Deeper Thinking, Not More Content

Will extending classroom time result in improved learning, or might revisiting the concept, briefly, several days later work better?

K-12 teachers and administrators have agonized over the significance of time devoted to a particular subject for well over a century, ever since Harvard’s Committee of Ten back in 1892 proposed the standardization of education, which resulted in the American practice of assigning 45 minutes to every subject, all day long, all year long, for the thirteen years of education leading from childhood to the college-bound.

DSC_0117 (2)Even within the framework of school schedule sameness, teachers struggle under the pressure of moving along some content spectrum–this is the “coverage” dilemma–while they commonly recognize the need to slow down this constant march in order to revisit topics and skills taught yesterday or well before yesterday, or to revisit topics in order to deepen knowledge and draw connections. In educational jargon, this is what is called “distributed practice” versus “massed practice.” The vast majority of school experience is clumped together in “massed practice,” which is teaching a subject, often as quickly as possible, then moving on to the next subject, chapter or unit, and never turning back. “Distributed practice,” on the other hand, means sprinkling the lessons learned on one day throughout subsequent lessons, in a way that allows teachers to apply different methods at some point in the future to accommodate different learning styles among the students. Others call this practice “spiraling,” but this term often gets misunderstood and gets falsely pitted against “mastery.”

Learning does and should take time. Learning also is complex and needs to be presented within an array of strategies and at various points in time. Stone skipping a flat rock across the pond surface makes the rock travel farther across the waters, but it will then sink and disappear. In this metaphor I see the rock as the unit of learning–let’s find a way to house the rock on a mighty lake vessel, equipped with all the tools for deeper navigation and designed for lasting buoyancy.

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