Giving Students Their School Day

Opportunities, not obligations. That is how Providence Country Day School (Rhode Island) characterizes its daily one-hour “Community Time.” The block, from 9:25 to 10:25 a.m., is used chiefly for students to partake in activities of their own making — as a daily lesson in the value of students taking charge of their own education. On any given day, you’ll see them engaged in a wide variety of activities during this hour — in student-driven clubs, in one-on-one tutorials with teachers, in special programs, in self-directed learning, and, equally important, in open-ended socializing.

For many adults and students in the school, it has become the favorite hour of the day. As an exercise in rethinking the structure of the school day, the creation of Community Time also connects with the research on how students develop habits for lifelong learning.

Restructuring Time
When our school embarked on a new schedule design in 2012, we didn’t just want it to work. We wanted it to work well for the students. Paramount in our thinking was architecture that helped capture the current research about how students might thrive in school settings. The focus was on developing both the daily framework and a schedule that would enable student motivation and enthusiasm for their school experience.

Dan’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2009), provided the philosophical context for our new schedule, while scheduling guru Roxanne Higgins, president of Independent School Management, informed the practicality of what works and doesn’t. Throughout the process, we also focused on “variety” and “excitement about learning” as guiding priorities.

Until we implemented the new schedule in 2013, the school was accustomed to a straightforward, tried-and-true traditional schedule that was familiar and constant. But it was not conducive to building variety and maximizing human relationships in a vigorous educational atmosphere. In the old schedule, every class was offered at the same time every day, every day of the week, with a 20-minute break for clubs, activities, and assemblies. Students’ free periods were spotty; for each student, there might be only one or two peers with the same period free. This minimized collaborative opportunities, social interactions, and full-community availability to all students. Sometimes teachers couldn’t find adequate time for extra work with a particular student because their free periods conflicted. As a result, lunches were often sacrificed and work hours extended.

In the new schedule, a suite of features addresses these concerns. Community Time, one of the new schedule’s key features, grew largely
out of the desire to coalesce students’ free periods for group time and provide better access to teachers. But more important than boosting productivity, the shared open hour is designed to make education more meaningful and personal.

A one-hour Community Time — about 15 percent of the day by minutecount
— is admittedly a large portion to dedicate to non-classroom pursuits. We are committed to it, however, because we believe that a quality education
is not merely about structured learning in the classroom. Many lessons and discoveries can — and do — emerge in an hour of relatively formless, student-driven time. Critics may worry that during this hour the students’ time is too unstructured, that the students’ minds are diverted from their studies and that they are too focused on their own priorities or simply being with each other on social terms. For us, however, that is precisely the point. Community Time is about serendipitous learning, about supporting social and emotional growth through a mix of predictable activities. It’s about understanding the value of — and the possibilities in — the “blank page.” That is why, during the hour, community obligations are scant and independent opportunities abound.

Each session of Community Time usually begins with something planned for all students, such as assembly or advisor time. These gatherings generally last about 20 minutes. Guest speakers or special assemblies can run longer, but they are not scheduled more than once a month. When
the planned business concludes, students are free to pursue social time,
self-guided study, private tutoring, or other activities. Student-led clubs take up as much as the entire block one day a week. By leading clubs of their own invention, students learn about organizing and gain confidence to deliver on their ideas. Weekly advisor time and school assembly give the entire community time to develop school culture or reflect on our world.

Special talents and interests are explored during Community Time. Students can also use Community Time to present a “demonstration”
that offers an enrichment activity for their peers. Likewise, teachers may
offer sessions on special topics that are optional for students to attend. We’ve seen student demonstrations in fencing, Irish step dancing, and drone piloting. A math teacher offered a one-time session on cryptography; our maintenance crew taught interested students how to change a flat tire.
Students attended only if they found the topic compelling and of interest.
In another instance, a photography teacher could actually say “yes” when
students asked to extend their class time to enable an expedition to Narragansett Bay for some seascape photography in breathtaking surroundings.

