Learning Standards – Is Time the Ultimate Measure?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: January 12th 2012

When I was in electronics engineering we had a physics class devoted to a discussion of time. “The irreversible ordering of physical events” was the definition I remember. Recently, I participated in a discussion about curriculum standards and I left wondering about the role that time plays in our definition of learning standards. As a district leader in BC, one of the pieces of legislation I have referred to most often has been the School Calendar Regulation. I continue to wonder what the Regulation may look like if we are to embrace personalized learning and the promise of more flexibility.

The Calendar Regulation defines the very fabric of instruction in schools and, in many ways, defines the “box” in which we live and learn. For example, a board must not offer less than 4.75 hours multiplied by the minimum days of instruction in grades 1-7 and 5.15 hours in grades 8-12. Every time-bound aspect of the daily operation of a school is defined including exam days and what activities constitute instruction and non-instruction. There is flexibility in the adoption of local calendars, but the Regulation has more often than not been used as a recipe for how to build a school day, month, and year according to a strict set of rules.

Alongside the Regulation, are the guiding foundations for the development of curricula in our province. The principles of learning are:

  • Learning requires the active participation of the student.
  • Students learn in a variety of ways and at different rates.
  • Learning is both an individual and social process.

I have often referred to the principles of learning as very strong foundations and they ring true regardless of the future in education. How can you argue with learning requiring active participation (engagement), occurring in varying ways and rates (personalized), and being both individual and social (collaborative)? These principles are strong and will stand the test of time.

As we move toward a more personalized version of learning, I hope that we strongly consider our concepts of time that we devote to learning. We know that learning is not linear. We know that developing one uniform set of standards for a non-uniform student population will simply result in many students not fitting the mold. According to the Regulation, grade 1 in 2010/11 should take 878.75 hours (185 days x 4.75 hours/days) to complete. As social beings, we need structure and the Regulation certainly gives us that. But how does the legislated concept of structure fit with our evolving concepts of learning?

When I was a secondary principal, our staff had a lengthy conversation about student attendance and achievement. Some staff members held strong feelings that students who missed a certain number of classes should be removed from a course. Our first step was to analyze the attendance for all students in the school. What we found was that many of our lowest attendance rates in classes were from students who were exceptionally busy but academically strong. These were the volleyball, basketball and every other sport players who were involved in student council and many other things. The difference was that their absences were “excused” and others were not. One of our top academic students missed about 30% of classes in some courses. I then gathered these students together as I was curious about their story of the value of attending class. These students drew a compelling vision of how they managed their time, their learning and managed to do it all quite well. Their stories changed our entire conversations as a staff about how we viewed attendance. We moved from talking about attendance to talking about engagement.

Attendance does matter. Unlike the above students, I am also acutely aware of those students for whom attendance isn’t a carefully managed event and they simply fade away and we lose them. The key to student attendance is having them being actively engaged in relevant, meaningful learning. Learning that challenges our brightest and supports those who struggle. Just like our students, teachers need time. They need time to do their best, time to collaborate, time to reflect.

As we move forward with our conversations and examples of personalized learning, I hope that these discussions are interlaced with an understanding of how time “fits” with what we do. Time is, in many ways, the ultimate standard. Hopefully, as our conversations continue, we’ll see more alignment between learning occurring in varying ways and different rates and the ways in which we use legislation to help define structures that support such learning. All we have to do to get it right is to take the time we need.