08 June 2015

How Time Structures School as an Educational Technology

Two of the most persistent, pervasive, and prescriptive teaching and learning features (or technologies) of school over the past 100 or so odd years are: 1) the way school uses and defines space; and 2) the way school creates and establishes structure. These two features, more so probably than any other two, shape and frame the school teaching and learning environment. The discussion of school space will be bracketed in order to examine more in-depth the concept of the structure of school; specifically to critically evaluate the role different school created and established structures have in defining the communication and knowledge architectures of teaching and learning in school. A conclusion will be reached that the structures school has traditionally created may no longer fully serve and support the current and future goals of teaching and learning.

Structure Defined

What is structure, and is it an educational technology? In general, any of the mechanisms school uses to organize the teaching and learning environment and hence the communication and knowledge architectures in school is a structure. These structures can be both deliberately created and established, and arise as the unintended result of other structures. While the teaching and learning structures within school are too numerous to list (and probably not understood well enough to either), there are a select few that are obvious, deliberate, and near ubiquitous. We can highlight three: 1) timetabling, 2) pedagogy, 3) content.1

School as almost all of us know it is based around the structure of a timetable cell, with a class name and a start and stop bell (cells and bells). Discrete topics of learning take place within discrete cells of a timetable, only alterable by those in charge. The result of this is the delineation of where and when teaching and learning happens—it happens right there at that specific time.

These discrete topics are also many times filtered through an intermediary, traditionally called a teacher, who structures the teaching and learning in what many times become both categorical and idiosyncratic ways. These pedagogical decisions end up for the most part defining the knowledge and communication architectures within the learning space.

Not only is the way the information is constructed structured by the learning environment, but also the type of information is structured by the learning environment. The content—or curricula—is usually a predetermined, fixed entity, set to standards, sanitized and sterilized for consumption, and then delivered on a distinct and linear trajectory.

Taken together, these three interconnected structures of school account for a significant portion of the overall structured nature of the teaching and learning inside school. But is this concept of structure a technology? Following in the tradition set-out by American educational philosopher John Dewey and continued by philosophers Larry Hickman and Nick Burbules, a technology properly understood is not as a tool but as a kind of relationship. Viewed in this way, technology is not the thing that helps us solve problems but rather it is the result of the process of inquiry into problem-solving—technology is the result of a process of inquiry and a stage toward new inquiry (Burbules lecture, 21 May 2015).

The structures of school, especially the structures of timetabling, pedagogy, and content highlighted, fit very well into this definition of technology. These three structures, probably more so than any elements within a school except for the learner herself, form the relationship teaching and learning has with a process of inquiry. The results of this process of inquiry are in many ways dependent upon the structures set-up before the inquiry began. This effectively makes any inquiry structure a technology itself.

Therefore, structure can confidently be called a technology. However, technologies themselves, again following Dewey, Hickman, and Burbules, are not ipso facto good or bad. Their essence in this sense is determined by the use. The use needs to be critically reviewed in order to understand the affordances created between structure and teaching and learning.


Critical Review of Structures in Practice

It is difficult to isolate these three structures in practice because at a deep level they are interdependent. But more so than the other connections, the structuring of time drives the pedagogical and content choices made.

Timetabling standardizes the communication and knowledge architectures of teaching and learning in school into discrete periods and discrete subjects. For a long time, this model improved the teaching practice and created specific and successful models of learning and classroom climates. School was built on the assumption that information was scarce; therefore it had the job of delivering fixed content because it had the access to the information. Information was then broken down into standardized subjects, and pedagogy was designed around delivering the content with a discrete chunk of time. But what about where today and into the future?

It could be argued that information scarcity should no longer be a main driver of school assumptions. And if this is true, then timetabling teaching and learning should no longer solely drive the pedagogical and content choices school makes. A question to ask then is: Does it continue to make sense to require all learning to happen within a timetable cell (and therefore within four walls with controlled and fixed content choices) just because that is the created and established structure?

The current world teaching and learning inhabits is a world of abundance, and more so, an uncontrollable and ubiquitous world of accessing, creating, and sharing information (cf Will Richardson). What this world therefore also requires is for school to build different relationships with time. Learning shouldn’t begin and end with the sound of a bell. This world of abundance requires a refocusing of the communication and knowledge architectures traditionally set-up within a walled and timed classroom environment. It requires a focus on building the capacities within students themselves to think, learn, and grow. And to do this, it will be hard for school to continue to value timetabling over learning. A more flexible approach to time is needed.

Re-structuring the relationship school has to time, away from timetabling and towards a more flexible approach, is a foundational educational shift. The structure of the timetable technology was build for a teaching and learning world that is existing less and less. A new structure built around a more flexible relationship to time would help further the current and future goals of the teaching and learning ecology of school. The balance is currently too skewed towards a celled structure. School needs to also embrace a flexible time environment in order to take full advantage of the new learning affordances of today and into the future.

Go to Part II 

(Originally written for EPS 415 A SU15: Technology & Educational Reform with Professor Nick Burbules, University of Illinois, Masters of Educational Learning Design and Leadership in New Learning)

1It´s an interesting but altogether different conversation as to the why of their ubiquity and stickiness. Many blame Horace Mann, the Prussians, and the industrial model of education. Age grouping is another interesting case of an ubiquitous structure that will have to be bracketed for now—Ken Robinson calls into question this idea that the most important thing kids have in common is their ¨age of manufacture¨


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