Let’s focus on ‘Time on Task’!

I seldom copy content from my Dutch language blog to this blog or vice versa, but the Dutch version of this post went viral the past few days, so I thought it could a good idea to translate it.

Last Friday at the farewell symposium for our good friend and mentor Paul Kirschner, Tim Surma paraphrased Siegfried Engelmann (one of the developers of Direct Instruction) who once stated:

Time is the big enemy of anything we do while we’re working, particularly with kids who are behind, that every time that clock ticks, we have to teach them more than a clock tick would teach a middle-class kid, or an average performing kid. (Source)

This quote helped me to connect several dots that I have been collecting for the past few weeks and months. Time-on-task refers to the amount of time students spend attending school-related tasks. I learned from TALIS earlier this year that e.g. in Flanders the time on task has been slightly dropping, but more important for most countries: those children who should get more out of their class time … often are in classes with less effective time on task. With people in some countries such as the UK, Australia or France worrying about behavioral crises, things probably could get even worse.

The past few weeks I visited several schools in Flanders and the Netherlands, where this already is a theme. Teachers described to me how they lose a lot of time because of something simple such as pupils taking their belongings at the start of a class. This sometimes can take ages. This all regardless of the time lost by the behavior of some pupils.

But how can we fix this? First of all two of the three R’s of classroom management can help. I’m talking about routines and rules, besides the always important R of relationship.

Routines are those things that are done almost automatically. It does not have to go as far as that (in)famous London school where students move silently from one class to another in a couple of minutes, but one could save a lot of time by making a routine of how pupils enter the classroom, take their stuff, hide their phone,…

But why not make routines a team effort? Routines that vary from teacher to teacher make things unnecessarily complicated for the children. Learning such routines also takes time. Harry Fletcher-Wood wrote a School Week column about how long it takes for pupils and students to form good habits at school such as spontaneously making time for homework or drinking a healthy glass of water with your lunch at school. One of the studies Harry mentions – the one about drinking water – describes an average of 66 days, and even the fastest student needed 18 days. The slowest? 254 days. That last figure exceeds the number of school days in a school, so when they finally have adapted to the routines, they change again. How much time would a school be able to win if the routines remain the same over teachers and time?

Rules are also key. Great teachers and schools also indicate why those rules are imposed and remain human and fair about them while being as consequent as possible. But remember…  a rule without a consequence, isn’t a rule. Again a team effort makes this easier and better to tackle behavior.

We must also ensure that the time spent on administration in class is limited to a minimum by everybody asking themselves what really is necessary. Doing this may also help to loosen up the administrative pressure on teachers.

When I talked about this with some people, some commented that nowadays a lot of time is spent on stuff such as class breakfast. Personally, I would not plead that such activities to be deleted as they can help with the third crucial R, relationship. I do think that we have to keep challenging everybody who wants to add whatever they like to the curriculum.

Freeing up time on task is everybody’s job, not only a job for the teachers, but also for policymakers, principals, supporting staff,… Even the parents can help by bringing their kids to school on time.

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