Take time out to reflect

13th July 2007 at 01:00
The summer holidays not only provide a welcome and well-deserved break for teachers, they also offer an opportunity for them to stand back from everyday routine and reflect on common assumptions. One of the areas that I think needs exploring is our attitude to time.

The pace of life in modern schools is often pressurised and frenetic. Courses have to be covered, returns completed, deadlines met. All this takes place within a tightly structured environment marked by periods and intervals. Bells ring and verbal exhortations to get a move on are made, reinforcing the pervading sense of urgency.

One of the assumptions underlying this approach is that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time devoted to teaching and the amount of learning that takes place. In secondary schools, departments compete for time in the belief that the more they have, the more likely it is their pupils will achieve better results. But this is not necessarily the case.

Learning depends on a number of factors: interest and motivation; prior knowledge and understanding of the particular topic; the clarity of the teacher's explanations; the opportunity to ask and answer questions; the quality of resources; and encouragement from parents. In the absence of one or more of these, additional teaching time may not yield much benefit.

One might also question whether there is too much emphasis on visible activity by both teachers and pupils. Quiet moments of reflection are seen as suspect. In many research studies, for example, pupils are judged to be either "on task" or "off task". "Off task" behaviour, such as staring into space or looking out of the window, may be labelled as daydreaming or wasting time. But how can the researcher know what is going on in the pupil's head? Thinking takes a variety of forms and can occur in unexpected places.

Take my own experience as a keen swimmer. One of the pleasures I get, as I do my lengths, is that I let my mind drift without any attempt to control the direction it takes. Quite often I get ideas which, with a little development, can be used in lectures or articles. Other thoughts, of course, deserve to sink without trace no cheeky comments about the swimmer meriting a similar fate, please.

One of the ironies of the education system is that, while teachers and pupils are constantly urged not to waste time, that is precisely what many managers do in abundance. Consider the use of meetings in education. If an honest costbenefit analysis of time spent in meetings was undertaken, I am sure it would conclude that millions of pounds are wasted. Issues are revisited time and time again, often without any decision being reached.

Part of the problem is a failure to identify the purposes of different types of meetings to consult, to give information, to develop new policies, to review past performance.

In one place I worked, I coined the slogan "Fewer meetings, shorter meetings". But the prospect of giving staff more time to read and think was too much for management.

Holidays offer a different perspective on the priorities we normally take for granted. So, as you sun yourself on a Spanish beach or relax in a remote Highland retreat, give some thought to the use of time in education. Perhaps the hustle of term-time activity is less productive than we imagine.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University

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