Keeping Track of Time: How School Takes More Than Its Fair Share

Time and timing is an issue that is often overlooked in education discussions, but it merits closer attention, and especially the very notable differences between school time and personal time.

A first and obvious point is that conventional education prioritizes its timing issues over a learner’s personal time.

A second point is that, excepting some some commonly-held assumptions about child and youth development that approximately correlate to similar activity choices in both camps, there is rarely any overlap between the two frontiers on the subject of time-related issues. School, after all, is where bells ring and classes change on time, testing and assignments are timed, and the duration of contact between an educator and a learner is meted out with characteristic timing – a class lasts 45-70 minutes, a school year around nine months. Often, there is no additional contact time between kids and educators.

SchoolClass-timeHow is it that learners really benefit from rigid school timing?  

Sastun-Reading-Surpass2008Relaxing time frames can greatly empower learning in my experience

Personal activities, on the contrary, are rarely set against a rigid time frame or block schedule. I mean, when you or your child are reading a good book or immersed in a project or game, or meeting with friends, is the activity timed or timed out by you or someone else? Not likely, though you may have some agreements about the duration of an activity that reflect personal negotiation.

We can most easily account for these differences when we consider the purpose of each. In school, timing is a contextual constraint serving the needs of a system overseen by administrators implementing the orders of other administrators. Every day, excepting some agreed-upon breaks, the system marches on, and everyone adheres to its timing or endures the consequences of attempting to interrupt the system. Detentions, grade penalties, and even expulsion are fairly common consequences for this.*

Personal timing has no other purpose than to serve personal interests which often reflect a natural rhythm determined by autonomous individuals, individually or collectively. “I can meet you at 10:30. Is that good for you?” “Wow, I sat and read this whole book! It was so amazing, I just lost track of time.”

As an educator I naturally consider how learning is influenced by timing issues. In SelfDesign, the school of which I am co-founder, I have seen many times, when learners are afforded the “time” they want and need to satiate learning interests, that their dive into subjects is deep and broad, and their results are satisfying by any measure of evaluation. I also recognize many benefits of having longer contact with learners – often extended over several years in succession, as is the also the case in Finland which is now lauded for its non-conventional approach to K-12 schooling.

While I concede rule-bound timing offers benefits for some in conventional schooling, I think time constraints generally lead to negative personal consequences.

That is also the clear conclusion of author-parent Vicki Abeles in her 2015 book, ‘Beyond Measure; Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Understimated Generation‘ – in which she asserts that K-12 schooling today (especially in the US) demands and consumes the more time from its students than ever before. The consequences of this, says Abeles, who also directed the 2012 film, ‘Race to Nowhere‘ documenting the pitfalls of federally-mandated education accountability initiatives in place since 2001, are increasing stress on students, poorer health, shrinking family time, and no perceptible change in learning outcomes.

Abeles also writes that a false “push for productivity” by schools robs kids of the valuable time that might otherwise serve other important learning goals. “Building a fort, daydreaming, or inventing a game might seem like dreamy luxuries—but these idylls of childhood are far from idle. It’s in these unstructured moments that children develop essential capacities for reflective thought, creativity, social skills, and self-control. And these opportunities, which now grow ever more rare, are irreplaceable.”

We need to awaken to such a loss of personal learning time for our children and youth to the insatiable maw of schooling before we forget this mainly serves bureaucratic whim, and not the best interests of our children and youth.

(* in the UK families can be and are fined by Head Teachers for taking their kids our of school during school terms. Ugh!)

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