The problem of time

The film “Clockwise” was a good example of  what can happen when we become obsessed with time. In this case Brian Stimpson ( John Cleese), the headmaster of Thomas Tompion Comprehensive School has  to travel to an annual Headmasters’ Conference. Having been habitually late and disorganised as a young man, Stimpson has grown up to become famously punctual, and his school runs “like clockwork”.

The school has bells that have to ring to the precise second.The pupils have to arrive at class on time and being late or overrunning is considered a sin punishable by public humiliation.

Now this may be considered  a funny film with a gifted comic actor and therefore ignored on that basis but I feel that it raises a number of problems about schools and in particular secondary schools.

Having spent the first five and a half years of my teaching  career inside secondary schools I then went and spent the next twenty five in the Primary sector. I have recently been spending a lot more of my time going into a local secondary school and the other day attended a conference on Assessment For Learning at a Girl’s Grammar School.

It occurred to me that the thing that both schools had in common was a summoning of the masses by bells. “The bells, the bells” as Quasimodo would so famously say (or Charles Laughton at least so brilliantly portraying the Hunchback of Notre Dam).

They are loud, they cut all conversation dead and they ar,  like the summoning of the faithful to prayer, meant to have an effect. They mean that it is time to move and go through noisy corridors maybe half way across a huge school in order to have the next lesson and await the end according to the timekeeper and his bells!

Now we know that this process is a leftover from an industrial age when everything was run like clockwork. School was a preparation for many for the factories. But this is no longer the case. I wonder therefore about this whole problem of time in schools.

Even in primary schools we work towards a breaktime.. for the children to “let off steam” as I have often heard it referred to. They then spend about an hour outside in the often freezing cold and run around and create huge problems for the midday assistants and then there is the inevitable discussion with the harassed teacher just after lunch about the numerous problems that came from the children filling the empty void of lunchtime with various problems which seem to vary each day.

Now I wonder how this all fits in to the way that we ideally like to study and learn. When we go home and get on the computer we do not say at seven O’ clock in the evening “of the bell has rung so I must stop now and go somewhere else!”

We laugh at this idea and yet we expect our children to do this… because it has always been thus.

I was reading an excellent interview recently where the brilliant young school architect Trung Le interviewed Professor Stephen Heppell. The interview concentrated for much of its time on the subject of school design for the 21st century. Heppell stated that there are a number of schools that have been designed to create space and free movement. There is a mixing of age-groups and the space is used for purposes of use and learning not as the next cell for the prisoners to shuffle along to. There are no bells! This is because they realise that  immersion in a task takes time and that when you are deeply involved with some study you need to have the time to finish it and explore it.

I just wonder about people like Leonardo Da Vinci and whether they would have output anything worthwhile if there was a time and motion requirement on everything they did. Surely we need to stop the bells and leave them silent. We need to rethink they way we structure the school day so that it allows learning to happen in the time that is required and not some preset time that is so much loved by the timetable creator. We need to stop children going into classes based on the accident of the month and year of their birth and we need to realise that collaboration and co-operation are more important than artificially created classes and forms and the best choices about who to collaborate with and co-operate with are made by the children themselves.

This blog took me some time. I enjoyed writing it (I always enjoy writing my blogs). I may have felt somewhat concerned if I had been stopped in mid-flow by the sound of a bell and told that I had to go elsewhere.

I rest my case.


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