've heard stories about how pretty it is in New Zealand, well, the stories don't do it justice. Find a way to take a trip to see it for yourself.

What's Next

I'm headed to San Diego, California next to visit High Tech High and explore school leadership, structure, and its effect on Project-Based Learning. Please feel free to leave comments below on what I wrote or chime in with ideas on other places you think I should visit.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

wingandaprayerfarm's picture
wingandaprayerfarm
Parent/Homeschool Teacher/Farmer

Excellent study, certainly agree that the change of pace would be a more meaningful way to teach academics and shape character. No one benefits from cramming more into the day. I feel it has long-term negative side effects. For so many reasons. Good luck with this exploration.

karen_lovelace's picture

I am an American living in NZ. Through graduate work through the University of Auckland and observations, I started to see something different goes on here than in Texas. Number one, our kids wear shoes. I am heading back to the states in a few weeks and have been subbing in an upper class Auckland Primary school that starts at year zero and continues to grade 6.
The structure is very different. WHat you listed was true. In addition their is a bigger emphasis in the whole child than academics. I have taught (or tried to) teach the native customs, taught art, became the librarian for the class, and then took the kids on a public bus (with no emergency information on the teachers) to play hokey for an hour. Is is a weekly thing. The teachers must teach sports too. That is in addition to PE. The school I am at also pulls students out all day everyday to tend to the library (I mean really scanning books etc), traditional dance, musical instruments (In addition to the music class), and the teachers even teach the kids to swim! I thought I was a pretty good teacher. I know academics, the rest.... ummmm not as well. The teacher I am working with at the moment thought I would love teaching art. I would prefer to teach math, anything.
It is crazy how little time is spent on academics, yet they are rated better in literacy- but the AMerican blow them away with science and technology! As there is only one internet from LA to here, you can imagine how slow it is. It is even worse in the rain! Actually I hope this posts with the storm outside!

Lori Callister's picture
Lori Callister
WeAreTeachers Community staff person

Wow, great info ... and WeAreTeachers created these two fascinating reports on Finland and S. Korea - two very different systems. Common denominator? Both cultures value teachers. Check out these quick reads here: http://bit.ly/12gu5e5

Jenny Collier's picture
Jenny Collier
MS Humanities teacher

This does sound like a satisfying and fulfilling way to spend the school day (though it does indeed seem impossible to create high-caliber math and science students at that pace). But how long is the school year? Our American schedule is jam-packed for a number of reasons, but chief among them at my school is our three-month long summer break -- not to mention the two-week spring and two-week winter breaks.

aotearoa's picture
aotearoa
Kiwi teaching grade 8 science in Doha, Qatar

The NZ school year starts at the end of January or beginning of February and ends in December. They typically have a 10 week term then a 2 week break. They do this 4 times and then have about 6 weeks for their summer break. Having taught in international schools running a US type schedule for a number of years, I have often thought that the 3 month summer break is educationally unsound because too many skills are forgotten over the summer break. My colleagues don't necessarily disagree with me but they like the long break so they can return to the USA.

Adam Provost's picture

The blocks of time I mentioned were also a general layout. There were activities mixed into that block structure. One school also had 'activity Friday.' The first two blocks were for classes and the second half of the day students signed up for different things with adults. The students got to see their teachers doing other things... photography, music, poetry, traditional Maori dances, etc. The connection between students and teachers was very fun to watch. Another highlight was their mentor program for new teachers. New teachers taught half time and were assigned a master teacher for the other half of the day to build knowledge together. The new teachers also got to observe many others teach. In yr two, the teacher was released for one class period to work with a mentor. Very successful model I think. I spoke with four teachers in yr 1 or 2 and they thought the mentoring program was a great way to learn to teach.

Adam Provost's picture

Math and science were hot topics of discussion when I was there, Jenny. Practical math (and applying math into project work) and statistics were more prominent than traditional Alg I, II and Geometry classes. Some were debating if they should teach higher level math(emetics) to all children or keep encouraging students to choose their path. Many school leaders seemed worried that decisions would be mandated Nationally. I often think of Yong Zhao's statement on Race to the Top... "of what?" It'll be interesting to see where NZ lands on math and science revisions over the coming year.

Adam Provost's picture

I'll read those reports, Lori. Thanks for sending them on. NZ definitely values teachers. It's very collaborative and supportive environments all around from what I saw. The shared time built into the schedule to collaborate seemed paramount to their success. Many schools sport 'prep periods' for teachers but those time slots are often isolated from working with peers.

Chris Yim's picture

Education systems have a lot to learn from each other. There are systems in other countries that are achieving great success, and if we can tap into that knowledge base, we'll be able to implement those solutions on our home turf. UClass.org connects teachers around the world, enabling them to share assignments and engage their students in a global community of classrooms.

This is just the start of sharing education solutions that work. UClass helps teachers with their workflow and creates opportunities for cross-cultural interactions. When we engage in these interactions, we learn from one another and enact change.

Thanks for your great post. I hope that we'll take advantage of the low-hanging fruit out there for us to improve upon what we're doing by looking to what's already working.

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