Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

School Bells Interfere With Learning

I hate being interrupted in the middle of a good learning session with my students. It has happened hundreds of times in my career because of an archaic device we use in schools known as a clock. The clock itself isn’t evil, but the way we use it in schools has serious ramifications on how our students learn.

First, because we partition students into neat packages called subjects, they are implicitly taught that learning is something we do in compartments. If you try and introduce a little bit of another subject in your subject, students object, saying "This isn’t English, Mr. Wees. Teach us Mathematics." (I’ve actually had students tell me that). Where in the real world is learning sectioned off like this? Mathematics use English (and other languages) when they explain their discoveries to other people. Biologists use geography to decide where to start their research. All of what we learn is interconnected, and more of these connections need to made obvious to the students. This is not easy to do in a school with nine 45 minute separate blocks.

Next, we tell students to stop working on a particular project when the time is up. We enforce time limits on learning! While I’ll grant that real life has deadlines and limits, it very rare indeed that someone has to complete a task "within the next 15 minutes because class will be over" (I’ve said this in my classroom, so many times I can’t keep track). Maybe you have to finish something by a particular day, or by the end of today, but you are in charge of how much you work on the subject, and not the clock. It is ridiculous the number of times I’ve seen students actively engaged in learning and have it wrecked because the end of class came. Worse, I’ve filled the last 10 minutes of a class with a meaningless activity just to ensure that I use every minute I’ve got.

We also assume that each subject area needs the same amount of time each week, and try to make sure that everyone gets their equal share of the carefully apportioned time for courses. In our school I teach IB Mathematical Studies, which requires at least 150 hours of in class instructional time. My school has carefully arranged for about 160 hours, just in case I lose some to field trips, student illness, snow days, and other time sinks. Oh right. Field trips, those banes of our teaching existence which make it so hard to plan. It’s not like any REAL learning happens during field trips anyway.

Clocks are part of the systems world of a school but they have come to rule our life world. We have let ourselves become subject to fixed schedules, daily routine, and the drudgery of a factory-like system. I’m not saying that we can do without the clocks, but maybe we need to find ways for our system to be more flexible, to allow the learning to extend when necessary, and even send off kids early for another opportunity to learn, when their lesson with us is done. Maybe we should even rethink how we schedule kids, and consider other instructional models. There are schools where there are no bells, no classes like what you would see in a traditional school, just kids (and adults) learning.