16 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: undoing academic time

(1) ending required sameness     (2) rejecting the flipped classroom     (3) re-thinking rigor     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again     (6) learning to be a society (again)     (7) reconsidering what literature means     (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (9) changing rooms     (11) social networks beyond Zuckerbergism     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more     (13) why we fight

Time. Specifically, academic time.

School schedules frame the world, creating limits on every kind of learning.
 Let me begin with a Chris Lehmann quote:
"As long as high school students have to travel to eight different classes where eight different teachers talk about grading / standards / learning in eight different ways, students will spend far too much trying to figure out the adults instead of figuring out the work. When that happens, too many students will fall through the cracks and fail. If we built schools where there was a common language of teaching and learning and common systems and structures so that kind people of good faith can bring their ideas and creativity and passion to bear within those systems and structures and help kids learn, we will find that more teachers can be the kind of exemplary teachers that Mr. Kristof wants.

"As long as there is little to no time in the high school schedule for teachers and students to see and celebrate each other's shared humanity, too many students will feel that school is something that is done to them, that teachers care more about their subjects than they do about the kids. As long as teachers have 120-150 kids on their course roster, and there is little continuity year to year so that relationships cannot be maintained, too many students will be on their own when they struggle. If we build schools where teachers and students have time to relate to one another as people - if we create pathways for students and teachers to know each other over time, so that every child knows they have an adult advocate in their school, we make schools more human -- and more humane - for all who inhabit them."

Chris, the Principal of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy and someone I love to both agree with and disagree with because either way I learn, was responding to a column by New York Times writer Nick Kristoff on - well basically - poverty not being important in education (Like many at The New York Times Kristoff is a great reporter outside the United States, but often a lazy, sloppy front man for the power structure inside the United States), an article retweeted so many times by Arne Duncan's flak boy Justin Hamilton, that my Twitter-stream was literally spinning.

Anyway, Chris is, of course, right. Its one of the things he and I have talked about over the past year, that is, the need to break through the structures that confine us to failure. 

And one of those key structures is time, or more specifically, the way we use clocks. 

The clock is not always on our side: Harold Lloyd, Safety Last
Scene re-scored by a music composition student.

When I began writing about space in school, I said, "The "first technology" of school is time. That division of "educational time" from other time, and the subsequent divisions therein. School Days and weeks, and semesters, and years. Periods of time which are separated out for this and that. "It's time for reading but not science, science but not physical education, history but not literature."'

Time is the "first technology" because it is the most controlling of all the structures which define "school." Learning is, of course, timeless. It exists in its own temporal zone, unique to each individual, and different for each thing "learned." But school is all about the clock. In Peter Høeg’s Borderliners the main character creates complete panic among a school's adults simply by messing with the bell schedule. So trained are the faculty to the clock that be creating just an extra ten minutes at one point in the day, he can destroy the school's operation.

It's more than a great story, it makes perfect sense.

Studebaker was endlessly rushing new models
out for September "model year" starts,
too often, the parts didn't fit together
All my life I have clashed with schools over "deadlines." These are deadlines unlike almost any I've run across outside of school, because they are completely arbitrary. OK, in the bad old days of American car companies and the "good old days" of American TV networks, they rushed products, mostly incredibly lousy products, to market for pre-ordained moments in time, but wisely, the rest of the world sort of ignored that system, and now, cars come to market when they are ready. 

American TV series had to be these things which would run and run and run. That could happen in Britain, but the BBC was also willing to call eight episodes a season, if it seemed appropriate.

But schools, from Kindergarten up through Graduate Schools, persist in the same nonsensical calendar system in which the clock overrules the idea of doing what you do well. Stop paying attention to American History kids, we're done with that. I'm sorry you got deeply interested in cognitive theories, the semester is over. And of course, a mediocre work turned in "on time" trumps a great work that's "late."

Then, within each day, we make it far more ridiculous, as Chris Lehmann says up top. Fascinating math concept? Ding! Sorry, the bell says its time for Charles Dickens. Great discussion of Dickens? Ding! Sorry, the bell says its time for gym! We defeat virtually every potential student interest, and short circuit learning moment after learning moment, because we think that the most important thing to respond to is, a clock.

