Timetables – The Enemy of Creativity

I’m writing this while sitting next to two students who are editing a short film. One just turned to the other, and in an expression of pure joy, exclaimed, “OMG! I literally have goosebumps right now!”, in reference to her creation. More on this later…

Currently, the vast majority of my students are engaged in creative endeavours. My MYP Media students are finalizing short films to share with their peers, enter in film festivals and use as provocations for filmmaking workshops. My MYP Language and Literature students are crafting short stories – many of which students hope they can submit for publication. Even my DP Language and Literature students are engaging in a written task assessment – which, if you know DP Lang and Lit, is about as creative they are “allowed” to be over the duration of the two year course (kidding…sort of).

Perhaps the convergence of all of this creative energy is making this issue more apparent, but right now, my students are definitely victims of a timetabling system that is an antiquated practice and certainly an enemy of creativity and deep learning.

Would a real filmmaker, preparing her work for submission to her production company say to herself, “Ok…today I will work on my film from 9:00-10:30, but then at 10:30 I have to stop because then it’s time to do some math”? For that matter, would a real mathematician say, “I’m going to gather insights into this data, but only for ninety minutes because then I have to go edit a film”?

Of course not.

This  is the inauthentic world of timetabled learning that we have created in schools. A world where creativity – a slow process in any discipline – is cut short because…because a piece of paper you got on the first day of school says it has to.

So when children are trying to write a story that they have invested themselves in emotionally, or are completing a film that they are planning to show to a wide audience of peers and community members, they are forced to do so in these arbitrary, predetermined chunks of time – whether they want to or not, whether they feel like it or not. Have a great idea during a time not designated for that type of thinking? Too bad, you have a schedule to keep.

This type of traditional school-driven timetabling is as old as schools itself and is designed for logistical ease – not for student learning.

Quick - be creative! But only for the next 90 minutes... 

Quick! Be creative! But only for the next 90 minutes…

What are the side effects of school-driven timetabling when students are involved in deep learning? On one hand, it forces children into the ridiculous need to shift their ability to be analytical, be creative, be physically active, at the snap of a finger. It perpetuates a, “good enough” attitude from students who end up creating not what they really wanted to, but a reasonable facsimile that satisfies the requirements of the time constraints that have been determined for them. It doesn’t allow for slow thinking of any kind – reflection, adjustment, seeking feedback and fine tuning – that all creators would say are integral aspects of high-quality products.

The good news about timetables? We’ve created them, so we can destroy them. We can leverage technology to offload the need for a lot of traditional “lessons”, which would free up time for teachers to move more towards the role of consultant, mentor and coach. We can create environments like this one, or this one where students create their own timetables based on need and interest, not based on arbitrary decisions from the timetabling robot that spits out a schedule for them.

What would the side effects of a student-driven timetable be? First of all, learning how to manage time. We often lament that time-management is a skill that is lacking in many students – of course it is, we manage the majority of their time on their behalf. Turning the timetable over to the students would allow them to take ownership over this process and free up teachers to support students with strategies on how to manage their short and long-term goals.

Secondly, a student-driven timetable would support students in learning the key skill of prioritization. There are literally endless books and blogs dedicated to the art of prioritizing and managing one’s daily list of “to-do’s”; perhaps this wouldn’t be such a common stressor if we learned and used these skills as we were growing up. A student-driven timetable would give children the space and freedom to go deep, to truly sink their teeth into their learning, to “get it”, to have those moments of wonder and accomplishment and to learn that, often, the things we are the most proud of are the things that we really put our heart and soul into – often for more than 60-90 minutes two to three times a week.

Finally and most importantly, a student-driven timetable says to children, “you matter”. It says, “you are able to be the driver of your own learning”. It says “your time belongs to you”. Empowering students to manage their time and projects is a kinder, more humane, more authentic approach to learning and creating – one that we should be advocating for on behalf of our learners.

If they had the choice, they'd be at this all day. Shouldn't they have that choice?

If it were up to them, they’d do this all day – shouldn’t they have that choice? 

This brings me back to where I started…the two students I mentioned at the beginning of this post? They are still sitting beside me, completely in flow and completely content. One  just said to another, “Wow, we’ve been here for hours…it’s nearly six o’clock”. They want to keep going, but they have to go home to eat dinner. I’m sure if they had the choice, they would have spent their entire school day perfecting their creation, so they didn’t have to spend their after school time doing so. If they were only given the time.


7 thoughts on “Timetables – The Enemy of Creativity

  1. I was thinking about this today during #pypchat. How do we break out of the “me time” mentality/expectation that most/all teachers have. When I started teaching in NZ, I was the teacher of everything, all day. No prep periods. No sending the kids off to art, music, PE, drama, foreign language. It was all me, all the time. This is not the life of the international school teacher! If we went super-flex how might we need to change, well, everything?! How does it work with #studio5? What is the role of the single subject teacher? How do they work with the #studio5 coaches?


  2. This is spot-on. Specifically: ‘We often lament that time-management is a skill that is lacking in many students – of course it is, we manage the majority of their time on their behalf.’

    This line could be applied to so much of what we do in schools. We want to develop decision makers, but are we really allowing students to make important decisions? We want students to be effective collaborators, but are we really modeling for them how to work in groups? And so on.

    But we shouldn’t underestimate the centrality of the timetable cog in any school’s operating system. So much of how a school runs daily depends on the precious timetable and I think we need to consider–genuinely–how the entire ecosystem of a school would be affected by a student-driven timetable. I love this concept and it’s really got me thinking. However, I also think this is one of the most significant conversations a school could have, as it touches everyone.


    • What I find interesting is that the area we most often see this kind of “freedom” granted, is in the Early Years where students have very little tangible understanding of “o-clock” or time management. As students get older (and more capable?) we reduce their opportunity for agency. I would love to see a school take an holistic approach to deconstructing the timetable in favor of a more student oriented version. My “fear” is that there are still so many external constraints on our older students: exams, university acceptances. Would it jeopardize these to move to a more student-centered approach?


      • I agree completely – we take our most experienced learners, give them the least amount of agency and then wonder why they don’t love coming to school each day.
        The external elements you mention are real – but I don’t see them as constraints, in fact, I see them as motivators. If a student’s path towards post secondary school depended on their engagement with their secondary education (as opposed to just their compliance with their secondary education), I think ownership over learning would increase, valuing ATL skills would increase and students feeling like they’ve “earned something” rather than “finished something” might be more pervasive.


  3. I’m trying to find the right balance between supporting learning and just letting it happen, and I think that the student-directed timetable planning has had a huge impact on my ability and desire to ‘let go’.
    Before I started teaching in a PYP school, I once observed a elementary Montessori class and saw the ongoing learning directed by the students. I asked the guide (Montessori name for teachers) how they ensure the students are learning in each area to a sufficient degree. (Timetables, by the way, are limited to lunch breaks and specialist subjects.) She told me about one boy who had spent nearly a week inquiring into flags, maps, the ‘Geography’ area of the classroom materials. This student was clearly highly engaged in this area of his learning, but after a week the guide explained how she had introduced him to another task. The idea there was to provide balance whilst respecting the student’s interests. This idea stuck with me and slowly I have been able to offer my students the chance to direct and plan their own learning. It’s gone back and forward as I’ve been learning but ultimately the students are never happier than when they can plan their days and they’re learning so many extra skills because of it.


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