Mathematics education uncovered and recovered

Time’s up?

A report says that children nowadays cannot tell the time on an analogue clock. This observation on its own is neither bad nor good news, but it prompts some reflection.

Ten years ago, the problem with reading the clock did not seem to exist: children could see analogue clocks everywhere, not just in school lessons, and learned the skill of telling the time by practising on the go. Some did struggle, but sooner or later everyone got to master that essential skill. Now, as analogue clocks are dying out, the important part of the learning process, the on-the-go practice, is missing. It’s not surprising then that children are not able to read the analogue clock despite all formal teaching in the classroom. However, a question arises about school’s contribution to children’s learning. The amount of time the primary schools spend on teaching analogue clock is no less than it was ten years earlier, but since the outcome depends mostly on whether or not children have a chance to learn about the analogue clock outside the school, teaching it in school seems to have little effect.

Analogue clock is a very unusual example of a measuring device. Although the hour hand would be sufficient to show the time, it is complemented by the minute hand that clarifies the hour hand’s position, so that in order to tell the time one needs to take account of them both. This is further complicated by having a single scale for both hours and minutes, with numbering usually only provided for the hours reading. So reading the clock is certainly much harder than reading the weighing scales or measuring cups, and teaching the topic has never been simple.

Perhaps, teachers would feel relieved if analogue clock disappeared from the primary curriculum, but I think it would be sad to leave it out. The lack of practical use cannot justify expelling the topic from school lessons. Be it in maths, science, history or design lessons, the analogue clock could serve as a fascinating example of ingenuity of its inventors who came up with this quirky piece of machinery with a hidden intricate design. Since children do not see many analogue clocks in their everyday life now, it is for the school to introduce pupils to something that they would miss otherwise. And the things that are part of students’ routine experience do not need to be taught, as the accidental experiment with analogue clock teaching showed.