And if we back off further, we are so intent on dividing "learning time" ("school") from "non-learning time" ("home") from "homework time" (school directed but not supported), that those who want to use "homework time" differently think they've discovered the equivalent of gravity.

Sad, because before children are introduced to our schools, they are learning every minute they are awake.

Step ten of Changing Gears 2012 is to do everything we can to break apart every notion of academic time. Admitting, that since the clock and calendar are the foundational technologies of what we call "school," that this is the most difficult thing of all. But only by attacking these rigid foundations can we begin to liberate learning from the industrial straitjacket of the past century and a half.

Summerhill physics?
We must do what we can to stop processing children as if they were products with "value to be added" at key moments. And let us use the absurdities of today's political class as our leverage. If poorly educated governors in Iowa, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere want to set rules about social promotion - and nothing is more ridiculous than attacking "social promotion" in a system entirely based on student age - then you have every reason to make all of your schools multi-age, so promotion is no longer an issue. That breaks calendar foundation number one, the absurd NCLB notion that age determines learning.

"To allow children to be completely free to play as much as they like. Creative and imaginative play is an essential part of childhood and development. Spontaneous, natural play should not be undermined or redirected by adults into learning experiences. Play belongs to the child." - Summerhill Policy Statement 

Then, within schools, we must stop dividing time between "play" and "learning" as if these are somehow mutually exclusive. Or between "learning" in an active mode, and "learning" by reflecting. Kids need to learn to manage time, and they need to discover. It is fine if three are playing, six are reading, two are staring out the window, etc. It is fine. This is natural. This is what humans do

"The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best." - A.S. Neill  

Assignments need to stop having dates on them. Assignments - such as they may be - need to have goals instead. What are you hoping to accomplish? to learn? to create? to build? to know? to demonstrate? to provoke? How do you think you'll get from "here" to "there." What in the world does a date or a time have to do with that? Why would you even begin to interfere with the learning process by limiting the time? I'll explain, because in the industrial process of schooling 70% of a subject "learned" by a specific moment trumps mastery at some other time. Do I really need to explain how ridiculous that is?

Is late worse than best? The Boeing 787 Dreamliner
I, myself, am rather glad that Boeing was quite late with their 787 Dreamliner. Had they been on-time, well, from what I hear, the wings would've fallen off. Which is a classic "school 70%." The 787 is unlike any other plane ever built, imaginative, and quite remarkable. We don't get that with fixed deadlines. Something the "real world" already knows.

We all need caves, campfires, and watering
holes, and the right to choose which when (Summerhill)
"In other words, we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them." - Neil Postman and Alan Shapiro

"Our schools imagine that students learn best in a special building separated from the larger community. Teachers and administrators are included in the group of educators; parents, employers, businessmen, ministers are excluded. The year-around Parkway Program sets up new boundaries and provides a new framework in which the energy of all of us can be used in learning, not in maintaining an obsolete, inefficient system. ... There is no schoolhouse, there is no separate building; school is not a place but an activity, a process. We are indeed a school without walls. Where do students learn? In the city. Where in the city? Anywhere and everywhere." - Greenberg and Roush. A Visit to the 'School without Walls': Two Impressions  

"School work" needs to stop being separated from life by the hard line of "school time" and "non-school time," which is one of the reasons why - earlier in this collection - I find the "Flipped Classroom" so lacking. Learning needs to occur within and around the world as a whole, and "school" should be the place where we help students make sense of their global learning and get them ready to go solve the issues - personal, family, community, nation, world - which they encounter elsewhere. But to do this we must stop pretending that "school time" is something absolute. Remember, before Henry Barnard and the industrial model of schooling, students came to school when their chores were done, and left school when they were "done" there. They took breaks from school when other things intervened. As far back as the 1850s the "Land Grant College" movement hoped to bring the life of the nation into the school experience, and the value of education to the society (a concept often still dimly, if at all, understood, even by Land Grant University faculty).

This is part of the reason for Passion-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning, and the entire School-Without-Walls concept. Breaking down the walls, starting with the walls of time.

