Unpacking the Learning – Part 2

Bell Schedules


The second school practice, or “un-commandment” as I refer to it in my book, Learning Unleashed Re-Imagining and Re-Purposing Our Schools, is the revered school bell. To be perfectly clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with bells, whistles, or other instruments that gather attention for an intended purpose. Examples include sports, performances, outings, timed events, etc. However, when used to cut off or compartmentalize learning it has little to no value.

When we designed the typical K-12 school day, we determined that portions of time are set aside to administer subjects. Grade level, content material such as math, reading, science, social studies, etc. are taught in regular and metered doses weekly or daily.  In order to cover all the determined subjects, minutes are assigned in various intervals and adhered to throughout the course of a school year.

Elementary grade level students may have a bell schedule that sets aside one hour daily for math instruction, an hour and a half for reading, and perhaps thirty minutes for social studies and thirty minutes for science. Usually, physical education, music, art and other special classes which might include a visit to the computer lab or library, may also be scheduled throughout the week. This is how we’ve done it for years. Few question this format.

The teacher must keep one eye on the clock and the other on the pace and needs of the students in her/his classroom. At times, teachers may extend or shorten as needed based on extenuating factors.  However, due to curriculum pacing and scheduled reporting periods, this practice can’t be a regular occurrence or the students will fall behind. Those who do fall behind are a mixed bag. Some may get interventions, some may get nothing.

Unfortunately, those who need more time and even those who need less time are trapped in a rigid, unyielding schedule.  The whole bell schedule scheme falls apart right here and guarantees that only those who can keep the determined pace during the allotted time frames will succeed.

Apparently, we have come to believe that learning is like baking a cake. We add and mix all the right ingredients, then we bake it for 20 minutes, 40 minutes, or an hour and “Voila” it’s done. Or so we hope.

Bake a cake Blog pic

The problem with this mind set is the notion that we all learn in the same amount of time. We don’t, we never will. Yet schools set schedules to cover material, keep orderly movement and continue the damaging practice of allocating time limits to learning. Factory schooling will never change it’s scheduling design because it refuses to acknowledge that every child is different.

Factories mass produce duplicate products, they don’t make original ones. Originals take too much time and are not cost effective.

Proponents of school reform offer many and varied ideas to promote and enhance learning but few ever tackle the sacred cows that I mention in Learning Unleashed. Bell schedules is one of them.  A change of this magnitude requires a deep understanding of how we learn and a deliberate effort to make it happen. It requires us to rethink the concept of TIME.

Finals Schedule

2016-2017 Ellison Bell Schedule

What if we allowed children to take as long as they needed to learn something? What if we removed the grade level schemata? What if teachers spent more or less time based on what their students needed? What if we set up a daily schedule that honored learning not the clock? What if we wanted to produce originals not duplicates?

I’ve heard that school curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep.  It’s true, depth takes time. In school, we already have plenty of time but not for depth because there is too much breadth.   If you gasp while reading these next few statements, please consider the why.  We don’t need to add hours to the school day and we don’t need before or after school programs.  Why?

Simply put, if we give children the time and support they need without rushing them through or holding them back with pre-determined minutes, grade level time lines, and ineffective grading practices, they would learn both depth and breadth.  Translated to practice this means a removal of the time honored grade levels by age and ten month baking period as well as grading everything.

To some, these ideas are heresy and to others an unnecessary departure from what they believe has worked for years.  It all depends upon one’s philosophy of learning.  Mine is rooted in the mind and heart of every child and young person who the schooling system has robbed of authentic learning via rigid time constraints.


Next in the series is length of school day and school year. Stay tuned…








Unpacking the Learning


Grade Levels old

In my book Learning Unleashed, I lay the foundation for why we need out of the box thinking along with radical changes for our schooling systems in this country. In addition to my observations, I provided adult and student voices to help shed light on what might be an opportunity for real innovation. I referred to the ideas as courageous because they shake the core of our complacent status quo with regard to educating our young people.

I described a few practices that I named the ten uncommandments. I did this because they are not written in stone and not substantially supported by research or results. However, the solutions I offer are rooted in sound child and adolescent psychology, proven results, and common sense.

I will provide the entire list as a reference as we proceed in this series.

The Ten Uncommandments (from chapters 11-12 in Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools)

  1. Grade Levels
  2. Bell Schedules
  3. Length of school day and school year
  4. Class sizes
  5. School Buildings
  6. Assessments
  7. Grading
  8. Restrictive and limited academic curriculum
  9. Teacher-centered instruction
  10. Teacher tenure and unions

I begin this blog series with the first uncommandment, grade levels.

I’ll cut right to the chase, we don’t need grade levels in school. In fact, they are detrimental and counter productive to real learning. You can read the details in my book, but for the sake of time, here is the condensed version.

For the most part, children who turn five are sent to Kindergarten; six year olds are first graders; seven year olds are second graders, and so on throughout the K-12 system. If they “adequately” learn the information, they get to move on to the next grade level; if not they either repeat the entire year, or they move on with interventions. This is acceptable practice and no one typically questions it – no one except bright and insightful teachers, administrators and parents who understand that the developmental progression for each child varies.

Setting an arbitrary end date by way of completing a grade level is ludicrous and flies in the face of everything educators learn in undergraduate psychology courses and have come to understand more clearly from brain research. We know that children learn at different rates and may require less or more time depending upon their needs.

Sir Ken Robinson titled his talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” and although his particular focus was the lack of time and place for the arts and avenues to foster creativity in our schools, he also provided a very compelling history of why this is the case. He explains that we continue to use the factory model to educate children by “batches”.[i]

In his TED talk, and subsequent book, “Out of Our Minds,” he wittingly says that “students move through the system in age groups as if the most important thing the children have in common is their date of manufacture.”[ii]

This seems like a no-brainer, yet we ignore it and refuse to make any kind of change in the grade level schemata except to create combo-classes which address numbers and staffing more than educationally sound practice. So, we continually have interventions which we must provide that are costly, time consuming, and demoralizing for the student who needs to receive it. Why is this so? Who really benefits from grade levels?

The educational institution itself benefits in that it makes record keeping and tracking easier. Grade levels are easy to monitor and control. Within the confines of a grade level, standards, curriculum, textbooks, and accounting all provide ease of navigation to all those involved with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Except, teachers will tell you that the greatest challenge they have is meeting the needs of all the students in their classroom, because they are all at different levels in their learning – some needing more time and different resources than others. What a novel concept; learning is different for different people.

Children also learn quite a lot when they are among varying age groups. Older students can learn from younger ones and the opposite is also true. Check out more ideas on how we might rethink grade leveling in schools as you read my book, Learning Unleashed – Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools. It’s time to put into practice what solid research and common sense tell us about how one learns.

[i]. Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” Computer Users in Education, 2007, Monterey Technology Conference.

[ii]. Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, (West Sussex: Capstone Publishing, 2011), 57.