Two-Timing Education

For five years, it was a gold-plated shackle around my left wrist. Its wall-mounted cousins chirped stridently at least a dozen times every day.

This is the story of why I stopped wearing a watch. I taught high school, I had to know nearly to the minute, every minute, what time it was. When’s the next bell going to ring? How much time do I have before I have to move on to the next portion of the lesson? How quickly can I wolf down my lunch? Do I have enough time to run by the office or the work room before my next class?

Always some portion of my attention was diverted by this hyper-consciousness of time, and always I felt some stress because of it. Can I afford to lose track of time just for a moment? And how often, it seems, just when I was settling into a rhythm that flow would be disrupted by an assembly or a late start or early release.

In the Wonderland of conventional schooling, time is most certainly not on your side. In her essay “Bells” (see Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept), Martha Hurwitz imagines bells in those schools demanding: “Are you where you should be now? Are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing? Have you done what’s expected of you?” Imagine, you adults, if your every weekday were sliced into fixed increments; if every 50 minutes or so you had to stop whatever you were doing—presumably, your assigned task for that period—then pack up, walk to another part of the building, and repeat that process half a dozen times. How many of you would freely submit to that degree of micromanagement?

Perhaps, then, you can appreciate why I quit chaining a timepiece to my left wrist when I left conventional education, and why I’m grateful that the Sudbury schools where I’ve worked since 1997 hold a much more reasonable sense of time.

It’s not as though my Sudbury colleagues and I are temporal anarchists, chafing against the very idea of schedules. Indeed, in Free At Last Daniel Greenberg recognizes two sorts of time, public and private, both of which we observe. As he says, “public time at school is as punctual as private time is loose. It’s all a matter of respect.” Classes and meetings start at particular times in order not to waste people’s time. Cleaning chores and Judicial Committee sentences typically have temporal components so that we can coordinate group activity and ensure the fairness of consequences. Similarly, computer access is made fair by requiring people to sign up for set lengths of time.

On the other hand, private time is much more flexible, even timeless. In Greenberg’s words, it’s “a measure of the inner rhythm of life in all its complexity.” Respect for private time means that lunchtime is whenever you’re hungry and that, by and large, you move on from one activity to another only when you’re ready. Private time allows people to process things; it lets them lose themselves in focused activity; and it gives them time to find themselves as well.

What a marvelous gift it is, being able to grow up with vast expanses of time to explore while simultaneously learning to align your personal sense of time with a social version that includes things like starting times and deadlines. At Sudbury schools we expect even young students to abide by public time. Often they’ll need reminders or help setting an alarm, but they quickly grasp that this responsibility is theirs, even without frequent bells and the choreography of class periods.

In “Making Good Use of Time” (see The Sudbury Valley School Experience), Greenberg describes the two times by their function or purpose. Creative time is personal and irregular, while technological time is focused on efficiency, or accomplishing concrete tasks. This distinction is echoed in Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk in which he points out, rather humorously, that nowadays very few young people wear a “single-function device” on their arms. Instead of chopping time into arbitrary bits, as in the factory schooling model, Robinson advocates a more agricultural approach that allows each individual being to grow according to its own inherent timetable.

Speaking of devices, one reason I no longer wear a watch is that seemingly everywhere I turn, I have a digital readout of the time either right in front of me or in arm’s reach. So I can easily learn the time whenever I need; and thank goodness that isn’t very often. Fortunately, along with the students at my school, I’m able to delight in the dance of the two times, adhering to schedules when that’s appropriate and letting my intuition guide me the rest of the time.




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