Many United World Colleges adopted the academic time-table of Atlantic College at its founding, and adapted it over the years to suit their local constraints and initiatives. While I have a long-standing interest in solutions across-the-ponds and down the Well of Time, this took on a Chesterton Fence urgency this year. Administration at the College pushed to overhaul the time-table for the upcoming year: the more we know about the strengths and deficiencies of what has been tried, theoretically the better decisions we ought to be able to make.
With the help of Beta, a long time math teacher here, I recovered and subsequently visualized 3 different major variations of the academic timetable from 2000. Here I present them along with a brief commentary; at the end are some proposals that were advanced this year. The final “winning proposal” is largely decided and I’ve included one possible version of it here.
A separate post will detail the across-the-pond comparisons.
The following timetables1 all share a common representation. Each Day within an academic cycle2 — not to be confused with a weekday — is contained in its own column. Time within a day flows from up to down; each “event” is marked off by a colored block, where the color designates the kind of event. Here is an example, showing the presence of our “breakfast” block which recurs every day from 8:30 to 9:00 am:
Class times, forming the majority of the time-table, are marked out as outlines of blocks. One class is especially colored in to highlight its occurrence through the academic cycle; there is usually a level of symmetry, so what is present for block-A is also representative of that for block-B:
Durations are indicated once, and again only if they are different.
With the notation understood, we are ready to travel back in time!
Year 2001-02 runs on an irregular 8-day cycle, with separate HL and SL blocks:
It is irregular in multiple senses:
- Special blocks are present. These include slotted time for ToK lecture, common time3, and time to meet the tutor.
- Length of blocks are different. Classes vary from 45 minutes to 75 minutes, depending on which day of the academic cycle it falls under.
- Distribution of blocks is uneven along classes. While the overall time available in each academic cycle is the same, block A (HL) may get its 345 minutes4 in a different way than block B (HL).
In this timetable, higher level subjects get 5.75-6.25 hours and SL subjects 3.83-4.33 hours per cycle, for an average of (HL) 0.72-0.78 hr per academic day and (SL) 0.48-0.54 hr. Over the course of 2 years, at ~270 academic days,5 the total contact time extends to 194-211 hours for HL, and 130-146 hours for SL. This represents 81-88% of the minimal IB-recommended time6 for HL, and 87-97% for SL.
Some other noteworthy feature: breakfast is intentionally situated after the first block, to encourage students towards a healthy lifestyle. While the length of breakfast would change over time, its location between 1st and 2nd block would be preserved across the years.
The next major overhaul, a few years later, gives a slightly more regular time-table:
What is preserved:
- 8 day schedule
- breakfast and break times / durations
- ToK lecture as a special block
- Extension hours at the end of day
- irregular blocks, irregular placement of blocks for different classes
What is different:
- Removal of “common time” and “tutor block”
- creation of a short announcement block on Day 2
Under this timetable, HL subjects get 325-355 minutes (5.41-5.91 hours) and SL subjects 210-240 minutes (3.5-4.0 hrs) in each cycle, or, 0.68-0.74 hrs (HL) and 0.43-0.50 hrs (SL) per academic day.
Not shown in a daily time-table is the yearly calendar, which has also slowly morphed over the years since the earlier calendar. Since the earlier years, Change of Pace days have been formalized7, trial exams became extended, mid-term breaks introduced, and Chinese New Year became a 1-1.5 week holiday. These cut the available teaching days from ~270 to 240 over 2 years.8 The upshot is that the total teaching time now becomes 163-178 hours for HL subjects and 103-120 hours for SL subjects, representing 68-74% and 69-80% of recommended minimal teaching time.
The substantial, but gradual, reduction of face time over these years makes its difficult to teach the entire syllabus within the time allocated, and especially so for the content-heavy subjects in Groups 4 (sciences) and 5 (math).9 Negative comments in the IB school review prompted the (previous) Codrington administration to “do something about it”, and ushered in the new time-table in place since ~2010 and in place today.
In attempting to create more time, the timetable was changed in the following ways.
- the major change lies compressing an 8-day cycles to a 7-day cycles, by eliminating a slot (thus blocks run from A-G instead of A-H). The effect of this is to increase contact time by 15%
- the second major change is abolition of designated SL blocks, and instead placing SL in HL blocks to maximize blocking flexibility
- the ToK lecture block is removed from a designated slot to an irregular replacement of alternate 3rd block on Day 2.
