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Learning at its Best

One One Condition: Time Is Limited

This post also appears as a recent addition to the Canadian Education Association website.

You’re walking along the beach—possibly on your spring break—and you happen upon a rather odd-looking object that was left behind by the receding tide. As you pull the object from the moist sand, releasing it from its net of seaweed and shells, you begin to recognize that the object is not that odd-looking after all. In fact, what you are holding in your hand is a ceramic model of a one-room schoolhouse, complete with bell tower, separate entrances for girls and boys, and a picket fence in need of a little white paint. As you rub away the last grains of sand, the puff of smoke that emanates from the school’s brick chimney transmutes into a rather overbearing, stern-looking schoolmarm who, looking over her spectacles demands, “What is that you want?”

“What do you mean,” you ask, confused as to the nature of the question.

“Because you have rescued me from my watery prison, you have been granted one wish—a wish that will allow you to change one aspect of this place we both know as school.” She gestures toward the ceramic model.

“Only one wish? I thought that the standard allocation was three,” you timidly suggest.

“Cutbacks!” comes the sharp reply, accentuated by two short, violent swipes of the figure’s yellow-tipped pointer.

“Ok, let me think.” You cower slightly and she notices and purses her lips.

“Time is limited.”

“Yes,” you say, “Alright then, I think if I were able to change just one thing about schools, it would have to be the way we…”

My own response to the invitation would come rather quickly and would follow directly from our schoolmarm’s own admonition, “time is limited.” If I were able to change just one thing about schools, it would have to be the way we deal with time.

You know, we talk a great deal about encouraging an attitude of life-long learning, but schools are set up to give a very different message. In most schools, there is a very real sense in which learning is time-bound along both the X and Y axes.

On the one hand, grade level expectations define what counts as the acceptable package of knowledge and skills when you are six, eight, twelve, etc. Formal schooling pushes us along a horizontal plane from Kindergarten to Graduation and measures success based on a student’s ability to meet these arbitrary requirements within the time allotted. Time is limited, indeed, and the self-perceptions that we develop as learners (and as teachers) are tied up with staying on track, and on schedule.

I’m convinced that a major part of our school transformation conversation needs to address the “X-axis“. Imagine what might happen if, right from the beginning, we were to untether our students from their date of birth and, instead, were to allow them to develop personal paths based on something other than age.

When we look along the “Y-axis“, we’re faced with a model of schooling that separates knowledge and skills, divides them up into neat little packages and places them on a daily schedule with strict guidelines around how much time is devoted to each package. And the model does exactly what it is designed to do, allowing for discrete and focused attention, time management and a division of labour across a school staff. But as more and more educators are insisting, the model does little to promote really deep learning, integrated curriculum, project-based opportunities, collaborative teaching or the type of critical thinking that can lead to connected understanding. Many will vociferously attest to the fact that this approach to time has led to curriculum—and learning—that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

So what might happen if we were to give educators the freedom to play with the way in which daily allotment of time is imagined? What if talking about learning time took the place of tracking seat time, and our schedules became just a little more porous and a lot more flexible? What could be drawn into the learning experience that currently sits on the sidelines? What could be drawn out of the experience?

I realize that these are broad and somewhat familiar strokes related to the concept of time within our schools. It is my hope that you might help me fill in some of the details, bring your own experience to the conversation and even push back on some of what is here.

Or, as I toss the ceramic schoolhouse back into the sea, you might wish to retrieve it and answer the “What is it that you want?” question in a totally different way.”

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


One thought on “One One Condition: Time Is Limited

  1. Stephen,

    I agree that a shift in focus from “time on task” to focusing on broader learning objectives, would open up space for a more integrated, engaging, connected approach. Seems like such a no-brainer- but there is incredible entrenchment in the current, fragmented, siloed system- which invariable hamstrings educators- restricting their movement within narrow, fragmented time slots. A broadening of focus to learning objectives- also supports a shift from a content- centered approach, to a learner-centered approach, making room for the students individual interests, passions, aptitudes to be factored into the planning.

    I think my wish for education ( if I had to limit it to one!), would be for a paradigm shift in the focus of education…. from teaching discreet content/subjects…. to teaching children. I would want school to help children learn about themselves and how they relate to the world- the unique value and contribution that their individual talents, aptitudes and passions can contribute to the world… meaningfully, creatively and passionately. That is where I would cast my one wish…. I think it would positively influence and creatively expand our approach to time, to content and to cultivating relationships, in ways that would enrich children and society.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post!

    Posted by Lori Polachek | March 7, 2013, 10:22 am

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