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Rethinking Time: Shifting the Paradigm on the Concept of Time

How do you squeeze more time out of a packed day?  Everyone, it seems, has a busy life and runs out of time to do what they want and have to do. In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Dr. Richard Swenson writes, “To understand how a society experiences time, examine its operative vocabulary. We talk of no time, lack of time, not enough time, or being out of time” (Swenson, 2004, p.111). American culture, in particular, is accustomed to speed and productivity. This is undergirded by the rapid dissemination of information and technological innovation, which are major components of the notion of progress. That being said, the question that often is overshadowed is, “How can we slow down?” Schools regularly face a gamut of restraints, and teachers especially recognize the value of time, such as how teachers sacrifice so much of their personal time to ensure the success of their students. Academic calendars are stretched thin to encompass meetings, professional development, extracurricular activities, and instructional time, to name a few. Students are greatly affected by time because our society normalizes the belief that being busy is vital to being successful, expressly in preparation for college or career readiness. Of course, being busy with intentionality and margin is not a bad thing, but being busy for the sake of being busy is the problem.

The phrase “21st century citizen” is not a rarity in strategic plans for many schools. If you ask most school administrators what they mean by this phrase it boils down to students who are creative, can critically think, and are collaborative, among other characteristics. In a world that is complex and diverse, these qualities are essential to not only problem solve, but also to problem find. Yet, there have to be moments of margin and play incorporated into schedules and calendars so that all in the school environment have time to be creative, process material, build genuine relationships, and more broadly to practice self-care. For example, during elementary school, students are able to enjoy recess, and by high school many have no physical activity in the school context (aside from athletics), as many physical education courses become optional electives. Sadly, in many elementary schools the amount of time allotted to recess has decreased over the last several decades. Additionally, margin and play do not necessarily equate to idleness. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was a huge proponent of play in his academic and professional endeavors. In Creators on Creating: Awakening and Cultivating the Imaginative Mind, in a chapter on Feynman, it reads, “Indeed playfulness and humor are great antidotes to stultifying habit, a way of stepping outside established categories of thought. There are significant parallels between Ha-ha! and the Aha! experience” (Barron, Montuori, & Barron, 1997, p. 63). It is usually the case when partaking in recreational and humorous activities that the creative capacities thrive the most, or even in moments when there is no structure or work at hand, such as how a great idea pops into your mind when you are in the shower or grocery shopping.

Further, because students are constantly attempting to interpret external stimuli in the learning environment, there has to be time to process the content, specifically to advance from lower to higher-level thinking. Even more, higher-level thinking is fundamental in critical thinking. Simultaneously, time is a necessity in order for educators to build genuine relationships with students. In the classroom, each student comes to the table with different learning styles and life experiences, many of which are shaped by their cultural or socioeconomic background. Even then, these types of categorizations are not black and white, but are gray. Therefore, an educator must take the time to build trustworthy relationships with students and seek to understand why the student acts or thinks the way that he or she does. Beyond these relationships, educators must not only practice self-care for themselves, but must model this habit for students to integrate into their own lives. As students develop academically, emotionally, biologically, and socially they must have time to reflect on their emotions, passions, and any other issues that arise in their lives so they can try to come to terms with it all. Self-care can address many conditions, such as anxiety. These medical conditions can stem from time constraints and other life demands that are commonplace in our society. Rest, a natural boundary, is central for humanity to perform to its fullest extent. As stated earlier, there are numerous circumstances outside the control of many schools, such as funding. At the same time, there are factors that schools can control or be resourceful with to change the culture of the school climate so it does not automatically mirror the traditional paradigm on time that so prevalently affects the broader world.

Schools could implement job-embedded professional development so that teachers can build their skills during the instructional day. This would give teachers more time for self-care or other endeavors after school. Likewise, the school would save on instructional time because it reduces the need for early releases and days off for professional development. It also is important for school leaders to restructure school communication so that meetings are only scheduled as a means to collaborate, not to disseminate information that in many cases has already been circulated to faculty and staff. Similarly, teachers would benefit by implementing the flipped classroom approach so that instructional time is spent creating and processing instead of listening and receiving. One other example is to include short segments of physical activity within the lesson plan, such as stretching to help loosen up tension. Moderation of time is the key. Society expects schools to support students in their development and to prepare students to become productive citizens, and in many ways education must strive to be countercultural when it is in the best interest of the students.

-Adrian Mack, Director of Partnership Development
The Centers for Quality Teaching & Learning


Barron, F., Montuori, A., & Barron, A. (Eds.). (1997). Creators on creating: Awakening and cultivating the imaginative mind. New York: Putnam.

Swenson, R. (2004). Margin: Restoring emotional, physical, financial, and time reserves to overloaded lives. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

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The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning expands and supports high quality teaching and effective, supportive leadership. QTL Processes bring together technology, teamwork, student data and research-based instruction to create more engaging lesson design for greater student achievement.

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