Leveraging Lifelong Learning
Many independent schools share the goal of creating lifelong learners, but
educators also recognize that this worthy goal is not easily realized. Research indicates that Community Time might contribute in two ways.

First, educators know well this foundational fact from the learning sciences: practice matters.1 If we really want students to be lifelong learners, we must scaffold that attitude and the skills that go with it. We must give
students practice in the idea that their intellectual interests can and should
be taken seriously, and we must give them practice in using the tools that
satisfy those interests in the absence of a ready-made curriculum or a set of required tasks. Community Time offers that practice — that essential
habit of mind.

Second, the very existence of Community Time in the schedule sends an important implicit message to students: “We, your teachers, don’t set the
agenda for everything that’s important to learn. Yes, by virtue of our experience, we are good guides to what is worth knowing. But it’s within your abilities to discover things worth knowing, to pursue them, and to learn about them.” This sacrosanct hour each morning is a symbol of the importance we attribute to this personal search. The uses to which this hour may be put also constitute a rule that teachers and students
must respect; it’s tempting for adults to use this time for mandatory test
reviews, rehearsals, or supplemental coursework, but those practices are
prohibited, except in essential onetime sessions that are still student

Research shows that symbols and rules are important to institutional
cultures2: they broadcast silent messages about what the community holds
important. Research also shows that, over time, individuals internalize institutional culture.3 We hope and expect that our students will learn the value of setting aside time each day to discover and pursue an intellectual interest, even though it may not contribute to a grade or earn a reward.

It is for these reasons that the temptation to provide greater structure to Community Time is vehemently resisted. It is easy to see the hour —
in the heart of the morning — as the answer to plentiful scheduling challenges, but overburdening the time would negate its intent. The freedom of the hour is too important. It creates an essential opportunity for student driven programming, giving the students their favorite time of day for as much self-direction as possible and helping us all pursue a reflective experience rather than the blindly competitive rigor sometimes associated with high achievement.

Creating Social Engagement

Community Time also has a social element. Everyone is available at once —
including teachers. Finding time with people is easy. There is no jockeying
to identify mutual free periods for a needed get-together nor teenage angst
over lacking common free periods with one’s best friends.

Community Time, in other words, makes the school experience valuable
to the students. It adds meaning to their day and helps provide calmness
and confidence to their lives. Even socializing helps motivate academic
engagement. One student pointed out, “I know if my homework isn’t finished, I won’t be able to see my friends at community time, so I make sure it gets done ahead of time.” Another notes, “I just feel less stressed going into my next couple classes, so I can pay better attention.”

t may seem surprising that we thought it important to put time in
the schedule to socialize. That would seem to be the one activity students
would be sure they get to on their own. Again we were guided by research. It’s long been known that recess improves attention and learning. People assume that the benefit accrues from physical exercise, and that’s part of it4, but kids who don’t run around benefit, too, as do students too old for playground games.5 For them, the benefit may come from a sort of quieting of the mind. Research from the last decade shows that the brain has two attention systems.6 One directs attention outward, and would be engaged during classes, or video gaming, or any activity that calls for attention to the outside world. The other directs attention inward. It’s active when we think
about ourselves, our relationships, our past, our futures, when we are able to be more contemplative.

These two attentions systems are linked in a curious way. Only one is in
charge at any given time — when one flips on, the other necessarily turns off, like a toggle switch — yet they are mutually reinforcing. The operation of one makes the other system stronger. That explains why people who practice meditation (which exercises the inner-directed system) say they feel more alert during the day (a sign that the outer system is working well). That’s also why some schools have taken to encouraging or mandating meditation among their students. That explains why we see a benefit if students want to use a period of Community Time simply to hang out. The students learn and grow from their social time in ways they can’t in a traditional classroom setting.

