Raise your hand if you’ve ever been at a staff meeting or professional development or in a training and someone asked you to read something in real time, maybe an article or something online. They always say, “once everyone has read it, we’ll all come back together,” right? What happens?
Some of the people finish reading before the instructions have even been given out. They then proceed to either blow up the training or start working on their own stuff that then bleeds over into whatever is supposed to happen once “we all come back together.”
Some people start reading and can’t concentrate because of the noise and the chaos and the uncomfortable chair and the lack of highlighters and so on. They try really hard to read, but end up just hoping that they don’t actually get called on.
Some people get started right away and read diligently. But, since we all read and process at different speeds, they are still reading when time is called and they are forced to come back to the group, frustrated because they really wanted to do the reading, but couldn’t, and they now feel like they are losing face in front of their peers/colleagues.
I believe we have all had experiences like this in our professional lives. And I’m pretty sure none of us enjoy these experiences, except maybe the select few who are “just right” and can get the reading or the activity done in the time allotted.
What makes this not work? By putting a time limit and expectation for all people to do the same work in the same amount time and in the same way, we are creating barriers where they did not exist prior. And to what to end?
To me, this experience we have as adults is sometimes recreated in classrooms where teachers are implementing Stations or Centers or Math Workshop (or what they are calling Stations or Centers or Math Workshop). In much of the literature describing Math Workshop, for example, the design of the activities is all about having all students move together through the activities in set intervals of time, such as having 15 minutes to do each activity. Fifteen minutes, neither more nor less, at least in this design.
That feels to me like the teacher-created recreation of sitting in a meeting and being given 15 minutes to go read a text, whether that works for you or not. When we say to students that they have to rotate in 15-minute intervals, we are creating a barrier where one did not exist. For the students who are done in 10 minutes, we create the barrier of boredom, which can often morph into behavior issues. For the students who need 20 minutes to do the same activity, we interfere with their learning process and cut them off. No one can actually speed up, no matter how much we chivvy them along or harass them. We are all born with our own processing speeds and no external pushes can change that.
This is not to say that I don’t think there is a time and a place for putting a time limit on an activity nor for doing activities in a timed structure. It’s that I challenge teachers who follow a time-limit model of Stations/Centers/Math Workshop to find other ways to structure the time. For example, if an activity is flexible enough, such as one with a low floor,/high ceiling structure from Jo Boaler, I might set a time limit because I believe that all students will have some experience of the content or material in the same, fixed amount of time. However, in doing so, I let go of an expectation that all students will end at the same point in the activity. I also might invite students to engage in timed activities, such as sprints. There is nothing wrong with teaching, encouraging, and measuring automaticity, as long as students are given flexibility in doing so. Students can set goals and set their own timers, as well as deciding when they are ready to move on to a different activity.
The truth is that there is no aspect of my life where my success as an adult is measured by completing an activity with a timer. My life is a constant game of time management, yes, but it’s a slow time management, an over-time time management. I am thinking about how to divide up my to-do list across multiple days or months or years, not figuring out how to learn content in 15 minutes. In fact, the only career I can imagine where speed under a time limit is requirement is in some sports, and not even all of them.
What I would rather do is have my students learn to reflect on and measure their own learning, so they know when they are done with the material. Of course, this also means when they are done and need to move on, even when they want to stay. The process of self-knowing is more valuable to me than training students to respond to a buzzer. I don’t seek a classroom of automatons who are trained to clean up and move on to the next Station when the buzzer sounds.
I love that Stations/Centers/Math Workshop take the teachers out of the front of the classroom–I think that’s a hugely valuable experience. And I think it can be helpful to have a variety of activities available to work on different aspects of the material. So how can we provide both of those experiences, both being away from the front of the room and also still having structure?
For the “fast finishers,” it becomes critical that you have designed extension activities that will take beyond the “average” time. That way, you can reduce the instances of students getting bored because they are required to keep working on something they already understand. Bored students are behavior issues waiting to happen.
On the other end of the spectrum, I find it helps to acknowledge, at least to yourself, that some students will not complete the entire set of Stations/Centers/Math Workshop you have designed, so be explicit about what is a priority and be public about that with students. That might mean stating that all students have to complete a given Station (and maybe directing a subset of students to start there, if you know them well enough to anticipate issues making that choice on their own), while other Stations are optional or Extensions. This allows students to interact with the core material at their own pace. Make it “okay” for students to stay longer to learn any given core content and shift the focus to self-measurement and self-awareness, rather than external measure.