Several aspects of my intellectual activity have come together again in that whirling finger-paint I call thought. I am working on some research related to Charlotte Mason, I have been reading posts from folks who attended Circe’s Summer Retreat (which was five days of discussing The Odyssey), and several of the books I am reading have spent extended passages on the idea of time (its passing, its use, its measurement, and how schooling tends to chop it up too much).
As this is a blog on education, I choose that last idea for my basis of meditation here. So why are a bunch of people waxing eloquent about having spent five days talking about Homer? Perhaps the libations were flowing and they just chose to blog while inebriated? No, don’t think so. I think there is something powerful in the extended or elongated thought. Far too much of modern schooling is paced by the bell. If you teach, you know what I mean: every 48 to 57 minutes, depending on how crammed the school’s curriculum has become, there is a dismissal bell. This is one of the more destructive elements I know of in schooling. I understand that with specialization, and the sharing of students thereby (another words, Johnny has six or seven or eight teachers; not one), that we have to have a set schedule and dismiss on time, start on time, march to the beat of the second hand. But this does not promote good learning. Several collected missives on this issue:
1. Not all aspects of education need or deserve the same amount of time. And they certainly do not all fit within the same time framework. Math and Language acquisition should receive shorter, regular (meaning daily) instruction with allotted time for coaching and peer interaction (what we often send them home with for homework). I suppose you could limit this to 50 minute daily increments, but see #2 for why even this is potentially harmful. But before I get to that, let me develop this. While some disciplines can follow this daily “dose” regime, others need more time. 50 minutes for observation of natural science, whether in a lab or out of doors, is laughable. You will barely get going. You can have everything all “set up” beforehand, but now you are robbing kids the lesson of what is needed, how it is set up, and instead implying that most of life is served up on a pre-planned platter. It becomes a museum visit, not a lab experiment.
And then there are the humanities. I believe a good lesson from literature or history must include some prolonged reading from a text (together), no small amount of open discussion, with real questions being given time to bring about several thoughtful responses, and if possible some quiet time for reflection, journaling, writing. However, if you only have 50 minutes, you are reduced to either trying to do all three in very short bursts, or splitting up what should be one experience over three days. There is something here in what happened with the Circe bunch. There was time, there was space for exploration and discussion. Even with 5 days, 24 books of Homer is a challenge, but less so with the large blocks of time. My point is rather basic: not all studies require the same 50 minute slice of time; some can use this well, some would waste part of it, and many need much longer blocks than this.
2. Once we see #1, just as simple time allotment, then we come to the second major issue I have with bells ringing all the time: it is disruptive. You have that beautiful and fragile thing called truth building in your student’s minds and then the bell just obliterates it. Nasty bells. Ring, ring, ring, rush, rush, rush, all decent thoughts just fly right out of the mind. I worked for years to build the culture in my classroom that I, not the bell, dismiss, but it was futile. As soon as their brains received that stimulus, they could hold on, stare at me, not budge, but their little brains were at their lockers talking with Susie already. Bells break thoughts.
3. My last major issue (though I could go on for some time with minor issues) is that of waste. Part of the bell fallacy is that all students should learn everything in roughly the same amount of time. But they don’t. So some “get it” (the point of the lesson for the day) within minutes and tune out or cause trouble or in some other way go “away” for the rest of the lesson. Others are perhaps only a few more minutes from the light coming on, but that d___ bell just rang and all hope of them getting to “it” at home, alone or with a parent, is well nigh hopeless. So what some kids could “get” in four hours, and others would need eight for, we all get seven and hope for the best. Waste.
I understand such things as efficiency, order, sharing, and the like. I am simply pointing out that if we continue to think in Ford terms (that of the interchangeable parts and factory fame), then we will continue to fight against these roadblocks to learning. Those who know me know I homeschool, so it will be assumed I take this tack due to my own free circumstances. But even those in the home can impose these issues on themselves if they do not think carefully about it.
Charlotte Mason was clear that the student’s predilections should rule much more than the clock. If there is true engagement with what she called “living books” then the clock should be hidden in a cupboard. Be engaged until the engagement is done, not till the “time” is up. Now if you are “engaging” with modern textbooks, then by all means set a timer (it is the salvation of the child to be limited when reading such things), but set it short and have cake when it’s over, or steak. Whatever keeps the student salivating. Ringing bells then, and only then, make sense. Sorry, you knew the Pavlov joke would come at some point.