All the time in the world

The school year has (or should have) a definite rhythm to it. The start of September, when all is new and exciting, and people are awake segues into the tiredness of November. Later, at the end of the academic year, there is the delicious phase in June and July when exams are done, life is a bit less hectic, and it is possible to make plans, dream dreams, and do fiddly lessons which are fun, but require way too much planning to do on a regular basis.

Sometime in the spring comes the part I think of as Teach Like A Roadrunner.

TLAR happens when you realise that the department calendar simply isn’t going to work- at least from the point of view of ensuring that exam groups have been exposed to the entire specification before the exams happen. Various things can cause this, such as the extra round of mock exams, snow days, or the week when half the class were on a trip to Brussels. You can tell when you are in TLAR mode when the news that a class are missing your lesson to see a visiting drama group do a play about healthy relationships makes you think “Oh no, when are we going to do flame tests“, rather then “Ah-ha, cheeky bonus free“.

Teaching Like A Roadrunner is relatively straightforward. Ten minutes reading through a section of the revision guide together, then lots of past paper questions. Maybe look at comments from examiners’ reports after a bit. Rinse and repeat. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but it does it job- and, for some pupils, it comes as something of a relief.

“Ad hoc, ad loc, and quid pro quo! So little time. So much to know!”
Jeremy Hillary Boob , Ph.D in Yellow Submarine

Faced with the huge amount that schools could teach pupils, and the reality of finite time to do so, schools and teachers respond in various ways. One is to try to TLAR all the time. For all I understand, even respect, the drive for efficiency, I’m not sure that people work that way. We can do efficient input that way, but what if long-term memory needs repetition and time… for ideas to marinade in the learner’s mind and become permanent?

I’m reminded of a case study (OK, anecdote) I learned about when doing a computing GCSE in the 1980s. An engineering firm had bought a superfast computer to help their design team check designs of something- airplane wings, I think. In the old days, the designers had an idea, then spent a few months doodling, fiddling with slide rules, having a think, doing some more tedious sums, thinking some more, drinking lots of tea and eventually groping their way to a design that would work. The new computer was intended to take the misery and tedium out of this. Unfortunately, the result was that the designers put their first plan into the computer, and a few seconds later, it responded with “Your thing will break in these places… try again”. The massively increased rate of explicit new thinking required of the design team sent them all mad in about a month.

I think the same thing can happen in teaching and learning. When I was training, one of the mantras was “high-order creativity = good, more-of-the-same = bad”. With hindsight, I’m not surprised it made classes unhappy. I massively underestimated (though in my defence, it was what I was told to do) both the stress of trying to be creative on-demand all the time, and the effects- both cognitive and morale-boosting- of getting lots of routine things right.

But there’s so much to know. And so little time.

“What are you doing here?” growled the watchdog.
“Just killing time,” replied Milo apologetically. “You see—”
“KILLING TIME!” roared the dog—so furiously that his alarm went off. “It’s bad enough wasting time without killing it.” And he shuddered at the thought.
The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

A few years ago, there was an Ofsted report which claimed that some pupils were losing 1 hour a day to low-level disruption. Since that’s only about 10 minutes a lesson, I can’t say that I’m shocked at that idea. And I’m all for reducing that lost time.

But schools and teachers do things that waste time as well. Sometimes, I do make classes do things, like green-pen responses, which I really don’t think will advance their learning, but will make my compliance with school policy obvious. Many schools lose far too much time doing mock exams before pupils have the maturity to cope with the questions. The discovery that Year 9 (let alone 8 or 7) don’t do well on whole GCSE questions really shouldn’t be a surprise. Why are we bothering?

There’s a bigger point, at least in science. People often talk about the science curriculum as a spiral; the same ideas are revisited periodically (often once per Key Stage), but each time with more depth and sophistication. That’s a useful model. But it depends on embedding things each time. So an equation like speed = distance ÷ time comes up again and again on the spirals. But too often, the pressure to keep making progress means that things don’t get properly embedded. If we didn’t cut so many corners in Key Stage n, then Key Stage (n+1) would go so much better.

The move away from modular exams is encouraging a better model. One of the nicest things about teaching this year has been seeing pupils get to grips with the need for long-term recall. They found it hard at first- especially in year 11, for who it has been a horrible shock. But pupils have adapted their strategies, and in the longer term, they are going to learn brilliantly. That’s without my teaching (let alone my school) going full-on knowledge- though I envy those who have.

“We have all the time in the world”
James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

So what am I saying? The claim that “teacher quality = rate of learning” has ended up taking the education system down a bit of a dead end. Partly that’s because it’s too easy to fiddle, by jerry-building a tower of learning that looks good in the short term, but doesn’t have the robust foundations last.

The time pupils have in school is finite; sometimes it feels as horribly finite as the time 007 had with his dying bride. But 12 years – 14 for many – ought to be enough time to teach the things that matter, and teach them properly. Time enough to open intellectual doors, because I’d hope that learning doesn’t stop when pupils leave the compulsory part of their education. If we do it right, we can give pupils all the time in the world.


2 thoughts on “All the time in the world”

  1. Very interesting points, especially the part about the slap dash approach to revision. We expect students to revise then have no time (or in some cases, inclination) to teach them how. Getting through the scheme of work is “apparently” more important! I have spent the last few years researching effective revision and have written the ultimate revision plan. Your readers may find it useful.

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