Developing Students' Agency in Schools: Time Organization

This post talks about the central issue of developing students agency in schools through the organization of time in school schedules and routines.  This post is part of a series of posts about student agency and how to develop it through new organizations of time, space, relationships and resources.  These four elements of design: time, space, relationships and resources are how we translate theory into practice and how we make our goals, guiding principles and values come to life.

We often get caught up in a routine without thinking about it.  Without stepping back from it to reflect upon our goals and what’s most important to us.  In other words, to think about what our “WHYs” are, then evaluate whether or not we are expressing WHAT we value and hold as principles in HOW we organize it.  We need to ask ourselves the question: How do we demonstrate what’s important to us in how we live our lives generally, and organize our time specifically?

This is true in life and this is true in how we organize schooling.  Do we think about what our WHYs are for schooling, then evaluate whether or not we are expressing WHAT we value and hold as principles in HOW we organize it?  How do we demonstrate what’s important to us in how we organize schooling generally, and organize school schedules and routines specifically?

In schools, for instance, a central goal, or WHY, can be to develop students’ agency, as I have discussed in another video in this series.  Agency is about choice, having the opportunity to make decisions, but also cultivating the ability to critically reason about those decisions in order to make informed, intentional and meaningful choices in life.  

If we claim to prioritize students’ agency as a central value and its development as the most fundamental purpose of schooling, then we need to analyze how we are organizing school routines to achieve this goal.  We can ask ourselves this question: Is this way of organizing time at school the best way to contribute toward the development of students’ agency? 

Do students have any choice about how to organize their classes and within those classes how to organize their work in relation to time?  We could discuss this question in terms of who gets a voice in these decisions, as well as in terms of how we can break from a traditional model of scheduling time slots by subject and re-thinking how schooling could be scheduled.  Let’s discuss both questions, starting with the last.


Time in schools is typically organized by subjects distributed along a weekly schedule.  There are fifty minute class periods dividing the day up into periods.  Students move through time going from math class to English class to science class, typically without any connection between the content being studied in each discipline and often with teacher-centered, top-down instruction that involves students being told what to do and how much time they have to do it.  It is important that this traditional model of organizing time in schools is questioned at the inter-class level and the intra-class level.  Inter-class scheduling is the schedule of all classes as a whole, while intra-class scheduling is how time is organized within each class or work block. I will now talk about the affordances of different organizations of time and how they expand or contract the development of students’ agency.


Some schools have adopted block scheduling to move beyond the constraints of a daily or weekly schedule in which subjects are often distributed evenly.  The basic idea of distribution by subject within a block schedule remains intact, but students typically have fewer classes for longer periods of time per day with rotating subjects.  Rather than 45-minute classes daily, students have 90 minute blocks distributed 2-3 times per week.  This would be on a block schedule that alternates daily between Day A and Day B or even Day C, Day D, Day E, Day F and Day G.  Another way to organize block scheduling could be by the week, the month or the term.  Block scheduling can open up space for incorporating more enrichment and support moments without over-scheduling students, increasing the options for more flexible scheduling.         

Another way of re-thinking about how time is organized in schools is to organize the school day in a way that is not based on subject.  Students could have a list of tasks from different subject areas and they decide how long to spend on each one.  If a student has different teachers for different subjects, teachers could be organized to have office hours or support students by rotating from class to class to give students support with what they are doing.  Of course, students can also rely on one another for support and resources such as books and computers to help them complete their work.  

Yet there are other ways of re-thinking how time is organized in schools that is not based on subject.  There can still be the number of hours per week or term or year by subject, but how these hours are organized in time can vary.  If a school approaches teaching and learning based on interdisciplinary projects, the schedule could be organized accordingly.  Let’s say a school organized these projects in interdisciplinary chunks, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the humanities (languages, history and social studies).  These projects could be blocks on a daily basis, or alternating days on a weekly basis, or organized into week-long or month-long blocks.  If there are multiple specialist teachers, then during the week different teachers could rotate as the responsible teacher for project time on different days or different blocks, considering how times are organized in different class grouping or grade levels, with systems in place (such as common planning time and a shared planning platform) to ensure effective collaboration amongst teachers.  Going back to the task-based organization of time previously discussed, projects must be also be broken into tasks in order to achieve project goals, so these tasks can be ordered and the time devoted to them decided by each student according to what they determine is the optimal use of their time, with the support of teachers to reflect upon their decisions.  


Another way of organizing school schedules could be based on workshops.  Workshops are typically structured with an expert, or master, teacher and students are the apprentices to learn specific skills and concepts.  There could, for instance, be a performing and visual arts block in which students could choose which workshop they would like to sign up for over a period of time, such as a term, ranging from learning a musical instrument, wood-working, pottery, painting, chorus or drama.  The workshops could be even more specific each term to offer students a menu of options, such as learning to play Beethoven, bringing Shakespeare to life or building a tree house.  In smaller schools, students from multiple grades could be mixed to offer more course possibilities, whereby increasing students possibilities for choice.  If offered by term, rather than by year, students’ choice is also enhanced. 

It is not only important to afford students the opportunities to make choices, but also to support them to know what their choices mean as the most central basis for schooling.  By reflecting with students about their choices, teachers can help students to understand what their choices mean and empower them to make informed, intentional and meaningful decisions at school and in life. 


With all of this said, it is also very important to strike a balance in time management between a variety of different types of activities, including daily breaks for snacks and lunch and movement, outdoor play and socialization time.  We must remember that at school we are teaching students how to live a balanced life centered on a daily routine that focuses on well-being that includes taking care of their social, emotional, mental and physical health.  

The way that we choose, as human beings, to organize our time speaks volumes about what we value.  It is a finite resource that warrants thoughtful reflection.  By involving students in the process of organizing their time critically and intentionally, they expand their agency by making decisions in their lives about how to best use their time to achieve their goals in relation to how to live rich, full and meaningful lives.  

Wrapping up, this is certainly not an exhaustive exploration of how to develop students agency through the ways that we organize time at school, however it is meant to provoke a reflection about how we are currently doing it and how we could be doing it.  I hope that it is helpful to educators and it can be the start of a critical dialogue that moves towards the transformation of schooling based most fundamentally on expanding student agency.  

Please share your comments and check out Contemporary Education on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook for more information on this important topic.  

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The founder and primary contributor to Education for Contemporary Times is Sarah O. Weiler, long-time educator with a M.A. in Global Education from the University of Illinois and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Education at the prestigious Institute of Education at the University of London in the UK.
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