Keeping teens focused for 4 hours will require creativity, educators say

‘Quadmester’ system helps reduce class sizes, but also creates new burdens

Science teacher Tasha Ausman says the new quadmester system for high school students, in which classes are delivered in four-hour blocks, will require teachers to adjust their strategies to make sure students don’t fall behind.  1:49
The new “quadmester” system for high schools will require both ingenuity on the part of teachers and a flexible curriculum for students to have a chance at succeeding, say two education experts.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board welcomes back their first high school students, Grade 9 cohorts A and B, on Sept. 8 and 9.
Unlike in a typical year, where students would learn a variety of subjects over the course of a day, students will instead study two subjects over the course of each quadmester, alternating each week from one subject to the other. The goal is to ensure physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When students are in class, they’ll receive four continuous hours of instruction on that week’s subject, with a 10-minute break.
A longer block of class time can offer great advantages but also “a number of challenges,” said Tasha Ausman, who has a doctorate in education and currently teaches science at Philemon Wright High School in Gatineau, Que.
For starters, Ausman said, it can be physically draining to sit in one spot for that long, listening to one person speak — even with a break halfway through.
When Ausman teaches in four-hour blocks, like during summer school, she typically instructs for 50 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break.
She also uses various tricks to give students mental breaks and keep them engaged. That could mean using multimedia, giving out quizzes, assigning group work or requiring students get up from their desks to pick up something placed elsewhere — like a graph they need to cut and paste into their notebooks.
“If students do incorporate movement into their learning, then it becomes less robotic,” said Ausman. She also likes to leave time for homework in class so when they’re done with a grueling day, they have time to unwind.
More field trips during class
Joel Westheimer, a research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa, says teachers need to be given the freedom to push the boundaries of the curriculum this year.
“Students are going to have all different needs, and giving teachers extended blocks of time is not a terrible idea in that situation. But they need the professional freedom to work with that time in the way they see fit,” he said.
That could mean working on long-term projects so students aren’t passive throughout class, taking students on field trips or even teaching outdoors in parks, Westheimer said.
What won’t work, for most students, is simply condensing a week’s worth of normal class material — say, four textbook chapters — into one four-hour period.
“All people, adults and certainly children, have limited attention spans,” said Westheimer. “It’s much better to look at the time block as a whole and think about your educational time in that way.”
Westheimer admits it’s still uncertain whether trips outside the class will even be allowed during the pandemic. For its part, the Ottawa-Carleton District School board says schools are permitted to designate outdoor areas for classes where it’s possible.
Find some joy, says Ausman
From Ausman’s experience, condensed learning can be “highly emotionally charged” for some students and increases the stakes of each class.
If a student loses track right at the beginning of one class, or has to stay home one day, they may never catch up, she said.
“At the end of that four-hour block, students might feel like they’re a week behind,” she said. “That forces students into an emotional tailspin where they might feel like it’s time to give up.”
Her advice to students is to enter into the quadmester with an eye on the positives — like how at exam time, most of the material will still be fresh, and that longer periods mean they’ll have more time to form bonds with their teacher and their classmates.