Friday, November 25, 2011

Ditching digital time

We're in the last few weeks of the dying sun, our days defined by our shadows. I know the sun will return, but I don't believe it.

The digital clock on my classroom wall leaves no shadows.  It defines little. It just assigns a number to now. 9:27, 9:27, 9:27, stuck in a moment. Suddenly the clock announces 9:28.

The sun barely moves, but it moves perceptibly, a fluid sliver of time  marking an infinite number of instants, and the long shadows move with it.

My analog clock moves with the sun, its second hand kissing the minute hand every 61 seconds, the minute hand kissing the hour hand every 65 minutes, the three hands uniting every 12 hours, then resuming the dance.

We spent a lot of money for fancy electronic whiteboards to replace the melamine boards that replaced the blackboards that replaced the slate. As fancy as the new board is, it has not fundamentally changed anything.

The images are fancier, they move, they tweet, they change colors, they can be saved to amuse another classroom full of children, but they do not alter the way children look at the world in any meaningful way. (They do, however, allow us to continue to cultivate the magical thinking that pervades our culture--another topic for another day.)

A digital clock alters obliterates our sense of time. It tells us of now only, a discrete now at that. An exact now. 9:29.

"I'm not late, it's still 9:30."
The bell rang a half minute ago.

I used to think the kids were just playing with me, confounding the instant after 9:30 started with the instant before 9:30 ends. But it really is all the same to many of my students. And to much of our staff.

My analog clock moves inexorably. It divvies up time into visible chunks of pie--this is where you are, this is how long you've been there, this is how long you will be there. The hands sweep over marked swaths of clock face.

The large hourglass that marked Dorothy's  inevitable destruction in Oz terrified me--the tangible flow of sand ebbing through its glass womb made even young viewers feel mortal.

Time flows both ways from the ever-present moment. The digital clock hides this from us, and we're glad not to know.

A bored child stares at the clock, eyelids hovering just over the pupils. When will this class ever ennnddddd...? 9:34...9:34...9:34....

Our class clock is covered with a large file card with the words "Tempus fugit" scribbled over it. (Sophomores love to say fuggit.) Time flees.

In front o the class I have a large analog clock, rescued from among the Great Clock Massacre of 2004, when we opened a new science wing at our high school.

Yes, children still get bored. Yes, eyelids still droop, But the droopy-eyed now stare at an analog clock, watching the seconds drip by, and, eventually, they see the barely perceptible movement of the minute hand as well. They learn the exact moment the bell will ring as the second hand sweeps past the 43rd tick on the clock's face. They see that 9:45 is a quarter of an hour from 10 (not 10:00), and three quarters away from 9.

I am not aware of any studies that looked at this, but I'd be willing to bet a carboy's worth of home-brewed mead that children learn more about time from an analog clock than from a block of blinking digital numerals masquerading as a time piece.

I pretend to teach high school biology, but what I focus on is teaching children how to see patterns, how to recognize the patterns as patterns, then how to describe the patterns in order to predict future patterns. Some folks call that science.

Everything that I can control in my classroom should be working toward those goals.

The digital clock does not, so it's covered up. If you want to know what time it is in Room B362, you're going to have to know how to read an analog clock.

Yes, we have a sundial, too--but it's only good for a few hours in the afternoon.
We have west windows.

The hourglass is obviously from The Wizard of Oz--
I got it from Julie Hedlund's website Write Up My Life


Ms. Cookie said...

Thanks for this post. We've been having an ongoing conversation at our school about the fact that students can't read analog clocks any more and so they are less competent out in the world. I like your comments about how digital clocks skew the kids' perception of time. Hadn't thought of that before.

Anonymous said...

“The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-distrust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that quickens him. He will have no disciple.”

~Amos Bronson Alcott

Mary Ann Reilly said...

After reading this I am considering returning to Einstein's Dreams and rereading it.

Happy T day ( a day late )

John T. Spencer said...

This might not make any sense, but it seems that we "feel" time less and less with more technology.

A sundial capters the sense of time's movement. An hour glass feels like it is going faster toward the end - which is exactly how time feels. Glance at an analog clock and you can "feel" how much time there is left.

doyle said...

Dear Ms. Cookie,

I hope the conversation happens at more schools. The key is not to force kids to learn how to read an analog clock, then continue using digital devices. The key is recognizing what is lost, and restoring it.

It really is amazing how some of the seemingly trivial changes in a culture can have profound results.

Dear Anonymous,

Nice quote, but please excuse my denseness--what's it referring to?

Dear Mary Ann,

Happy Thanksgiving!

Time is a funny thing--some forms of it are more real than others, and whether "real" or not, it holds a huge influence over who we are, or think we are.

Dear John,

The reason we feel time at all is because of its ties to the world around us. Anything that pushes us away from that requires some trade-offs.

The digital clock is for those who care to serve human lords who do not interest me.

But you know tis already. =)

Happy Thanksgiving! said...

"I'm not late, it's still 9:30." Huh. You're right -- this is an important data point in a conversation I didn't realize I was having. Does this conception come from treating minutes like days? (It's still Sunday).

I love your point about how everything in the classroom should focus on the patterns that surround us. Maybe if we spent less time teaching "significant figures" we could spend more time on the meanings (and limitations) of measurements...

Read this today and it reminded me of your points. Although they call it this 10,000 year project the "Clock of the Long Now," it brings up some of the same ideas as your post. Thought you might find it interesting.

Linda-RSP said...

I spent the first few years of my teaching career amazed at the amount of middle school students who were unable to tell time. Like many instructors, I too assumed that they were just too lazy to take the necessary moments to read the time piece independent of adult support. However, with greater class sizes and increased student diversity (rsp, ell, ge....)I realized that the issue was rooted in a genuine skills deficit. Limited time, and scripted program requirements lessen explicit lesson opportunities, but I have moved my analog clock to the front of the room to provide on-going clock exposure and to utilize opportune moments throughout the class to engage student participation and attention to the actual movement of time. Since the onset of the school year, my kiddos rarely ask me to tell them the time as they seem to be enjoying the covert competition that has stemed from this skill focus (they love telling me the time though! ha, ha). In addition, I am also beginning to see a reduction in student anxiety related to time on task. This is certainly exciting as I am planning on addressing this topic for a culminating project I am doing for my Master's program. I would certainly appreciate any input or ideas regarding this topic if anyone would like to share. Okay.... "My time is up"........ :) Linda