- Length of lessons are standardized to 60 minutes.
- Breakfast is lengthened to 30 minutes
Hearsay is that the earliest implementation in 2009-2010 involved all blocks to be taught, for 5-5.5 hours (HL) and 4-4.5 hours (SL) in each academic cycle. How this got accepted is beyond me — it would have been a big, big violation of contractual terms to ramp up work by 15% across the board. In any case, by mid-semester this burnt out both students and teachers, and it was (technically) revised to 4-4.5 hours (HL) and 3-3.5 hours (SL) of contact time — one block within each cycle is left free, and the choice of the block is at the teacher’s discretion.
When time I arrived in 2012, the legal contract states 4.5 hours for each HL cycle, but the social contract is to teach 5-5.5 hours. The corresponding theoretical value for SL is 3.5, but norm being 4-4.5 hr/cycle. This gives rise to the timetable illustrated.
Under the social contract, the contact time is now 0.71-0.79 hrs (HL) and 0.57-0.64 hrs (SL) per cycle. With 240 teaching days over two years this gives rise to 170-189 hrs for HL, and 136-153 hrs for SL. This represents 71-79% (HL) and 91->100% (SL) of the recommended time, and with the exception of a few course, most subjects can finish their syllabi in time.
And the present…
This year the administration10 made a strong push to revamp the entire time-table for next academic year. While the focus is on the non-academic time-table (including student welfare and CAS activities11), the administration also proposed to change the academic time-table, with the intentions
- to introduce a group block, where a block is marked off for a subject group (e.g., Group 3 Humanities), in order to “encourage collaboration, flexibility, and teaching innovation”, and
- to introduce ToK as its own block,12 and
- to incorporate Global Issues Forum (GIF) as part of the academic time-table,
- increasing student flexibility,
- while not further reducing teaching time.
Some discussions were had at the staff & college levels, and the final schedule was subsequently announced:
The schedule is effectively reverting to an 8-day-8-block cycle, with a special block substituting each of the 5 “H” blocks that would have appeared. The different subject groups would split the three group blocks, presumably alternating between Group 1 and 2 (languages), group 3 (humanities) and 5 (math), and group 4 (science) and 6 (arts). ToK will once again have its own block, as would GIF. (The final format may be re-shuffled, since as laid out GIF will only be of 1-hr duration — not long enough for a presentation and discussion — and distribution of morning/end blocks are uneven.)
The group block is an interesting concept, and one that we as a teaching staff have not really wrapped our head around yet. In the sciences we have proposed using this for starting the (new curriculum) internal assessment process, introducing the Group 4 project, some spreadsheet workshops at the beginning of the year, and for year-group wide testing.13 Much of the specifics would depend on when the Group block appears on the calendar, since splitting it between two groups means that it comes around every 3 weeks or so, and the Period of Peak Utility may have passed. And what could be delivered would certainly be constraint by the fact that the whole year-group can only be fit in the lecture theater, and skills workshop — requiring interactivity and troubleshooting — may be impossible to run efficiently.
In any case, the reversion to an 8-day cycle brings back the same concerns of missing contact time as with the previous time-table. When we were having the discussions, the effects were partially mitigated by (i) compressing Change-of-Pace days into afternoon-only half-days, releasing 10 additional teaching days, and (ii) reducing Y2 trial exams duration by 3 days; however, the abolition of CoP days raised many concerns and was restored.
The final accounting could be done only with the full calendar, but my back-of-the-envelope numbers say 245 total teaching days for the 2014-2016 cohort. At 0.63-0.69 hrs (HL) and 0.50-0.56 hrs (SL) / cycle, this comes to 154-169 hours (HL) and 123-137 hours (SL), or, 64-70% (HL) and 82-91% (SL) respectively. This is lower than the 2008-09 figures, because the 08-09 time-table has designated SL-blocks which effectively subsidizes time for HL classes. Removing this “time subsidy” is the direct cause of the reduction in class lengths (from 65/75 min. to 60 min.) and thus overall contact time. Even if group blocks perfectly substitutes for a class, this will still be the lowest HL contact time of any timetable from any IB schools I’ve seen.14
In the next post we’ll look at a comparison of schedules from Costa Rica, Pearson, USA, Mahindra, and Nordic UWC. There’s a great deal of diversity there! 15