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Post-COVID, School Should Revolve Around Learning, Not Time

Instead of setting uniform class schedules under the assumption that all students will learn at the same pace and in the same way, schools might serve kids better by making time the variable and learning the constant.

Children sitting around a table in a classroom working together.
Last month I wrote about Prisoners of Time, the 1994 report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, reprinted by the Education Commission of the States in 2005. Based on that report and lots of research and practice, I argued that the best way to improve the education of our students is to change how we use time and how we think about time in our schools.

Whenever I re-read the report, it keeps me up at night thinking about how destructive it is when we operate time-based schools instead of learning-based schools. I continue thinking about this in my work — both at my school and with other school leaders.

The report says: “By relying on time as the metric for school organization and curriculum, we have built a learning enterprise on a foundation of sand, on five premises educators know to be false. The first is the assumption that students arrive at school ready to learn in the same way, on the same schedule, all in rhythm with each other.”

Every educator and every parent knows that assumption is false. Students never ever arrive ready to learn in the same way, on the same schedule, and all in rhythm with each other. And they are not all ready for today’s lesson. Many were behind long before entering class today and many fell behind more recently. Fact.

But this false assumption is the basis of our time-based education system.

Don’t blame the teachers. They work hard and try their best. The problem is a system that assumes that all students arrive ready for the same lesson, ready to listen to the teacher and do what the teacher says. What if they were sick yesterday, or upset and inattentive for any one of a myriad of reasons? What if they were already behind and unable to grasp the current lesson due to gaps in prior learning, or because they can’t read at the current assigned reading level, or because they can’t hear or see the teacher well in a crowded classroom? What about language barriers? This happens in our classrooms every day. We know that some students come to school tired, some students come to school hungry, some students come to school mentally or physically abused. Some come to school with bigger problems on their minds than the location of the world’s longest rivers or how to find the area of a trapezoid.

The system isn’t working, and reforms that don’t address this false assumption don’t work. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average reading and math scores for 17-year-olds in 2012 was not measurably different from the scores in 1971, despite countless educational “reforms.” We haven’t improved outcomes because our system is illogical.

Those in charge don’t seem to understand the concept of first principles. Successful science, successful business and successful schools rely on correct first principles. (If you aren’t familiar with first principles, it is easy to research and a VERY powerful concept.) If any activity or enterprise is built or based upon incorrect first principles, it will fail. That’s life, that’s logic, that’s the way it is.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way. For example, in Sal Khan’s TED talk “Let’s Teach For Mastery — Not Test Scores,” he says, “In a traditional academic model, we group students together, usually by age, and around middle school, by age and perceived ability, and we shepherd them all together at the same pace.”

He is an advocate of mastery learning. “Instead of artificially constraining, fixing when and how long you work on something, pretty much ensuring that variable outcome, the A, B, C, D, F — do it the other way around. What’s variable is when and how long a student actually has to work on something, and what’s fixed is that they actually master the material.” Now that’s a first principle to think about.

Because we’ve based our education systems on the false first principle of giving all students the same amount of time to learn everything, it should be no surprise that those systems aren’t viable and robust, and that they don’t serve all students well. Add the various levels of bias, discrimination, economic disparity, inequity and disadvantage, and no one should be surprised at the outcomes. There are wonderful educators at all levels, but they are trying to get a result without understanding that the system they are using is fundamentally flawed.

I suggest you read the Prisoners of Time report. It makes clear that we use time as the first principle of our schools. “By relying on time as the metric for school organization and curriculum, we have built a learning enterprise on a foundation of sand, on five premises educators know to be false.”

As I wrote last month, there are more and more schools with better first principles. One district that really gets it is Colorado’s Westminster Public Schools and their competency-based education. They will be offering their third annual Competency Based Education Summit in October. This is but one example of systems where learning is the constant and time is the variable. They meet the students where they are. They are student-paced. They may be called proficiency-based, mastery-based, competency-based, student-centered, or student-driven. But all have learning as the constant and time as the variable. For our schools to succeed, that is a first principle that makes sense.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.