This is the fifth post in my altPhysio series on a physiotherapy school set about 10 years from now. The idea is to explore alternative approaches to education by questioning the most fundamental aspects of curriculum infrastructure. Asking what we think are the essential components and then looking at those ideas from a different perspective. This post explores the idea of the timetable as a means of focusing students’ attention and then trying to see what things look like if we took it away.
Q: You don’t use a timetable at altPhysio. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
When we started altPhysio once of our guiding principles was to question everything that a traditional school takes for granted. What are the curriculum structures that we inherently accept? Well, what could be more mainstream than a timetable? But when we thought about it, we realised that a timetable is an organisational system designed to manage lecturers’ time and focus students’ attention. The problem is that it’s good at managing time but terrible for focusing attention because it really has nothing nothing to do with students’ learning.
How did we decide that an arbitrary 40 minute period was the optimal period of time to focus on a topic? Or that every student would progress in the same period of time? When we decided to get rid of modules we started asking what purpose the timetable served. If you don’t have modules – discrete pieces of subjects – then there’s no real need for a system to break the day into discrete pieces of time.
Q: OK, so how do you allocate time?
We started by asking what is the basis for our decision making around time allocation. We realised that we didn’t really have any useful criteria to determine how time is allocated to learning. We wanted to think differently about how we value learning tasks to see if we could make better choices about to allocate time to them. This made us ask whether some activities are worth more time than others?
For example, we have one lecturer who uses a full day to help students get used to the idea of being in each others personal space. They are all partially undressed around strangers – many of them for the first time in their lives – and they use that time to talk about different ways of being together in space. You could argue that we can make better use of that time by covering more techniques, but we think that the foundations laid in those few hours open up a space in the future that enables deeper learning. Depending on your perspective, you might place different value on that time and how it is spent. The point I’m making is that we started to think differently about the value we place on learning activities and consequently how we allocate time to those activities.
We eventually came to the point where we realised that one approach would be to ask students and lecturers to work together to decide what time should be allocated to which activity. This respects the different cognitive and functional levels of each group within each cohort. Some projects that we think should reasonably be completed in 6 months takes some groups 4 months. In these cases it’s usually because the combination of the student group, AI tutors and lecturers have come up with a novel solution to a problem that wasn’t anticipated. In other cases, a different group might take 7 months to complete the same project.
The problem of time allocation needs to be determined by students’ learning needs, not by the administrative requirements of the institution. To say that we respect students’ learning needs is to accept that different students needs different amounts of time to process the same information. A system that has pre-determined time slots cannot possibly take into account the different needs of different groups and cohorts. If we say we want flexible curricula that adapt to the needs of students, we have to get rid of the fixed timetable. A fixed timetable means that you can’t adapt.
Q: So how do you organise the curriculum without a timetable?
I’ve said that we started to think differently about time allocation for learning activities. When you have modules it makes sense to have a timetable that coheres to those curricular units. This many periods for module A, this many periods for module B. But we use projects as the organising principle in our curriculum and while they are constrained in time, the projects typically run over 1 to 6 months, rather than hours or weeks. So the concept of a timetable to focus students’ attention in discrete 40 minute periods didn’t make much sense.
Strictly speaking we do have a timetable, it’s just used to allocate time over months – and sometimes years – rather than hours. For example, the facilitator responsible for guiding students through a project knows that completion of the project is reasonable within a certain period of time. They know what competencies the students need to demonstrate at the end of the project and they know what inputs – in general – need to be provided during the project. But the order, duration and intensity of those inputs varies between groups and between cohorts. The facilitator, in collaboration with the students, makes decisions about how much time should be allocated to the learning activities aggregated around the project.
One way to reconceptualise the idea is to look at the visual representation of two different ways to allocate time in a curriculum: 1) a fixed table for time allocation usually printed on a piece of paper, and 2) software that allows for the flexible allocation of time based on progress in a project.
Q: Why does it make sense to structure the curriculum like that, instead of using shorter periods in a traditional timetable?
We say we want to be flexible and to take students’ learning needs into account. How is it possible to be flexible when your timetable is not? If you think of the curriculum as a static thing that defines and describes how you allocate time to activities then you really don’t need this approach. But we wanted our curriculum to be flexible and adaptable to the needs of the specific cohort within in. Not just any cohort, but a particular cohort.
