Saturday 28 May 2016

It's about Time!

Secondary teachers: have you been astounded in recent years by the sheer number of students who cannot tell the time, and, in many cases, seem to have absolutely no concept of time itself?

I certainly have.

Now if you're a non-maths teacher, you might be thinking: "why haven't those lazy maths teachers taught them how to tell the time?" If you're a maths teacher, you might be thinking, "why didn't those lazy Primary school teachers teach them how to tell the time?" And if you're a Primary school teacher, you might well be thinking, "why don't parents teach their children to tell the time these days?"

Of course it is the joint responsibility of parents, Primary teachers, and (I would argue, to a lesser extent), Secondary Maths teachers, to teach students how to tell the time. However, some responsibility also lies with non-maths Secondary teachers too. The sad thing is, some teachers (Maths teachers included) are actually un-teaching students about time. That is to say, they're actually worsening students' understanding about time. Let me explain.

I have noticed that the only classrooms in my school that have wall clocks are the Maths classrooms. When I was in charge of numeracy across the curriculum at my school, I asked some representatives from other departments about why that was, and whether they would like me to order clocks for their classrooms (from the Maths budget!) and I was surprised to hear a resounding "no thanks". Their reasoning was that if there is a big, visible clock in the room, students will spend the lesson clock-watching, and will hence be less engaged.

Whilst I do sympathise with this, having experienced my fair share of disengaged students, I do think that we need to rethink this. I have sixteen year old students who have absolutely no concept of how long five minutes feels like, who have no idea what quarter of an hour feels like compared to three-quarters of an hour. And I believe this is because they do not do enough clock watching. Think about it: the youth of today are more likely to watch on-demand TV, Netflix, or youtube instead of scheduled programming, so they don't really have the experience of waiting for 7:30pm for Top of the Pops to start. It is experiencing things like this that teach us about time.

Have you ever told your class, "you have three minutes to finish this activity, and then we'll discuss it as a class"? I'm sure you have, because time limited activities are recommended by teaching and learning experts. But do you actually wait three minutes exactly? Or do you wait an arbitrary period of time, until the noise level has risen just enough to tell you most students have finished, or the time it takes you to give out the glue sticks? Sometimes we jokingly refer to these periods of time as "teacher minutes", but what's really not funny is that these "teacher minutes" may be the only experiences our students have with time periods, and when they build up an understanding of a minute based on this, they are going to be left with a completely warped impression. You could actually be damaging their conceptual understanding of the passage of time by doing this.

Have you ever sat with a student in a ten minute detention and had them squirm in their seat and ask after two minutes, "can I go yet?" They aren't being rude exactly, they just honestly have no idea what ten minutes feels like. And with no clock in the room, they may feel completely lost, the way a directionally-challenged person like myself might feel in the middle of a large homogeneous field with a map but no compass. What makes this all the worse, is that often we get bored of the detention, or we remember we have a meeting to get to, and we cut the detention short, knowing that the student won't realise. Thus reinforcing dodgy concepts of time.

Teachers are not the only ones to blame. When I was a kid I referred to a bus timetable to know when my bus was due, and my watch to know what the time currently was, and I worked out from there how long I had left to wait. Today, I simply look at the electronic display inside the bus shelter that says "6A - Pool Meadow - 8 minutes" and watch the time count down to zero, and then the magic word "Due". National Express minutes are even worse than teacher minutes. Sometimes the time remaining increases. Sometimes it stays on the same number for several minutes. I am aware of this because I have built up a good understanding of time over the years. Many young people today, however, have not, and hence this is just more misleading information about time to warp their understanding.

Now I'm going to stop complaining and start offering solutions.

1. If you're a teacher, get a clock for your classroom, and don't discourage clock-watching. If a student asks how long it is until the end of the lesson, point at the clock and get them to work it out. Help them with this if they can't read it. Don't be surprised if some of your year elevens cannot read an analogue clock. What would be even better is putting some words around the edge of your clock saying "o'clock", "quarter past", etc. This way students get used to this vocabulary.

2. When you use time-limited activities, time them properly. Don't use "teacher minutes". If possible, display a countdown clock or a large analogue clock on your interactive whiteboard during the activity, so that students can monitor the time themselves as they do the activity.

3. When doing exam practice, get students used to timed conditions by having a large analogue clock on the interactive whiteboard and refer to it frequently. For example, saying something like, "It's quarter past at the moment which means you've had twenty minutes and you've got another twenty left, because we finish at twenty-five to" and pointing to the position of the minute hand as you do so.

4. If you have a student who is perpetually late and you think may not have a good understanding of time, give him or her a time-based job to do so that they have to be aware of the time. For example, you could say, "Daniel, at two o'clock can you do me a favour and go and give this note to Mr Edwards? It's really important so can you remind me just before two o'clock so that he gets it on time". Now maybe you're thinking that if half of Daniel's attention is on the clock, he's not going to be able to learn as much or be fully engaged in the lesson. But I do think it's important that students learn to be time-conscious in order that they can be effective working adults.

Am I over-reacting here or do you also think this is a big issue that needs addressing? Do you strongly agree or disagree with any of the points I've made? Let me know in the comments.

Emma x x x


  1. The things you say make so much sense, Emma. The internet in particular is dreadful for ruining the feeling of time passing - how many times have you gone on the internet, looked at a 'couple of things', glanced up and seen how much time has passed! (Also, bonus points for 'the youth of today'. We really are a generation apart from them!)

    1. Things have changed dramatically since we were teenagers, despite it not being that long ago!

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