Computer says no

20 years ago, Little Britain’s Carol Beer (aka David Williams) was a particularly unhelpful receptionist who answered customer queries by tapping data into her computer before abruptly announcing to them that the “computer says no”. Customers would politely ask for her to check again as the computer must be mistaken, but when Carol’s “computer says no” it meant “computer says no”. Part of the relatable and awkward fun of watching Carol at work is that we have all, probably more than once, received ridiculous responses from a computer that just don’t make sense.  

In schools, the timetable can often be the graveyard of great ideas.  

How many times have you come up with a great idea that you think will transform your school?  Maybe it was something you thought would help bring the school closer to its stated mission, vision, or values?  Perhaps you have been inspired by what another school is doing?  Or possibly a good idea has come from something you have read or come up in conversation?

Some deep thinking students at school this week put together a proposal for the school to start later in the day.  The idea, based on a growing body of research that will not surprise anyone who lives with young people, is that early starts just don’t jive.  Wouldn’t it make sense to move the whole school day an hour later?  Perhaps.  And perhaps not.  Evaluating ideas such as this one are incredibly difficult as potential benefits can often be overshadowed by potential detriments.  And as these students are learning, and I have learned myself on numerous occasions, taking on the timetable is thirsty work.

Of course, it is not just teachers and students who come up with new ideas.  Parents carry their own educational experiences with them; influential research and industry are telling us that schools are not aligned to the future of work, and we are living through a disruption that has shown that some of the things we thought were important in schools are not that important anymore.  Maybe they never were.

And whilst there appears to be a general consensus for change in education, what this might actually look like in schools is highly contested.  This includes questions around the way that universities select students through the academic credentialing system, how schools assess student learning, and the value of interdisciplinary learning and skills.  

To be honest, I might be more interested in exploring another idea that I heard this week from a couple of other students who introduced me to their idea of BYOT (Build Your Own Timetable) where once a week students can build their own timetable and attend the classes that they want, with the teachers that they want, and perhaps at the time that they want to as well.  Of course, some readers will be thinking that this idea is barking mad, and others will be thinking why only one day in the week? That’s how it goes these days.

But who gets to decide which ideas are taken forward?

Forrest Gump once said:

“My mama always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where they going, where they been”.   

Likewise, I think you can tell a lot about a school by their timetable.  Look closely and you can see where they are going and where they have been. 

Is student mentoring important?  Are academics more important than activities?  Are the sciences more important than the arts?  The length of lessons might signal a particular approach to teaching and learning; the number of subjects available might signal whether breadth or depth of learning is more valued; the name of lessons might signal whether the school wishes to be ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’ or perhaps something else altogether.  What gets included on the timetable, well…it just matters.

So I have come to view the timetable as the spectacular culmination of compromises between the school’s educational philosophy and priorities, parental expectations, and the need to achieve efficiency.  

There are many aspects of a school timetable that can signpost a school’s educational philosophy – and the school priorities that reflect it.  Many schools espouse a holistic educational mission but are then unable to show how this translates into their timetable.  Vicariously is the most likely answer.  

But up against a school’s philosophy will often be the hard edge of reality. 

The perfect timetable needs to be perfectly resourced, and by definition would offer very little efficiency.  Even the most affluent schools in the world are accountable to their stakeholders for their cost efficiency, particularly if it means that money can be reinvested in additional resources, new facilities, or other improvements in teaching and learning.  So if there was a choice between adding an additional student to a class, or employing another teacher to avoid that, most schools would make the same decision.  In the same way, a school may feel that food technology lessons are valuable, yet be unable to prioritise this when set against the significant investment in the specialist teachers and facilities when that money could be invested elsewhere.  And I have also worked in a school which removed physical education from the timetable to make room for ‘citizenship’ studies, a decision I can still not get my head around.  

Parents too play a significant part in timetable considerations, particularly after it has been established.   Firstly, they (we) build our lives around the timings of the school day.   Pick-ups, drop-offs, meal preparations, shopping, work…everything….revolves around the times.  They are inter-connected.  Secondly, parents have certain expectations from schools, particularly when parents are able to make a choice in where they send their children.  These choices were often made on what was on offer at the time.  So if a school changes from offering A levels to offering the IB Diploma, for example, or suddenly changes what is being offered in the curriculum, then they will likely (and should) have something to say about it. 

The fact is that the longer a timetable has been fixed in place, the more difficult it is to change it.  It gets locked into place by systems, structures, and processes that become more and more complex and efficient as times go on.  I have mentioned the impact on parents, but school buses (local transport) catering, employment contracts, budgets, and a hundred other considerations also come to mind.  Each year, if a school is being well run, it will be creating more and more efficient ways of delivering the same outcomes.  So when it comes to making a decision to change things, it will either carry an above-the-line cost or require so many other people to agree to the change that the idea may just not be worth the pain after all.  Sometimes, we might not even bother waiting to hear what the computer will say.

Don’t ask Carol

So we need to think around the timetable.  How do we do that?  Here are 4 ideas:

  1. Timing.  Some ideas will gain more traction if presented at the right time.  Presenting a new hybrid model for blended learning might land better now than before COVID.
  2. Plan ahead.  The planning that goes into the timetable is significant, even with the latest software to help make it both elegant and efficient.  If you want to propose a change it might take more than a year to model what it might look like.  Dropping a great new idea in the final few weeks of the school year and expecting a positive response is a bit naive.  This happens a lot by the way.
  3. Impact.  If the change proposed to the timetable will only affect a small number of students, and not much, then it will be unlikely to be supported.  A better idea would be to cluster proposals together so that there might be a cumulative impact. 
  4. Consultation.  Your idea will be better if it is not presented as your idea.  If it is a good idea, share it and see who will champion it.  Effective consultation will also mean that you have a stronger research base on which to make a more compelling case for change.

Much of this blog might sound a bit defeatist.  However, education reformers need to know what they are up against if they are to be successful.  In a previous blog, I shared that I think that education reform has a Wizard of Oz problem – it needs more brain, more heart, and more courage.  This blog is an attempt to apply more of that brain.

One thought on “Computer says no

  1. Timetabling is a solution that is required when you are trying to put a certain group of students in a certain room at a certain time with a certain teacher. Digital technologies are not the answer because they can solve complex timetabling problems, they are (part of) the answer because they can make timetabling unnecessary. Let’s look at how hybrid learning can enable a model of education where timetabling is redundant, not fiddle around the edges of an old paradigm.

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