It's About Time...

We have a strange and stressful relationship with time in our culture. Could it be in part because of how we're schooled? At most schools our days are broken up into odd little fragments. Classes start at times like 1:42, continue for arbitrary "blocks" of 48 or 55 minutes, and end abruptly with a bell which tells us to shift, machine-like, to the next task. The result is — oh wait, did I just hear a text come in? — the result is that our attention is fragmented, and we barely notice.

What if we could shift to a more generous spirit around time? Could we find less fragmented ways to work? To do our "Deep Work", as Cal Newport describes in his book of the same name, and show students the same? How could we change the school day and even our use of time at home?

I would suggest that a hallmark of good education is a generous and simple use of time. Schools that create highly complex schedules are less likely to make space for deep learning. Among other reasons, there is a real psychological cost to each transition. Each space a student enters has to re-establish a "container" of sorts, a set of rules and ways of being that are encouraged in that environment. Some teachers do this explicitly, with a moment of mindfulness or an opening ritual; others do so implicitly by how they begin the class and reset students who are not following the rules. There is always an introduction and a conclusion to a class, and if we have small blocks of time, those beginnings and endings use up a large part of our day. It's as if, as adults, we had to get in our cars and drive to a new meeting every hour, making our day full of many small commutes.

Of course, the goal is not to throw out "clock time." Clock time has its uses. We use it to facilitate collaboration: "let's all meet at 1pm". We use it to make plans: "I'll focus on my math homework for 30 minutes". But I think we should be a little more skeptical of it. Clock time is not always the most useful mindset. If we use it to replace our own instinct, we lose something valuable. For example, imagine setting a goal to exercise for a half-hour - if you think only of the time, you may ignore that growing pain in your knee which tells you an injury is coming if you don't pause; or you may stop at 30 minutes when your body has energy for more. Or take the worst offender, the meeting - how many meetings have you been in that went on for an hour because that's how much time was scheduled, when the work at hand could have been accomplished in twenty minutes? We ignore our instinct and become more passive, less aware, when we rely on a clock to tell us when to transition.

So what can schools and parents do about this? A beginning would be longer classroom periods. Give students the gift of 90 minutes to multiple hours of time to dive into a given project, but only if the teaching style is dynamic (2 hours of lectures or worksheets is no one's idea of a good time!). Give students the freedom to take a movement break in the middle of this time, or even whenever they feel it necessary, developing their awareness of when their bodies need to move. Assign homework on a longer timeframe rather than always being due the next day, thus allowing students the flexibility to do their work in a burst if they wish, or parceling it out day-by-day. As parents, we can be more aware of how much structure we're imposing on our children in their after-school activities or even at home, making sure they have ample expanses of open time. Shifting toward this may be a relief for some kids, and for others may at first be confusing or boring. The key is that they shift from a passive to an active attitude toward time, from waiting to be told when to shift into the next activity, to using their own ability to sense when they're done or need a change.

Perhaps the simplest way to put it is: living in modern society requires that we use clock time and teach our kids to use it; it doesn't require that we are bound to it rigidly or that we divide everything up into small fragments of time. We can simplify schedules, add flexibility, reduce the number of daily transitions, and create pauses when kids are invited to check in with themselves and figure out what they need. Better yet, we can model this as adults, which is the both the best way to transmit it to kids and perhaps a route toward more peaceful, less hectic lives for us as well.