To a facilitator, the title question can be as grating as asking a professor how many pages a paper must be, or if they taught anything important in class today. As I facilitated workshops for college students, I quickly learned that being specific about time (except for a start time) was a recipe for disaster. I abandoned timed agendas, ignored questions about “how long are we going to do this?,” and adopted vague approximations like “a while,” and “a few minutes” as a preface for most activities. Why? Because college students, like most people, can be hyper-focused on time. I found it extremely frustrating to have groups rush through an activity, worried they wouldn’t have enough time, only to sit with nothing to engage them for five minutes after they were “done.” Worse were the students who would worry so much about keeping me on schedule that they failed to engage in the activity at all. I found both of those problems nearly disappeared if students were never given a time limit in the first place. Plus, this approach allows for infinitely more flexibility. If a great conversation were happening but taking longer than planned, I would be the only one who knew that any adjustment was happening.
Naturally, based on this experience, when I saw the daily schedule written on our whiteboard in my third grade classroom, I had some concerns. The schedule accounts for every minute of the day and includes no breaks between subjects, even the ones we have to travel to. I asked my teacher if this ever caused problems with the students anticipating the end of things or becoming nags, and she shrugged and said, “not really.” So far, she’s mostly been right. Occasionally, a student will try to use the schedule to their advantage to get out of work, but most of them don’t seem to know it at all. On the whole, the few students in our class who struggle with anxiety find great value in having an idea of when the next transition is going to happen, and that benefit has far outweighed the minimal distractions of posting the schedule.
Unlike my third graders, I often find that having things timed so carefully stresses me out. I think this stems from my integration into a world that encourages people to be punctual, when our class is often not. But mostly it comes from the fact that I don’t know exactly what each day’s lesson plan entails. On some days, if I’m fifteen minutes late bringing them in from snack, the math lesson would be impossible to accomplish; on other days, it would make no difference. I hate the idea of putting my lead teacher in a situation where simply being flexible is not enough to get everything done. If I knew exactly what I needed to accomplish — as I did in the workshops I facilitated — I imagine my dependence on time would revert to its “when it happens” state.
I learned this relationship with time as a Montessori student. From first grade on, we were responsible for scheduling our own work using a template that looked something like the image to the left. At the beginning of the week, we would figure out what we needed to do (usually some number of things from each subject) and insert them into our weekly schedule on whatever day we felt it fit best. From there, our only job was to complete it. We were not expected to estimate how long it would take, or to make sure that each day was scheduled to exactly fill our time at school. Work time was broken into several-hour chunks, and students were expected to use their plan and work on each item until it was complete, regardless of how long that took. We were allowed (and encouraged) to work ahead if we did complete all the work we had planned for the day. And if that situation became a recurring theme, our teacher would encourage us to plan more from the get-go in upcoming weeks.
This approach allowed for highly-focused work without much concern for time. Of course, as the end of our work block neared (usually at lunch or the end of the day) we quickly learned to choose activities that didn’t require as much time or concentration so we wouldn’t be interrupted. Any lessons given by the teacher to the whole class were scheduled for the same time each day and as a part of the class routine, not an interruption to your work flow. These lessons, meal breaks, and special occasions were the only time of the day that anyone dictated how you spend your time. In my current classroom, I constantly see students dragged through the end of an hour-long lesson on a subject that hasn’t grabbed their attention or they’ve already mastered; or worse, a student forced to disengage from a flow merely because it’s time to switch to grammar.
On top of the clear benefit to the learning process, the skills I learned in elementary school from scheduling and managing my own time are skills that I depend on daily. I see them emerge not only in my approach to facilitation, but in my approach to life, and particularly when motivating myself to achieve large tasks. I will be re-taking the GRE in a month, which I’ve known since early August. At the outset of this task, following my personal commitment to actually study, I laid out a plan (using Trello to manage the details) that set a small task to do each weekday. I knew I would need weekends to catch up on what I didn’t get done when life got in the way during the week. Moreover, I knew that simply saying, “I will study for two hours each night,” would last for about two days. Some nights take longer than others, and I try to work ahead when I can — but just as in the Montessori days, I know that completing the task is more important (and in this case, effective) than adhering to a specific timeline.