Making the Shift
Transitioning from a traditional schedule to one that included Community
Time warranted serious planning and intentional communication. The team leading the process interviewed faculty individually to assure each voice was heard within our overall context, and once the new schedule was proposed there were ample opportunities to share opinions. We distributed a questionnaire to hear what problems — or enhancements — people could foresee. Three voluntary meetings with senior administrators allowed
for a deeper dive into some of those opinions and observations. All of this
communication allowed the architectural team to build a punch-list around
details, and to test various theories to see what the real impact might
be — and, in doing so, anticipate and address problems before they arose.
The extra layers of practitioner input allowed the administrative team to
plan better and understand what areas needed further philosophical or psychological explanation.

Benefits have been clear. Community Time encouraged one group of
students to call for a series of discussions about American race relations
in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and other high-profile incidents. Another group used the time to develop and propose culturally
based language changes to our dress guidelines. A student-led club interested in sneaker collecting — “The Sneakerheads” — used their time to
plan and execute a public convention on our campus that drew 40 vendors
and more than 1,000 collectors. Others simply value their Community
Time and feel ownership of it, one student even stating, “Community Time
makes it fun to come to school.”

One can never change just one thing, and for us it was essential to consider how our Community Time has affected or enabled other shifts throughout our program and culture. In a school founded on the philosophy that there should be no “sideliners” in their own education — and that sports a contemporary mission emphasizing “engaged citizenship” — Community
Time is more of a new manifestation of our educational approach than a
tectonic philosophical shift. The school has always emphasized the concept we now call “student-centeredness.” Still, Community Time has allowed us to align our practice and our principles more precisely, enabling students to
explore friendships and “quietness of mind” while also letting them develop confidence in who they are as leaders, activists, and social beings.

The practice they have gained through Community Time has contributed
in part to the success of a new, student-led Community Standards Committee in which students drive topics such as the gender-appropriateness of our dress code, raise cultural awareness around identity,
and work with the dean of students to address our more serious disciplinary matters. The success of that group, in turn, drives the administration to consider other, bolder means of teaching through experiences and developing programs that reflect the understanding of cognitive science. Ultimately, Community Time is not a final product, but a meaningful step in an ongoing effort to ensure that we are teaching in every aspect of our school day, not just in the classroom.

We have found that the schoolwide Community Time concept works well for adults and students and ties in closely with the school’s overall mission. The program captures the essence of what brain research says about what students need to be engaged in the present and to develop the habits of lifelong learning and self respect. Students love it because they get to be themselves and spend time engaged with their friends in activities that are most important to them. As educators, we find Community Time valuable for its multifaceted effect on a school’s social, academic, and cocurricular spheres. Mostly, we love that it encourages our students to take greater ownership of — and joy in — their day.

Vince Watchorn is head of school at Providence Country Day School (Rhode Island). Dan Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.


  1. For a variety of perspectives and supporting research, see Anders K. Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  2. See, for example, Geert Hofstede, Bram Neuijen, Denise Daval Ohayv, and Geert Sanders, “Measuring Organizational Cultures: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study Across Twenty Cases,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 35, 1990, 286–316.
  3. Eun-Suk Lee, Tae-Youn Park, and Bonjin Koo, “Identifying Organizational Identification as a Basis for Attitudes and Behaviors: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychological Bulletin, 141, 2015, 1049–1080.
  4. Derek R. Becker, Megan M. McClelland, Paul Loprinzi, and Stewart G. Trost, “Physical Activity, Self-regulation, and Early Academic Achievement in Preschool Children,” Early Education & Development, 25, 2014, 56–70.
  5. Robert Murray and Catherine Ramstetter, “The Crucial Role of Recess in School,” Pediatrics, 131, 2013, 183–188.
  6. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou, and Vanessa Singh, “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 2012, 352–364.

Originally published in Spring 2016 in Independent School. By Vince Watchorn and Dan Willingham

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