"To allow children to experience the full range of feelings, free from the judgment and intervention of an adult. Freedom to make decisions always involves risk and requires the possibility of negative outcomes. Apparently negative consequences such as boredom, stress, anger, disappointment and failure are a necessary part of individual development." - Summerhill policy statement. 

How does your "school time" help your kids prepare to work here?
(Virgin Atlantic headquarters)
The thing we have become worst at in our schools is helping students get ready for anything except more secondary schooling. We usually do nothing to even prepare students for universities, much less anything else, and here, time is the key factor. How do you choose to "study?" Where do you choose to "study"? and of course, When do you choose to "study"? Those key questions which determine university success in many ways are completely blocked from the primary and secondary experience because we insist on running our students as if they were a (French, not American) train system, with every moment accounted for. How, with your clock training, will your students even know what to do with themselves if they get a job where some of the time-use decisions are theirs?

So stop it. If a student comes to class "late" or leaves early the question is not one of "bell compliance" but of how to do that politely and without disrupting others. If a student falls asleep in class, assuming the snoring is muted, that's only your concern insofar as it may be a review of your performance (more often its a review of our absurd secondary school scheduling ideas). If a student chooses an extended lunch (usually "extended" from something obscenely short) over class attendance, this needs to be viewed as a micro-economic decision, and not a behavior issue.

"Class-oriented? Who or what has ever made anyone in the 3Is take more classes than he/she wants to take? First year student Richard Hobbs during his two years in the 3Is probably didn't take more than one or two and, if I remember correctly, didn't even get credit for them. He graduated. (See Ira Socol and Tom Murphy on the art of not taking classes; on the other hand, for the art of taking classes, see Kim Jones, who amassed something like 12 credits and graduated after her sophomore year.)" - Alan Shapiro 

Why can't students control their own academic time? Why can't every school allow students the freedom to go at their own speed? If you really believe that your school is not an industrial processing plant, or not a holding tank for adolescents (to keep them off the streets/out of the job market) than I challenge you, in 2012, to start to prove that.

Academic time is wrong. It is wrong in every way and at every level of education. And we need to start working to destroy it.

- Ira Socol
social networks beyond Zuckerbergism


Lyn Hilt said...

I remember being a classroom teacher and enjoying the freedom of spending our day learning as we chose, with little outside interference, save for one scheduled special class and a lunch/recess block throughout our day.

As a principal, with mandates of scheduling 30-minute intervention blocks, 45-min special education sessions, blah blah, the day of a classroom teacher and student in my school is highly fragmented.

This is a huge step backwards, even though the justification for doing so is to ensure all students "get what they need." I have teachers who are seeking to explore more project-based, innovative learning experiences with their children but feel stifled by the clock.

If I don't run a schedule this way, I am at the mercy of my superiors asking why my schedule doesn't meet the criteria that the buildings in the rest of the district are expected to follow- the minutes we promised to abide by in our RtII application to the state and more blah blah blah.

If we devoted more time to developing our teachers as professionals and respected our students' autonomy and curiosity for learning, we could break free from the constraints of the school day, of class periods, of intervention blocks, of "specials schedules."

This is really frustrating for me as a school leader. I appreciate your thoughts in this post.

Anonymous said...

Last year my schedule became so segmented and regimented as a professional that even now that I've changed positions I still get anxious thinking about it. As a specialist teacher providing prep periods for other teachers there was tacit disapproval of deviating even one minute from the clock. This whole post makes me really sad :( I was glad that the principal above is standing up to the system, but it is such a HUGE, IMMOVABLE system . . . sometimes it feels hard to know where to start affecting change when you are a cog in an enormous machine.

Tony Baldasaro said...

A mentor of mine once said, "Time is the currency of education". He was basically right (although just because you have time, doesn't mean learning will automatically take place.) Until schools divorce themselves from the tyranny of time, the focus of school will never be learning, it will continue to be coverage, i.e. I have to get here before then. I've written about the perils of time before and very proud to work at a school that has made time a variable and not an absolute, but your post absolutely highlights the single most limiting factor in education. Great post. Thanks for sharing.