‘They say we are better educated than our parents’ generation. What they mean is that we go to school longer. They are not the same thing.’ Douglas Yates
‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it’ Rudyard Kipling
'Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you. Carl Sandburg
In the poem ‘If’, (voted by the Nation as its favourite poem), Rudyard Kipling * offers us some succinct advice on how to use time. At a first reading, ‘filling every minute with sixty seconds run’ seems rather excessive, but the question of how we use time is probably the most important decision we make, day on day. I don’t think for a minute that Kipling meant us to keep constantly busy (an assumption, I know, from this prolific writer), but that we value time and don’t waste it. Working intensively on anything, determined or incidental, is not to waste time, for the learning is often in the application; nor is relaxing with a book or tracking a passing cloud. Invariably the biggest waste of time comes from trying to multi-task with the result that nothing is completed satisfactorily.
In education, the debate over how we use time usually translates into the question of how many hours, days, weeks children need to spend at school: how much learning and teaching time is enough and what is the optimum time children should spend at school –not the same thing. It is a complex issue with the loudest respondents being parents who have to negotiate child care, finances and work commitments to provide cover for their children - and who have plenty to say on why teachers don’t need such protracted holidays on the side.
When we look at how our schools compare with countries where children don’t start formal learning until age six, we should be asking questions. This was brought home to me when I found that our grandson, aged four, had a longer school day than our 16 year old neice in Australia. The whole debate about longer school days and shorter holidays gets even more muddled, however, when we consider the increasing social and child-care function of schools and, if we must, exam results as well, which brings into play other factors that determine academic performance: school type, socio-economic grouping, family, work habits, tutoring, quality of teaching and resources. Yet even considering all these variables, the general consensus of government and educators is still for more of the same, and for longer. By turning school into an endurance test and equating time spent at school with outcomes, we invariably confuse the quality of time with the quantity – and therein lies the rub. Learning to use time effectively (including discretionary time) is one of the most important lessons we can give our children.
Yet how often are we told there is not enough time for something to be done or that the task (whatever it is) cannot be done when all that is needed is for more effort to be made or better use made of the hours available? Something that needs to be done in a week instead of a fortnight can usually be achieved if the effort is doubled, if a little ‘can do’ philosophy is applied – the idea that if you want something done, give it to a busy person. To get a job done, commitments may need to be reprioritised and time and resources re-deployed, but if the attitude is right then we shouldn’t be deeming the possible, impossible, the time insufficient.
This lesson can be applied directly to education. In education, we should reconsider the amount of time children spend on ‘primary’ learning. Personally, would think that a maximum pf three and a half hours a day of focused learning is sufficient. Of course, there are caveats, the main one being that there needs to be an accord and shared sense of purpose and a positive attitude and shared sense of commitment between teachers and students. This is still probably more learning time than many schools achieve in a whole day where lessons are constantly interrupted or are reduced to exercises in classroom management. In the same way, we shouldn’t make the mistake of measuring learning by the amount of content taught, an approach implicit in the current emphasis on content rich curricula (contrary to Yuri Haval Harari suggesting that ‘most of what we teach children in schools is irrelevant’ ); instead, let’s be real about what children need to learn and then (because we have to) what they need to learn to pass an exam – there is a difference!
The rest of a school day could be given over to secondary learning, probably via e-learning in which tutor groups to help guide and facilitate learning, or cultural and physical activities. These need be no less rigorous, but as they will be more aligned to the students’ own interests, may be practical or investigative or be delivered by an external provider (e-learning), motivation should be less of an issue. We are more likely to get more out of students if they know they have some discretion over their learning and, more important, invest in it.
Of course, there are few areas of learning where time use is so poor as in the setting of homework, where children are often cajoled against their will to work under supervision of reluctant parents to produce something set by teacherswho sahre the sense that it is a waste of time and just something else to mark. Not all homework is like this, of course, especially as students get older and the measure should be on whether it represents an effective use of time. I always advocated at primary level, apart from some very short and specific memory work (tables, vocabulary, spelling words etc) that children should just be encouraged to read, and preferably not off a tablet. The reality is that, even at senior level, prep has often been more about filling time in an exercise teachers, parents and pupils dislike in equal part. Trying to force tired and reluctant children to do meaningless worksheets or some project work is not only futile, but can also serves to reinforce a negative attitude to learning in the round.
In looking at workloads, attitude is all-important especially in the elasticity of time with its ability to stretch or contract according to need it. As a Head I remember being asked by a sports coach if could have an extra sports practice each week. My immediate considerations was to ask if the time they already had was well-used, i.e. was everyone punctual, knew what they were doing and kept actively involved. The same in class: I would much sooner the pupils had well- planned and stimulating lessons and are completely focused rather than a tired and flabby diet of extra lessons and meaningless preps.
Of all the time children have at school, the most important is free time and the most important lesson, deciding how to use it (acknowledging that many schools still believe ’the devil makes work for idle hands’ as their justification for filling the days with extra activities. A better definition is that noted at the outset, of treating time as a coin to spend, a lesson which is applicable to all of us. It is a sad truth that too many parents and schools are scared to give children the coin and would rather spend it for them. Yet of all the lessons children need to learn, managing their own time is one of the most important. And they can only do that when they are trusted with the coin.
* Despite being tainted by the anti-empire virus spread by neo-liberal commentators and an increasing number of indignant university students