There is a rather strange relationship in schools between time and learning. I was first made aware of this strangeness by my friend Ray McNulty, Dean of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, and have heard other educators comment on it as well. The oddity is that most schools are set up so that time is a constant and learning is a variable. We have the constant of the number of minutes in a class period, the number of periods in a school day, the number of days in the school year, and the number of years in a compulsory education. Learning, on the other hand, can vary from student to student–some students learn quickly, others more slowly. And that phenomenon itself varies by subject matter. A student who picks up math concepts easily may struggle with writing.
Ray goes on to say that it should be exactly the opposite: learning should be a constant and time a variable. Students, no matter their starting place or capacity, should be always learning. Students who are getting easy A’s should never pause on those laurels. They should be continuously engaged in learning, not bored waiting for other students to catch up. Students who struggle should not be left behind because “We’ve spent enough time on that.” They should be given the time they need to learn what is asked of them.
While I am operating within a mostly traditional system that has time as a constant, I have shared with my students this sense that such an approach is not perfectly suited to our goals as learners. So far I have implemented three accommodations that strain at the fixed nature of the time-bound system.
First, I have an All Work is Due policy. Assignments are expected on a certain day. Late assignments are accepted at a reduced point value. And no assignment may not be turned in. Thus, there is no hard and fast “dead” line and students are not permitted to “take a zero.” I’ve stated that all assignments I give are meaningful and for the purpose of learning. Students are free to call me out on any assignment that feels like mere busywork. As such classwork and all homework must be turned in and all quizzes and tests must be made up. No one is allowed to skip anything I am asking them to learn. I’ve made it clear that I will withhold quarter grades on the report card until all assignments are recoded as completed.
Second, a student who runs out of time answering an essay question on a test, may use an ellipsis (…) at the end to indicate they have more to say. They can then email me that more by midnight. I’ve explained that I want to know what they know, not what they know in a 45 minute window. Of course there is an honor system aspect to this. And I trust my knowledge of the students abilities and my knowledge of the field to judge original answers from those copied or plagiarized. When in doubt the many plagiarism check websites are helpful.
The students are grateful for these two opportunities to have some control over time as it relates to their school work and not just turn in work because it’s time. They appreciate that I want to really know what they know and not just clock what they know. Nearly all students turn in work the day it is expected. And having to deal with the one or two students who seem to be taking advantage of the wiggle room is a small price to pay so that all my students feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for their learning.
The third accommodation is one I have not had an opportunity to use until this week. I am less certain of their appreciation, though not of its aptness. I announced on Friday that next Friday they will be having a chapter test. In all four classes a student responded, “There is no school next Friday.” I was aware of this as the faculty have an all day professional development. I explained that just because there is no school doesn’t mean they couldn’t take a test. That this was the flip side of my learning-is-a-constant-time-is-a-variable approach. So on Friday they will have an open book open notebook test. Short answer questions (true-false, multiple choice, etc.) will be on Kahoot. As each question is timed (students are familiar with and love Kahoot), they should be very familiar with the chapter and their notes as they will not have an unlimited amount of time to look up answers. Essay questions are due by email that same day. All answers must be time-stamped no later than midnight. As they will have all day, no essay need have an ellipsis. As they have all day and plenty of time to go to a local library for internet or a computer if necessary, no technological excuses (the computer ate my test) will be accepted. (Of course a note from a parent would be the exception.)
There may be pitfalls to this I have not foreseen (please comment if you know them!). However, again I believe the price is worth the experiment at least. The fact of the matter is that technology makes possible not only asynchronous learning, but asynchronous assessment as well. While learning is not completely untimebound, creating such flextime approaches for the sake of learning makes sense to me and, so far, to my students. Thanks, Ray!