Time is a Variable

Amazing, isn’t it, how much difference a sense of humor makes?

This fall, we were sitting in a staff meeting, groping our way through the dark, trying to understand how to teach in a proficiency-based classroom.  As usual, we were all confused.  We had been talking about how, in a proficiency system, “Learning is the constant and time is the variable.” Now a coworker was making an impassioned speech about the impossibility of something or other.  Things were getting tense.

“You know what your problem is?” another coworker piped up.  “You’re still hung up on this western concept of time.  Proficiency learning means you’ve gotta move away from that.”

Everyone laughed.  It was a great moment of relief.

But every joke contains a kernel of truth.  The unspoken truth here was the idea that proficiency learning, with its insistence that we move “off the clock” requires us to do things that often seem to run counter to common sense.

Treating time as a variable for instance.  Let’s take a look at this idea for a moment and tease out the implications.


First of all, let me say at the outset that I agree with the move in this direction.  Education has needed this change for a while now.  For too long we’ve been content to pass kids along who haven’t really learned.  We’ve needed this reminder, this proficiency learning, to remember that compliance is not learning.  Sitting still in a seat for four years is not learning.  We must have clearer learning targets for students too, and real clarity about what they must know and do.  It cannot be a mystery.

But there were reasons behind what we did.  It’s just like Ted Sizer’s classic 1984 book, Horace’s Compromise.  Public schools, as a friend of mine sometimes says, are only set up to be just so good.  The old system, which was unjust, which we needed awakening from, was an inherent compromise between too little time, to few resources, and too many students.  Let’s not forget that proficiency learning was born in the 1960s as mastery learning (called learning for mastery at first) — researcher Benjamin Bloom’s answer to the inherent compromise of between the ideal (a one-to-one tutor for each kid) and the reality (25 students for each teacher).  Bloom designed a system which allowed for — not true personalization (where a teacher really meets with kids to find out where they are and tries to weave their interests into the curriculum), but personalized *pacing*.  He had kids moving at different paces, taking what he termed “formative” and “summative assessments” (still our words), all graded and monitored by a teacher.  You’d have to score 90% on an assessment before moving on; if you didn’t, you’d receive tutoring until you could.  Time as a variable.

It was honest, but it was a compromise.  Once you open up time as a variable, once you’re not cutting the cord at the end of a unit and moving everyone on, pretty soon you’ve got 25 kids in 25 very different places.  It’s a teaching nightmare.  How do you balance reteaching the kids who need this with introducing hard new material to kids who need that?  You can’t do that easily in clipped little tutoring moments during class.  You can’t do drive-by introductions to the quadratic formula, or to The Scarlet Letter.  You need carefully planned lessons — simply not deliverable during brief interactions.

Plus, with 25 kids in different spots, you quickly lose any sort of class community.  But these common learning experiences should be a fundamental part of teaching students to work with others, and an integral part of creating a cohesive classroom.

And then there’s another awkward fact.  Kids expect to be keeping up with their peers.  It’s very discouraging to be stuck in the mud in Unit 2 while your peers are racing through Unit 17.  It’s more humiliating, I believe, to be taking longer than to be merely scoring lower on tests.  At least your low grades are theoretically private.  But if you’re still stumbling on beginning-of-the-year stuff?  That’s public — and that’s embarrassing.

Put another way:  it’s far more humiliating to graduate from high school a year late, marching across the stage with a bunch of younger kids, than it is to graduate with a low GPA, which no one knows about.  So we make trade-offs as educators.   My wager is a lot kids would drop out rather than suffer the humiliation of graduating later.  But that’s exactly what proficiency says.  Time is a variable.  Take longer than four years if you need to.  That’s totally fine.

(Yeah . . .   if you live in some other country than America.)

Let’s not forget too that high school is a cultural institution, not just a place to learn.  And the public has it ingrained in their heads that kids graduate from high school in four years.  The push to get across the finish line in Year Four is a cultural weight like almost no other.  We’ve created an inflexible model: finish high school in four years, or you fail at life.  Say what you want, but that’s what it is.  No cute, progressive rhetoric will easily reverse this.

So how do you deal with the reality that all kids learn at different rates?  One answer has ALWAYS been tracking.  Put all the kids who need more time in their own class.  That way, the teacher can give them the help they need, because they’re in similar places.  You can still have class cohesion.  AND you can target them more clearly.

And . . .  we all know how that goes.

Okay, so maybe tracking’s ills are well document (WELL documented).  So maybe instead of that, you give the kids who need it more time by keeping them in regular classes, but also putting them into special support classes, too, where they get extra time to master the material.  Okay, fine.  But — tracking again.  Plus, now their schedules are so locked up with support classes that they can’t take anything they’re interested in, any art classes, or PE, or have any free time to work on their homework.  That’s not an easy decision either.

Maybe what you do instead is to “personalize” education by hooking all the kids up onto specialized computer software that uses algorithms to tailor the curriculum toward exactly what they can do.

That’s the temptation of all proficiency or competency-based instruction: to turn instruction into discrete little pieces, micro-badges to be accomplished, then moved on from.  It just lends itself well to that.  That’s why you see competency learning included in so many online learning programs, so strongly associated with “personalized learning,” which has its roots in blended, online learning.


The awkward question behind all of this, of course, is, “Isn’t the ability to complete something in a given time period essential in the ‘real world’?” After all, no matter what job you end up working, I can pretty much assure you can NOT show up late the first day and expect your boss to say, “Don’t worry.  Time’s a variable.”

The idea of there only being a finite amount of time to complete material is connected to a very old American tradition of self-reliance.  We respect people who can get it done under pressure of not enough time.  It’s where our respect comes from for athletes who perform when “there’s no time left on the clock.” It comes, too, from our insatiable competitiveness as Americans, from our economic competitiveness.  Produce more goods in less time.  Make change — now.  Get it done more efficiently.  Take shorter lunch breaks, get in early, stay late.  Time’s -wasting.  Time’s not a variable; time’s precious.  Can you imagine any state governor anywhere, actually saying, “Yes, please, children, take longer than four years in high school.  We’re more than happy to wait until you’re truly ready to join the work force.  And we’re happy to keep paying, too”?

Me either.

Time’s not a variable.  We’re a nation that’s always on the clock.


Lastly, the notion of the old system — of giving everyone the same length of time (60 minutes to master a math lesson, 180 days to pick up Algebra, four years to learn what you need to know in high school) is something we do because we consider it fair.  We Americans pride ourselves on equality of opportunity.  Everybody gets the same chance.  Within that system, some people may get better grades than others.  But everyone, theoretically, had the same opportunity.  Time is our measurement of that.

This sense of distributive justice — everyone had the same opportunity — is very deeply ingrained in us as Americans, and, I believe, as human beings.  If you can’t learn what you need to know in that time, that’s on you.  I’m not sure, but that sounds very American to me.

And it strikes me as a tall, tall order to imagine getting away from that.

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