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It is a matter of time (or is it?)

Posted on: July 23, 2015

Lead any teacher through a critical thought process of what the most important commodity they need is and you will likely arrive at time. (If not, time will be in the top three.)

Time to plan lessons. Time to complete the curricular race. Time to grade assignments and tests. Time to counsel students. Time to meet with parents. Time to waste at meetings. Time to do the non-core work that schools require them to do.

Time to do all these and so much more.

The common cry from teachers is: If you want us to do these things and more, give us more time. Now we cannot actually create more time, so what teachers mean is for policy makers and leaders to set policy and provide structure so that time is set aside for worthwhile ventures.

Unfortunately, neither policy nor structure will guarantee time, space, or priority to explore new methods, much less to learn from mistakes and to try some more.

To illustrate, first watch the video below and try the activity it suggests.

Video source

Policy is like the overall principle that you cannot move diagonally. Structure is the number of moves you are told to make whenever the person says you can make them. Structure is also the gradual removal of rectangles you can land on.

Like the predicted landing on the pink rectangle, a combination of ideal implementation of policy and structure should lead to predicted outcomes. However, social interventions are not just based on mathematical models.

We need only revisit recent history of broad schooling initiatives here. Those in the service for 10 to 20 years might recall curricular reductions [example], syllabus changes [example], and increased administrative assistance. While these efforts were designed to provide teachers with time and space to focus on their core work and/or try new strategies, teachers are just as busy as before, if not more so.

I have reflected on this phenomenon on different occasions:

In declaring that curricular reduction is an oxymoron, I wrote:

Curricula may be reduced on paper, but the other initiatives that pushed out content in the first place now take disproportionately more time and effort.

The quantity-oriented approach of curricular reduction without an accompanying increase in quality instruction and effective professional development of teachers is pointless. Nature abhors a vacuum and schools tend to fill up the time meant for innovation and reflection with traditional curricular endeavours.

Before I concluded that the problem is not homework, it is context, I said:

I am not sure that content reduction will help. I recall being involved in curricular reduction more than 15 years ago when I was a teacher. Now there only seems to be more to do. Why? Instead of filling the time with exploratory or creative ventures, teachers filled the time with anything linked to test preparation.

In an effort to develop kids holistically, curriculum time was also filled with other activities. In theory, this is a wonderful idea. In reality, this breaks down when things like zoo visits become administrative, logistical, and legal challenges instead of pedagogical ones. Kids then spend their time following orders and rushing from one station to another instead of learning deeply.

When writing Outside-the-box: A follow up, I advised teachers not to view curricula or any element of schooling as a zero sum game.

Neither schooling nor education is a mathematical formula or equation. You cannot expect all a teacher’s work to be, say, ten units in size and ask for five to be removed for a different five to take its place. Whose units of work do you use? How can you compare them?

The lack of time is not just a teacher’s problem. Practically every person who is not a teacher who I have listened to cites the same problem of time. (They also mention the shortfall of personnel, which the Ministry of Education, Singapore, will argue is not an issue with schools, at least on paper.)

The nature of modern work is to do more with less time and even fewer people. If not more work, then it is to deal with constantly changing circumstances or to grapple with issues that are quantifiably the same but qualitatively more difficult.

For example, a teacher might have taught the same content for the last five years and experienced content reduction and a reduction in class size. However, the expectations of parents are higher, the tolerance of students for old pedagogy is lower, and the annual appraisal criteria shift with evolving standards of practice.

For argument’s sake, we might assume a major policy changes, e.g., we sacrifice the sacred cow that is the PSLE. It would be unrealistic to expect that what follows a seismic change is stability. Teachers might get more time and space initially, but things will change again.

The goalposts move and and rules shift. This is the game of school and, for that matter, practically any other work worth doing.

So if teachers cannot expect policies and structure to help create time or space, what can they do? For now I suggest two things.

First, abandon the “wait for others to do something for me first” approach. Drop the programmatic if-then posturing, e.g., if you provide me with social media training, then only will I consider using it for class. Exceptional teachers all over the world are sharing their ideas and practices on platforms like Twitter. Learn from them.

Second, realize that time is not made, it is set aside. All of us have the same 24 hours in a day. You decide what is important in the long run, not the school principal or a policy making team. For example, you decide if it is worth creating your own personal learning network (PLN) so that you can teach your students more meaningfully. You invest the time and effort to learn personally and professionally from teachers and educators anywhere in the world.

It might be hard to read this, but I will put it plainly: Stop complaining and waiting for someone else to create time, space, or resources for you. If you do this, you do not take ownership of the problem. The solutions will also not be yours and this can become a new problem. Take ownership: Identify the problems, find your own solutions. If it is time, you set it aside; if it is space or resources, you create it.


3 Responses to "It is a matter of time (or is it?)"

Enoch: RT @ashley: It is a matter of time (or is it?)…



SzeYee: RT @ashley: Change is not a matter of time; it is a matter of ownership & effort, #edsg via


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