Raise your hand if you have spent over 14,000 hours in school during your lifetime.

 Are you in the 14,000 hour club?
If you grew up in the Unites States, or a country with similar education philosophy, chances are you spent 6.64 hours per day in school, 180 days a year, for 12-13 years.

That’s over 14,000 hours (or 840,000 minutes), no matter how you slice it.

How many minutes in a pizza?

The 6.64 average hours a day in school is actually better represented in minutes.

400 minutes per day.

That’s what each of our students (and each of us when we were students) spend their time doing 180 days a year, or 2,340 days in their K-12 journey.

So, what are we actually doing with those 400 minutes each day?


Time is a precious resource. How are we spending it in the classroom?

Or a better question, what are our students doing in those 400 minutes a day?

The Quantitative Classroom

If you are a parent you may wonder every now and then what your kids are doing all day in school. But, as an educator, teacher, and administrator (oh yeah, and I’m a parent), I’ve wondered out loud what a typical day-in-the-life of our students looks like.

In an effort to make this as visually appropriate as possible, I’m sharing with you the 100 block theory of learning.

Here’s the chart (hint: it’s 100 blocks).

100 block theory of learning

Each of those 100 blocks represents 4 minutes of time spent in school. So, when I was teaching HS English, each of my class periods would be 10 blocks (it was 40 minute periods). When I was an administrator at Upper Perk, our HS was on a block schedule at 80 minute periods (which would be 20 blocks).

It’ll look different depending on what you teach, your schedule, and your school. But the 100 blocks is universal enough to work in all different settings.

Take for instance the national problem with sitting too much. It starts in school. American students will spend an average of 4.5 hours a day sitting.

Time spent sitting down in school

Almost 2/3 of our students’ days are with them sitting in a seat, often listening to someone else talk, or being compliant in complete silence.

My daughter is 7 and my son is 5. I rarely see them sit at home for a full meal at the table, let alone for 270 minutes. When Sir Ken Robinson said “schools kill creativity”, it’s tough to argue with him looking at stats like that. But I think he said it better here:

Many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not – because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.

When we start to quantify how students are spending their 100 blocks of time in school, things start to look a bit different. I wonder if we even know much time we are potentially wasting.

The 100 Block Theory of Learning

Let me be very clear here, I’m not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV. But, according to the general definition of “theory” I’m going to take a chance and put something out to the world.

Definition: A theory is a statement of what causes what, and why, and under what circumstances. A theory can be a contingent statement or a proven statement. That is all.

My theory comes from observation as a student, as a teacher, as an administrator, and now as someone who gets to talk to teachers and administrators around the country and world about teaching and learning.

The theory itself is quite simple, but like anything, the follow-up is crucial.

Take for instance, Albert Bandura’s social-cognitive learning theory. Bandura noted that our behavior is changed when we see a person take a specific action and be rewarded for that action. In the future, we are more likely to take that same action. This is vicarious learning in which we learn through imitation rather than through direct reinforcement.

Bandura then followed this observation up with studies and research to support (or refute) social-cognitive learning theory.

Here’s the 100 Block Theory of Learning:

What we spend our time doing in school, will have a direct impact on the learning that takes place.

I know, I know. Ground breaking stuff here. But, honestly, what are we spending our time doing in school these days? And, how does it measure up to the learning that we are seeing.

For example, I’ll take two areas of focus for schools, that the President and First Lady (Barack Obama and Michele Obama) had in their 8 years in office.

First priority: Let’s move.

“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.”

– First Lady Michelle Obama at the Let’s Move! launch on February 9, 2010

The Problem: Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese.

The Focus: As the national initiative to ensure that 60 minutes of physical activity a day is the norm in K-12 schools across the country, Let’s Move! Active Schools equips schools with the resources and tools to increase physical education and physical activity opportunities for students.

Let’s go back to the blocks to check this out:


I love the effort to spend more time being physically active in school. But, if we want our kids to be healthy and active, we have to look at what we are doing in school. And most of what we are doing is sitting…

Even two 30-min recesses can solve that problem entirely.

Another Potential Solution: What if we took all (or most) of those minutes in the above image and turned the into standing (instead of sitting) minutes? Schools around the country have begun to embrace, and buy, standing desks for students. The research supports standing desks, and the impact on health, in many ways.

