The schools will reopen in a couple of weeks after summer vacations. Parents and children are busy covering new text and note books and soaking in the fragrance of fresh prints. For the young ones, this is a time of joyous expectation to get back to the school, meet friends and exchange interesting stories of vacation.
Soon, the students will have a new time table to follow, seven periods of 40 minutes each and seven different subjects per day. Why do we teach seven different subjects in a day, every week day? I make a case to teach only 2 or 3 subjects on any day, each subject taught in contiguous periods.
- A closure is a satisfying sense of finality. Cognitive closure is a desire for definite knowledge on some issues and removal of confusion and ambiguity. Psychologists emphasise need for closure.
- In teaching or learning a concept, we feel satisfied when we complete the topic till a logical point – even like we feel satisfied when we complete a task. If there are several part-completed threads open, keeping track of them itself is a (non-rewarding) task apart from the confusion it creates. If there are seven different lessons progressing in parallel, each incomplete when the child leaves school at the end of day, she has to make special efforts to link the concepts in these seven different lessons when she returns to the classroom next morning.
- Context switching between subjects is a strain. Consider the strain on a teacher if she had to teach 7 different subjects on a day. Rapid switching between subjects can stress students, which we can reduce by minimising the number of subjects taught on a day.
- Homework is a sore point with students, teachers and parents. Students resent it, teachers complain about non-completion or low quality of homework, and parents are strained with complaints from teachers. If we have seven different unrelated and challenging tasks to complete in about two hours, we would spend some time planning and prioritising. We may bargain for more time or time-over-run the project. When a child has homework on seven different subjects, she is under stress to complete seven tasks in short time. How does she plan her time? If you are a parent of a school going child, help her every day to plan her home work – not one day as a sample case, but day after day sharing the burden and learning to be an effective planner! Else, can she concentrate on learning or will she mechanically complete the work and avoid embarrassment in the school next day? In the same 2 hours available for home work, if the child has only one or two subjects, she would get a better grasp of the subject.
- When we start a new lesson in a subject, it takes 2 to 3 periods of 40 minutes to complete a portion that makes a logical block. This applies to a poem or a lesson in a language, a concept in science of mathematics, and an episode in history. E.g., A mathematics text book for class 10 ICSE stream has 27 chapters and 90 exercises. Each exercise marks completion of a concept within the chapter when the student can apply the learning to solve related problems. Schools work for about 200 days in a year. Class 10 has one period of mathematics per day. This would mean 2 to 3 periods of teaching is needed before the teacher can assign the exercise as home work, which is the general practice.
- Therefore, in the time table, give 2 or 3 continuous periods for a subject and help the teacher complete one concept in one day.
- Duration of a period is short because children have short attention span. We can keep it at 40 minutes and let the students have short refreshing activities between periods. When they return to the lessons, they would not have forgotten what they learnt 5 minutes earlier. If they have to pick the thread after 24 hours, the teacher and students would require spending 5 to 10 minutes revising what was covered the previous day. Six other subjects and their demands would also have cluttered the minds of the students.
- Thus, we would have 2 to 3 subjects a day. We can consider Mathematics day, Science Day, Languages Day, Social Studies Day, etc., based on the core subject taught on that day.
Modern production systems strive to reduce work-in-progress inventory. When a child is progressing in parallel with several different subjects we build considerable work-in-progress inventory for the learning mind – both for teachers and students.
When I teach high school students – English, Kannada, Physics, Mathematics, Social Studies – I engage 2 or 3 periods with a few minutes break in between. I have not seen any sign of strain in children or difficulty in learning. I teach post-graduate students or B-School students for 3 to 4 hours at a stretch, with a break in between. Corporate training courses are conducted full day for 3 to 4 days, on one subject. I have been doing this for about 15 years and have not found any problem in teaching or learning.
During my days in Indian Navy, I have spent about 10 years either as a student or as a teacher. At INS Valsura, School of Electrical Engineering, courses are conducted at all levels, and of durations varying from one week to 4 years. A day is divided to 3 sessions and all the classes have one or two subjects per day. Learning was effective; teaching was a pleasure.
Dr. Mel Levine, one of the best known learning experts and paediatricians writes as follows in his bestselling book A Mind at a Time:
“School policy makers should consider that long-term memory works best when there is sufficient time for consolidation. This does not happen when you partake of social studies for forty minutes followed by algebra forty minutes, then English forty minutes, and, immediately thereafter, physical education. Switching from one subject to another pretty much prevents consolidation of the one that preceded it. Class periods should be longer, and there must be consolidation time – perhaps used by small groups of students who in the final twelve minutes of the session talk about what they have learnt in this period. Block scheduling (e.g., six weeks of nothing but chemistry) also merits consideration.”
Last year, when we weighed the school bags of children at Sri Bharathi Vidyalaya they ranged between 7 to 10.5 kg. If we have only 2 or 3 subjects per day, the weight of bags will reduce, though there are additional suggestions to reduce the weight carried by the children to schools.
- In schools, teach only 2 to 3 subjects a day in continuous periods. Give breaks of 5 minutes every 30 to 40 minutes and refresh the students with some simple activities.
- We may start with one class or only one subject in one class. Commit to make it work. If we start with self-doubt, we will not identify benefits. If we find it beneficial, we can expand the approach to more classes and more subjects.