Tuesday, June 03, 2008

10 ‘tyrannies of time’ in learning

Had a wonderful experience this week – over two days I watched all 12 episodes of ‘The Wire’ (possibly the best TV series I’ve ever watched) on video on demand. I’ve ordered the next two series on DVD. It got me thinking. TV programmes start on the hour or half hour. Why? So we remember when to watch them – they’re timetabled. The whole DVD, video-on-demand, iPlayer, download, bit-torrent thing time-shifts TV and film, so that we can watch when we want. It’s liberating.

In learning, time is tragically tyrannical.

1. Agricultural timetable
Schools, colleges and universities work to a pre-industrial, agricultural calendar, resulting in one long summer holiday (period of forgetting) and several other long holidays, all suited to the needs of (harvest and fruit-picking) and now timetabled holidays for teachers. Most educational buildings are therefore empty most of the time.

2. Hour of learning
One hour lectures and e-learning bought by ‘hour of learning’ metric. Yet there’s nothing in the psychology of learning that says this is right. We have hours simply because they’re easy to timetable. Even worse, consider the fact that we only have hours because the Babylonians had a base-60 number system. It’s a pathetic learning period.

3. Fixed length courses
In my kids’ school we have fluent, first-language French and Spanish speakers in French and Spanish GCSE courses for years on end! Many courses are too long, some too short, and of you want to go into further education in October, you’ll have to wait for nearly a year to start your course.

4. Tyranny of timed talk
Timetabled talks – lectures - are the mainstay of higher education. But having to sit and listen to someone (ofte a poor presenter) talk at you (for an hour) is hard going and educationally inefficient. The ‘chalk and talk’ model has being going on for so long that we’ve simply forgotten that it doesn’t wash.

5. No recording and distribution
Preventing learners from access to learning content when they want is criminal. Why don’t we record lectures to be reviewed when students want, and to allow them to stop, rewind, reflect, take notes etc? Novelists, journalists, movie makers, bloggers, wiki contributors and almost everyone else on the planet distribute material to be available to audiences – all, apart from learning professionals!

6. Course v action
The timing of courses is often dislocated from the opportunity to put what you’ve learnt into practice. Induction courses that start weeks after you’ve joined, IT courses long before the software is available and so on. The time of a course is often not immediately before its practical application, introducing a period of forgetting or skills decay.

7. No spaced practice
The ‘sheep-dip’ experience, is standard in the vast majority of courses. It completely ignores the need for spaced-practice over time, denying reinforcement and retention. To be blunt - it simply means we forget most of what is taught on courses.

8. Attention and learning
Psychological attention is a necessary condition for most meaningful learning. By tying learning to specific times it is unlikely to be congruent with periods of optimal attention. Chinese schoolchildren have a nap after lunch to combat this problem. We heavily timetable ineffective, post-prandial periods of learning.

9. Time to attend
Courses and lectures demand ‘attendance’, thus wasting huge amounts of time, money and effort in just getting there. A ridiculous amount of time and money is spent on simply getting to the starting point and getting back – this can be up to 50% of a give training budget.

10. Time wasted
Within a course, people are always dropping out, cognitively. Classroom studies in the UK and US show that children spend as much as 50-60% just waiting on things to happen in fixed timetabled classrooms. Actual cognitive engagement and efficient learning, in classrooms, conferences and lecture halls, is surprisingly low.

Time is truly tyrannical in learning. Timeshift is the answer.


Anonymous said...

Thanks to your earlier post, I made my daughter practice. And yes, it is effective she is not writing the reversed alphabets. I also read her a story about squiggly worm,she was so happy. I felt fulfilled too.Wonder how much difference sharing can make. I hope what I share helps someone just like I was helped by these posts. About the way kids learn, my father always kept on saying this-kids need just three things, joy, toy and play. Another observation it's also individual interest, some kids love studies others don't. My son is on auto pilot now, no revisions but still he tops the class. I keep telling him to go slow, I fear burn out but he is on a different trip. Comparing with his friend each half mark and in some cases asking teacher to deduct marks when he thinks he dosen't deserve them. It's a passion like other things, but there are ways to make it effective I agree.Thanks and regards.

Damien DeBarra said...

I'm now mid-way through season 5 of 'The Wire'. It is, without any shred of hyperbole, the finest TV show ever made. Astonishing from start to finish. Wait 'til you get to season 3 - gobsmacking stuff.

Regards the tyrannies of time, I've always been stunned at the relationship of the agrarian calendar to schools. Nothing but nothing filled me with horror as a kid as the onset of Autum - it meant a return to school and rain, rain and more rain. It's quite crazy that we still organise the academic year around a world model from the mid 19th century.

Alan Coady said...

I know what you mean about postprandial ineffectiveness. As a guitar instructor in Scottish schools ( http://edubuzz.org/blogs/alancoady ), I'd confirm that the first lesson after lunch sees most pupils at their poorest - including those who have eaten sensibly!