Time Enough For Learning

 

“But give them time. Provide some context, break them into groups or work with the whole class, including everyone. Let them see what, collectively, they do know and students will, together, begin to generate meaning and make connections.” -Mike Rose, Lives on the Boundary, 145.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” -Paolo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 72.

In educational settings, we divide a school year into semesters, then into weeks, then class sessions. As a brand new instructor of E110, the University of Delaware’s writing class required for all students, I created daily plans broken down into 10 minute chunks.

I knew what I planned to have the class doing at 7 after the hour, half past, quarter til, and in the waning moment of the class meeting. It made me feel prepared to have the minutes each parsed out, shuffled into orderly groups, delineated from each other and each in service to the scaffolding activities and knowledge I was teaching that day. I bought the conviction that teacher control of how we use our class time would result in better learning outcomes.

Time really is the thing we have as teachers. It’s not the only thing, but I believe it’s the most important. I may not have my students’ attention, best work, good will, but they show up and sit in class for three hours a week for the duration of the semester. All of the intentions and hopes and accomplishments (and failures) we experience individually and collectively in the classroom happen within time. This sounds obvious, but as I’ve reflected on the concept of time and learning, I have found myself questioning pedagogical values and approaches I previously had taken for granted.

When I was reading Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose for an advanced pedagogy class, I sat bolt upright at Rose’s practical advice for helping “students who have not had a privileged education” connect in the classroom. “But give them time” (145).

As someone already obsessed with time, I lit up on the word. It’s such a short phrase, and Rose starts with “but,” indicating a rhetorical connection with the preceding sentences about what the students don’t have and can’t do. They “freeze up” because they “don’t have the background knowledge or the conceptual grab bag” to “make connections” (145).

What does time have to do with these major obstacles faced by both students and teacher? “Give them time” could just be a cliche, a turn of phrase, a shortcut. But I can’t get away from the feeling that this seemingly-trite phrase may actually get at something important about teaching.

The parceling and carving of time in the classroom prevents us from giving our students time; this hyper-control of time usage actually reasserts the “banking model of education” as castigated by Paolo Friere. In a teaching economy in which information is static, constant, and transmittable from one person (the teacher) to the class (the receivers), time is just a vessel to fill and pour out. In other words, time stands as a commodity in the banking model. Teachers must use time, maximize time, economize each minute, not “waste” time. And yet, as Friere, Dewey, and many others have pointed out, the banking model of education fails precisely because it denies temporality and the socially-constructed nature of learning and knowledge.

In contrast, Rose here says that educators can give our students time, and that in fact, this may be one of the most important things we can do. Along with that, we can “provide some context” (145, emphasis added); I love that Rose clarifies “some” context: not everything, not all, the exhaustive information that would within it carry the meaning of what we want them to do or where we want them to go moving forward. Along with context and time, Rose says that we should get everyone participating and involved in the time and space to talk, to discover what they already know as a group. This approach to classroom learning couldn’t be more temporal and relational if it tried.

If communication and collaboration are the ways in which knowledge is created and shared among our educational communities, then it is vital that the classroom reflect those methods.

As an educator, I sometimes approach time as a vessel to be filled–the 50 minutes or 75 minutes out ahead of me. Not just filled, but filled to the brim, with a mini-lecture where I provide context for the topic we’re working with, with silent writing, pair share, group discussion, activities, samples to break apart and put back together. And those all are or can be good things. Yet as Rose shows in Lives on the Boundary and Bartholomae shows in “Inventing the University” and Friere argues in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that filling-up of time (and with it, human educational subjects) runs counter to the core commitment to dialogue, discussion, and conversation.

When I am teaching, I often fail to give my students time enough to listen and to talk. I remember so many instances when I have posed a question or made a statement and asked them to respond somehow, and then immediately jumped into the abbreviated silence to say more. Even if what I say is a clarifying or restating of the question, there’s something kind of terrifying about a silence in the classroom. It seems like a waste of time. On the student end of things, I have encountered this impatience as well; even good teachers stifle messy (but potentially productive) classroom discussion by saying too much and not leaving enough time for students to respond and engage. I don’t know if it will be helpful long term, but I propose this attention to silence, waiting, provision of time amounts to a pedagogy of patience.

As I continue developing my own beliefs about teaching and what good teachers do, I’ll keep playing with the idea of time–giving time, taking time, making time–as something we can act within and on, not just a temporal space in which I can impart knowledge, but a co-creative thing with which we can play and make.

Time is a thing, it’s the most important thing in the classroom, and Rose seems to agree: “you could almost define a university education as an initiation into a variety of powerful ongoing discussions, an initiation that can occur only through the repeated use of a new language in the company of others” (192). When we “give” our students (and ourselves) time, we reinscribe the actual work of class time, shifting it from something to fill up with material to a valuable tool we can use to speak “a new language” to discover both what is already known and what is brand new in this moment.

 

Works Cited

Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, 2005.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. Penguin, 1989.

*****

What about you? How do you think about time in the classroom? Do you struggle, like I do sometimes, with letting a silence hang or a messy conversation play out for fear of “wasting time”? I’d love to hear from others in the comments.

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