Saturday, May 14, 2011

Clocks and Learning

Image by Zoutedrop posted at Flickr here.

I sometimes wonder how students can learn in 45-, 60- or 80-minute periods stacked one atop the next, with little time they can call their own.  I wonder the same thing for teachers who are a bit more fortunate as they are usually afforded by contract, planning time each day. Students don't fare as well, as lunch is often the only time they can call their own. Such "efficiency" smacks of scientific management, which privileged the separation of planning from labor.  

The man who is fit to work in any particular trade is unable to understand the science of that trade without the kindly help and cooperation of men of a totally different type of education, men whose education is not necessarily higher, but a different type from his own (Copley 1923,45) as quoted in Thomas Newkirk's Holding On To Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, p. 14.

Learning requires both planning and labor. School requires only the latter for its students and in more repressed places, separates planning from labor for its teachers who are tasked with "transmitting" prepackaged lessons via scripts. 

The clock is a powerful force. Lewis Mumford knew this. In Technics and Civilization, Mumford wrote, "The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age" (p. 14).  He said that the clock shifted how time was represented and understood from a cyclical process of nature to a quantity. With the clock came the regulation and regimentation of life, parceling work into manageable bits of time.

Is this parceling not also true for schools as well? Is the bell not the most powerful symbol of regulation at schools? 

I was reminded of the almost obscene power of bells today while participating in a 3-hour learning engagement with high school seniors from a Symposium class, their teacher Mark Gutkowski (@mylatinteacher), designer Akemi Tanaka, our school's superintendent, an instructional leader, John Madden, our librarian, Debra Gottsleben (@gottsled) and supervisor, Scott Klepesch (@shklepesch). Mark and Akemi had designed an initial engagement for all of us to do involving design, building, and team work that had all of us thinking and doing.  Akemi next explained the thinking and production processes inherent in the industrial design work she does. We all peppered Akemi with questions wanting to better understand how her work originates, how it is modified and by whom and for what reasons.  We wanted to know about the thinking she does when making eco-conscious decisions and the relationship between identification of a problem and the development of design. Akemi then offered critique to students' design presentations as they presented drawings (made on paper or iPad) and discussed how their design originated and what problem it attempted to solve. 

Throughout the morning,the mix of students and educators learning side by side marked a distance from traditional schooling and its roles.  Empowered, engaged the time passed swiftly. And yet, at 11:18 the high school bells rang signaling the start of school-wide lunch. With this, students in dribs-and-drabs left to attend to clubs, make up tests, and other obligations, forgoing all of their found power in a swift acquiescence to the clock.  It was disappointing that closure was not determined by learners, but rather by a bell. 

I was reminded today that deep learning doesn't happen on schedule. Never has. Probably never will.  And yet, we persevere in diminishing learning by organizing school into predetermined blocks of time and signaling the start and stop of those blocks with bells, not intention.


  1. I think your ideas here perfectly illustrate the inherent problems with schooling, especially in this day and age. We can do great things in schools, but we are inexorably limited in many ways. This is not cynicism; it's reality.

  2. It's why I am set on designing with others an unschool. Reality needs to be set on its head. Thanks Royan for commenting.

  3. My first thought is that I'm wondering how this idea fits with homework. We've been given by our admin lately articles that decry the concept of homework as wasted time, that it's busy work, and that students don't do it anyway.

    So when (there's that time again) do students complete work no finished in class, and how do they demonstrate independence when they are so pressed for time in all aspects?

  4. Homework is an odd concept. You'd think it would at the very least be elective as it is being done at home, instead of mandated. A better goal might be to create conditions where students want to learn so much that they chose to do so, at home and elsewhere.

  5. You mean showing them that by reading on their own they can actually learn new things and care about those things and even make the world a better place? Oh, I tried that once. Didn't work.

    Is my cynicism showing? :)

  6. It takes courage to fail.

    I had something a bit different in mind. When learners have control over learning, there may be very different outcomes. Take a look at the mine craft post, Self Directed and Collaborative Learning for an example of learner choice. Appreciate your honesty.

  7. Oh yes. Our schools are too much like prison...using the cells and bells approach.

  8. I saw an example of the prison the same day the bell incident happened. Will write about that as well.

  9. Too often we allow learning opportunities to be dictated by fixed time schedules. We need to adjust our thinking so that the only CONSTANT is LEARNING.

  10. Lyn, agree. I wonder how as a principal you engender that (as I'm sure you do). Very difficult to do at a high school where the schedule is set.

    Thanks Lyn!

  11. I agree it's easier said than done, particularly at the secondary level. Something we're implementing here is attempting to schedule large, uninterrupted blocks of time for learning and allow teachers to decide with their grade level colleagues how to best plan for student learning throughout that time. We are transitioning to more push-in supports for students as well as opportunities to extend learning within the classroom itself, so we're not a slave to intervention pull-out schedules. There are time dictates for "specials" - art, library, music, PE, etc. as per district guidelines and teacher contracts... as long as those directives are in place we don't have complete freedom, but I think allowing teachers to control their daily schedules as much as possible, allowing for flexibility as per student needs, is one first step to take.


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