There’s really no way to operationalise that concept without taking the time to regularly revise the work and the time allocation to the work. If you want to take seriously the idea that students have different learning needs and that the curriculum should be responsive to those needs, you must also accept the implication that the curriculum cannot have fixed time allocations.
Q: Can you give an example of how this plays out in practice? What does a typical day look like for your students?
Students work through projects in small groups. They have a coordinator or facilitator who works with them during the projects but who may not be physically present all the time. Everyone in the group knows what needs to be achieved within projects and sub-projects and they know the total time – give or take a few weeks – allocated for completion of the project. The group begins each day with a short meeting where they review what needs to be done, what is missing in order to progress and therefore what activities are relevant for the day. We have three main “types” of activities: formal or guided, informal or self-directed, and something that we call making.
The group – with the facilitator – may decide that a formal input is necessary (for example, if they realise that a certain concept is not well understood in the group), in which case the team facilitator sets up any lectures, readings or additional activities that provide scaffolding for the tasks required in that phase of the project. These formal sessions obviously mean that the facilitator has a greater responsibility to guide the students in that session. Formal sessions are typically more structured than others and are split into shorter periods that consist of a variety of different activities.
Alternatively, the group may decide that they have a good foundation for developing the next phase of the project, in which case they may decide that the day would be better spent in engaged in real world work activities. This what we call making because the group will be engaged in building and creating things in the real world, using the concepts they’ve learned. These may be generating reports, articles or other formal artifacts for submission and publication, or may require building a prototype (for example, one group is building an exoskeleton with low cost materials). The purpose of these maker sessions is that students are creating something that has a tangible impact in the world. If they’re not getting a formal input or making something, they may decide that an informal session is necessary.
An informal or self-directed session may be used to consolidate concepts from a formal session, plan for a making session or to generate new ideas for further advancing the project. Informal session usually involve developing research questions, conducting literature searches, filtering results, aggregating and synthesising ideas, and then teaching each other the new concepts. From this new conceptual platform, the group will decide on the next step.
Q: That sounds like students take a lot of the responsibility for how time is allocated. Do you trust them to make those decisions?
Well, we can’t say that we want students to be self-directed learners but then tell them what to learn, when to learn it and where to be when they’re learning. Our students used to have no responsibility for directing their own learning even while we were telling ourselves that they should be self-directed. Our system changes that.
In the beginning of the programme we find that we need to spend much more time in this area but over the first year or two we see that students are able to manage their time quite well with respect to their projects and daily learning activities. We’re always there to give guidance if necessary but we’ve found that when we give them responsibility to make real decisions that affect their learning, students take that responsibility seriously.
Q: But don’t you need a fixed time in some instances? For example, when does the “day” start and end?
Students negotiate with each other and their facilitators to decide when their day starts and ends. Sometimes it suits them to begin at 10:00 because of transport or family responsibilities, and sometimes they begin at 06:00 because they want to finish early and attend to other business. We give guidance and support, especially in the early stages but we want to acknowledge that students use different criteria to make choices about how to allocate their attention to learning tasks. This system gives them additional choices that opens up possibilities for learning at different times when that’s necessary.
The students know what needs to be done and they know how much time in total it will probably take. How they manage their daily time is largely up to them. We’ve found that, since adopting this new approach to time allocation, our students usually spend more time engaged in learning activities than we expect them to. It’s not unusual for our student groups to continue working into the night and on weekends. As long as the tasks are engaging and have value, we’ve found that our students want to put in the work. The day starts when the group decides it will, and it ends when they think they’ve done enough to register progress.
Q: Doesn’t this have an impact on graduation? What about students who take longer to work through projects?
There isn’t a single programme in the world where every student in every cohort graduates in the minimum time period. Most of our class graduates in the minimum of 4 years but some students take longer. We have set dates for graduation but some students take longer to complete their projects. Once they’ve demonstrated the appropriate competencies that are linked to completion they are eligible to graduate at the next ceremony. This is not unusual in any programme. We just don’t call them failures or repeat students.