From time to learning

The traditional education system is organized around time. Think about it: class periods, scope and sequence, school year calendars, and age-based grade levels. We take these things for granted without stopping to think that they are units of time, not units of learning. So, what’s wrong with this? It does not make sense to treat time like a fixed entity when we know that learning takes different amounts of time. Imagine that you told a group of kids they only had three hours to learn to ride a bike, or one day to learn to to swim. At the end of that fixed period some would have it down pat, but lots of others wouldn’t. And what would happen to the kids who didn’t? They’d never learn. It seems clear that this is an unfair approach when we’re talking about biking and swimming. So, why does it seem normal when we’re talking about learning? Part of the mind shift toward modern education is the shift from organizing learning around time to organizing it around, well, learning. What does this mean? What could this look like?

  • Allow kids more time when they need it. Instead of moving on to the next chapter when the pacing guide says to, create opportunity for kids who have not yet mastered the content to get there. Flex blocks are one way to do this. Or, you can create structures in your classroom that allow kids to move on while others get a little extra time.
  • Let kids move ahead if they are ready. Instead of giving kids who master content ahead of schedule extra worksheets or asking them to “just hang tight,” create structures that allow them to keep moving. This could mean moving ahead, or it could mean going deeper into a concept or competency that they love.
  • Use time strategically. You can’t magically create more time, so part of the puzzle is using time more wisely. What does this mean? It means knowing where your students are in their learning and what supports they need to maximize their time on task. It means grouping kids strategically to meet them where they are and accelerate their learning. Basically, it means using time as a tool for learning rather than a fixed entity.
  • Monitor progress and pace. A lot of people worry that “moving at your own pace” will equate to letting kids who are already behind get farther and farther behind. No! Shifting from time to learning means paying attention to each student’s progress and pace: knowing where kids are and how they are progressing, and allocating resources and supports to help them advance at an acceptable rate.

Questions to Consider:

  • Assess the way you currently use time in your school or district. Is it fixed? Flexible? How do you know?
  • How might time influence or contribute to your student outcomes? How might it contribute to performance lags or achievement gaps? What connections might exist?
  • What currently happens to students who have not mastered content when it comes time to move on? What currently happens to students who master content before it is time to move on? If you talk to these students, what do they tell you about their experiences?
  • Assess the effectiveness of time in your school or district. How are students and teachers using time? For what percentage of time is any individual student getting the personalized support that they need?
  • What systems are in place to monitor students’ progress and pace? At any given time do your teachers know where students are in their learning? Do they know what rate of progress each student needs to be making? What supports they need to succeed?