What the Research Says

“Research by a number of experts supports this fidget-friendly mindset. A 2008 study found that children actually need to move to focus during a complicated mental task. The children in the study—especially those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—fidgeted more when a task required them to store and process information rather than just hold it. This is why students are often restless while doing math or reading, but not while watching a movie, explained Dr. Mark Rapport, the supervisor of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Increasing students’ activity level in the classroom provides physical benefits, as well. Dr. Donald Dengel, director of the Laboratory of Integrative Human Physiology and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, co-authored a 2011 study that examined changes in caloric expenditure due to standing desks. His study found that participants using the desks burned 114 more kilocalories per day, or about half a candy bar.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you add that up for five days a week, it’s about two and a half candy bars per week, and over the course of the school year, it adds up to almost six pounds,” said Dengel.”

Second priority: STEM Education

We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM. We want to make sure everybody is involved. We want to increase the diversity of STEM programs, as well. And that’s been a theme of this science fair. We get the most out of all our nation’s talent — and that means reaching out to boys and girls, men and women of all races and all backgrounds. Science is for all of us. And we want our classrooms and labs and workplaces and media to reflect that.

– President Obama, March 2015

The Problem: Despite our historical record of achievement, the United States now lags behind other nations in STEM education at the elementary and secondary levels. International comparisons of our students’ performance in science and mathematics consistently place the United States in the middle of the pack or lower.

Survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that teachers in grades 1-4 in self-contained classrooms reported spending an average of 2.3 hours per week on science instruction. Class time spent on science dropped from a national average of 3.0 hours per week in 1993–94 to 2.6 hours in 2000 and to 2.3 hours in 2004 and 2008. And then there is the international data:

In 2015 on average across OECD countries, maths counted for 45 minutes of instruction time per day in primary education, and natural science for another 20 minutes. In relative terms, this translates to 17% of time devoted to maths and 8% devoted to science.

The Solution: President Obama has taken a great number of steps to boost the amount of STEM Teachers nationwide, funding towards STEM areas in school, and the Educate to Innovate program is pushing STEM across the country in a wide variety of initiatives.

What do the blocks show us:

Time spent in science in schoolThere has to be better (and more recent) data on the current time spent on STEM subjects in the classroom, but this is disheartening when there has been a national effort and yet our blocks show us that we aren’t spending that much more time in these areas.

From the White House website:

To date, this nation-wide effort has garnered over $700 million in public-private partnerships and hit major milestones in the following priority areas:

1. Building a CEO-led coalition to leverage the unique capacities of the private sector

2. Preparing 100,000 new and effective STEM teachers over the next decade

3. Showcasing and bolstering federal investment in STEM

4. Broadening participation to inspire a more diverse STEM talent pool

The funding and commitment are there, yet we aren’t seeing results where it really matters, which is what are students are DOING in their time at school.

Another Potential Solution: What if we took all those millions of dollars to train current classroom teachers. Let’s equip them with materials, resources, and professional learning opportunities that support STEM and make it possible to spend more time in school letting students do the work.

The 100 blocks don’t lie.

You can do this type of 100 block analysis with your own classroom, your own students, or your own school. It works for all different roles in K-12 education.

It’s about quantifying what we do, to see if our actions and helping or hurting our end goals for ourselves, our schools, and ultimately our students.

What administration spends time on, will impact what our teachers spend time on, will impact what our students do in the classroom!

What do we spend time on?

I had to answer this question myself as teacher six years ago. I looked at what I was doing, and realized I was trying to engage students with my content, my material, my resources, and my problems.

It wasn’t until I gave them the choice in a Genius Hour and 20% Project that I saw what it meant to truly have an engaged and empowered class of students. That 20% of class time made all the difference in my students school work, and in my life as a teacher. I’m believer in the blocks, because it’s what we do that matters, now and in the future.

Why Genius Hour Matters in Every School

Graphic created by Bill Ferriter

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  • Mark says:

    Well thought out article. 20% though? How about 100%?
    ‘Free to Learn,’ a book on the Sudbury School model, explores this topic. If you haven’t yet heard this model explained, please read with an open mind.

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