Scheduling for Curricular Depth and Challenge

What was “the best” course you ever took? Probably one for which you had to work quite hard, one that you perceived as challenging from the outset, one for which you rose to the challenge. The course probably had a reputation as a tough course, so you probably added it to your schedule with care and made sure you did not take another really challenging course at the same time.

Major time commitments are regularly called for in schools: for musical or dramatic performances, athletic seasons, and some classes too. Could we improve the way such opportunities are scheduled so that  students can experience as many as possible each year without creating a killer workload for themselves at critical times during the year?


What if schools offered “challenges” that lasted for either half or a full semester? Each student could be required to be enrolled in two challenges at all times. A research project, art or engineering project, dramatic or musical performance could each count as a challenge, as could a varsity sport, as could any number of academic and extra-curricular offerings. To qualify as a “challenge”, an offering would have to:

  1. Culminate in a public performance, presentation, or display of student work.
  2. Involve extensive student research, experimentation, or practice.
  3. Provide multiple opportunities for students to refine and/or improve their work.
  4. Help the student meet the school’s academic, artistic, performance, physical education, or life skills requirements.
  5. Have the potential to introduce a student to a new passion, or extend an existing one.

By requiring students to take two challenges at a time and requiring students to complete at least one challenge in each academic area each year, the school can provide a means for a student to pursue a passion via a series of challenges, while also requiring such a student to explore all other subject areas too – in hopes that they might discover additional passions.

Effect on Coursework

The weekly schedule would need to have some time carved out for students and teachers to work on challenges, and all other offerings would probably need to be modified to reflect the existence of this new structure. This would affect all courses that involve time-consuming projects, and probably result in most major projects being separated from their current course (much like labs are often separate from science classes) to become challenges.

Once this has happened, classes would be expected to assign a fairly constant work-load per class meeting. Classes would focus on core skills and concepts that will be needed for challenges, plus smaller projects that do not qualify as challenges.

Every academic area would be expected to offer their own series of challenges for students at each level, and students would be required to complete at least one challenge in each academic area each year. Examples could include:

  • English challenges could study more of an author’s work and/or expect each student to produce a significantly longer and more polished piece of writing which would be published within the school community.
  • Foreign Language teachers could have students present a dramatic production in the language.  Or write a research paper (in the foreign language) based on current events topics in a country that speaks the language.
  • Social Studies teachers could embark on a significant research project using original documents, culminating in a public presentation or debate about the conclusions reached by students.
  • Art teachers could ask students to produce one or more significant works for display in an exhibition. Or they could ask students to research a single artist’s works or style, and produce either a significant piece of writing for publication or a work of art in the style of that artist for exhibition.
  • Science teachers could ask students to design and carry out an experiment, analyze the results, refine the experimental design, and carry out the revised design before writing up the results for submission to a journal.
  • Math teachers could ask students to create a predictive model for student-collected or researched data, then present and defend the model in a public forum. Or seek to prove some conjecture or theorem, and present their work and ideas (approaches that seem promising, and those that did not) even if they do not arrive at a full proof.
  • Combinations of the above would also be possible: challenges could readily meet English and Social Studies, or Science and Math, or Social Studies and Math and English learning objectives.


The master schedule for a semester might look like:
Courses: Week 1 – 12
Challenge A: Week 1 – 11 (presentations in week 11)
Challenge B: Week 1 – 4 (presentations in week 4)
Challenge C: Week 1 – 5 (presentations in week 5)
Course Tests: Week 6
Challenge D: Week 7 – 10 (presentations in week 10)
Challenge E: Week 7 – 11 (presentations in week 11)
Course Tests: Week 12

This would allow for some challenges (such as a major drama production or long term research project) to require almost the entire semester, while most would require either four or five weeks of focused effort. By offsetting presentation and academic test weeks, students will not have multiple challenge presentations due in the same week. Students would be advised not to enroll in A and E challenges simultaneously.

This approach could reduce many of the scheduling and time-management conflicts that exist between performances (drama, music, sport) and academics. Students in an afternoon activity like a sport or drama would have more free periods during the school week in which to complete other assignments, while students not engaged in an afternoon activity might not have any free periods during the school week and would need the afternoon hours to complete assignments.

I am sure such an approach has its warts (doesn’t every scheduling approach?), but it is intriguing to contemplate as a potential means of consistently providing greater depth and challenge to all students, in all subject or extra-curricular areas, while also making work-load spikes predictable and hopefully more manageable for students.

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.

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