10 Basic Principles of Our School System, Part 6: 45/90-Minute Lessons

  1. homework
  2. class tests, tests and exams
  3. grades
  4. schoolbooks
  5. the curriculum
  6. 45/90-minute lessons
  7. class size
  8. age-based classes
  9. subjects
  10. teacher focus

What happens in school when the bell rings to signal the beginning of the lesson? Some few teachers are ready to start teaching, some start walking to their classes, most start getting up from their seats, often moaning and sighing, some few don’t react at all for a few more minutes. It’s similar with students, except there is more sounds of distress and most of them only get up because they get into trouble if they don’t.

What happens 45 minutes later, when the bell rings again? That really depends on the teacher, the class, the circumstances and even which lesson it is. Most students will either have packed already or feel a real strong urge to start at the very second they hear the bell (or already 2-3 minutes before that). Teachers will either try to finish their last sentence or shout out some homework or say the last word in perfect timing with the ringing bell (that’s called a “miracle”) or they have an unanswered question hanging in the air or they have been waiting for the bell to ring for a while now. Isn’t it amazing and incredibly telling that Saved by the Bell is a fixed expression in our culture? Saved from what? More school? Exactly.

The question to me, though, is, why is the time between the ringing of those bells fixed? In Germany it’s normally 45 minutes (or 90 if there are two lessons in a row). 45 Minutes to do everything you want to do as a teacher with your students on a given topic. 45 minutes in which you are supposed (in the idealistic world of teacher’s training) to motivate and activate the students, find a personal connection to the topic and to give them homework. That’s a lot for 45 minutes and with a final bell ending anything that isn’t finished.

Normally I try to find the official, “reasonable” explanation for why things are done in school the way they are. But that’s not so easy here, because why would we limit ourselves to this kind of time constraint? Okay, you could say, there has to be some kind of limit, but the biggest problem with it is that it allows for no flexibility whatsoever. You have to think and teach in chunks of 45-90 minutes and if there are enough days in-between lessons it’s hard to establish any sort of continuity. But just the issue of not being able to finish an important thought, so that you have to start all over again next lesson, is incredibly frustrating. Why aren’t we allowed to finish when we are actually done?

Or, for that matter, to finish before the 45 minutes are up? Because at my school it is very frowned upon to finish a lesson early, even if it’s just two minutes. Let’s not even talk about five minutes? The reasoning is the noise level when students walk through the building, but that is not a good argument. Especially not for getting as worked up about it as I’ve seen teachers do in conferences. As if the ringing of the bell is sacred and any violation is a sin. It should only be a kind of orientation for everyone to finish around a similar time, not the authority to which we all have to answer at exactly the same time.

Flexible lesson times are not an impossible thing to organize as many progressive schools are doing this for years. It sounds undoable to anyone used to regular state schools, but it isn’t so complicated. We’re so fixated on time in our culture that we force it on our already inherently flawed school system like a uniform that’s too tight but is supposed to make us look orderly and dutiful on the surface. But in reality, it pinches, it itches and we can’t wait to get it off and feel like ourselves again, even if we've worn it for so long, it's hard to imagine wearing anything else. Remember that feeling? It’s time we switch by with from.