Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Time to Learn

smkaplan's picture

Last weekend at the Ardmore Free Library book sale, I picked up a book called "Summerhill USA," by Richard E. Bull. Have you heard of Summerhill? It's a free school in Suffolk, England that was established in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill. It's one of the foundational "free schools"—schools based on the idea that total freedom is the best environment in which a child can develop and learn. That means nothing is "required"—all classes and activities are optional, in the sense that students don't attend unless they want to. Furthermore, the school operates as a democratic community: decisions are made on a democratic basis, with students, faculty, and staff allowed an equal vote.


"Summerhill USA" was published in 1970, and it appears to be a compilation of reflections on education and free schools by administrators, parents, teachers, and students from Summerhill-esque schools throughout the United States. It's also filled with beautiful black-and-white photographs. Anyway, as I was reading the book, a few quotations stood out to me as particularly interesting, possibly from a neurobiological perspective. The first is by Charles Bentley, who was a teacher at Santa Fe Community School:


"Kids straight out of public school take a while to figure out what to do with their time. 'Gee, I'm not expected to be any place at any time. I'll just wander around for a while.' But after a while, they become very good at using their time. We notice it in the older students. The moment they get to school they're doing something, making choices on what they'd like to do next.


"After a teacher's been at a school like this for a while, he begins to see much more of a validity in the hour-to-hour activities of the kids. At first, he'll think they're just wasting their time because they're not doing what he had thought they should be doing that day. But after he's watched them for several weeks—maybe it takes months—he begins to say: 'So-and-so has been spending a lot of time on this or that.' He begins to see the discipline in what the kid's doing. Just because no one has told him to do something doesn't mean the kid isn't disciplined. Actually, he's disciplining himself."1


The second quotation comes from Herb Snitzer, the former director of upstate New York's now-defunct Lewis-Wadhams school:


"In the long run, [free schools] will make for a more stable person—a person who will do things because of something within him, will not always need to be stimulated by outside forces. This need for outside stimulation is why some kids say, 'Gee, I'm bored' or 'I have nothing to do.' You never see this in little children. Little children are never bored … they're always doing something. To the degree that creativity has been knocked out of a child … to that degree a child will say, 'Gee, I'm bored.'"2


What stood out to me in these quotes is the idea of time management. Most of us attended relatively traditional public and private schools. We're used to having assignments, getting grades, having to go to class. For us, time management comes down to a pretty basic balancing act: balancing the things we want to do with the things we have to do. This binary opposition becomes quite operational, I think, to the extent that even now, if there's I have to do, I look on it with anxiety, frustration, and general negativity—even if it's something that, in itself, I might actually quite like to do!


So I wondered: what's it like for these free school kids? Given the chance to develop a more internally regulated system of time management—one that doesn't have to incorporate required activities from a traditional school-type environment—do they not have this problem? Does the idea of "wasting time" even make sense without a system that requires that specific things get done by a specific time? How might free school kids' notions of self-discipline differ from ours? And, most importantly, can any of this stuff be explained using neuroscience? What part of the brain is responsible for "time management?"—if such a question even makes sense. And what effect might 16 years of compulsory education have on the brain's ability to "manage time?"—or, at the very least, is there any neurological distinction between "self-discipline" and the discipline that comes from an external system?


I had some trouble with my research on this topic. Sources seem to come from a few distinct perspectives: First, there are articles advocating so-called "brain-based education." This approach to education seeks to apply data gleaned from neurobiological research to the classroom. Unfortunately, most of these articles are somewhat light on science and seem mainly to focus on some somewhat obvious—or, at the very least, broad to the point of almost being banal—points: exercise is good for the brain and thus recess is important; nutrition is good for the brain and thus it's important for children to eat nutritiously; the arts are good for the brain and thus arts programming should be kept in schools; and socialization is important for children's development, so schools should not focus on purely academic pursuits.


Again, the problem here is not so much that these things are bad, but that this is, above all, applied science, to the extent that writers like Eric P. Jensen—one of the leaders of the brain-based education movement—are more interested in education policy issues than actual neuroscience. Jensen has a background in education, not neuroscience, and it shows.


Second, there are a plethora of self-help articles, mostly written in a relatively populist voice—that is, not a scientific voice—which purport to explain how we can learn to manage our time better or how we can have more self-discipline. I haven't cited any of these articles, because frankly they're not worth reading: most seem to verge on pseudoscience, and certainly their authors aren't doing any of their own research on the topic.


Third, there is a small but significant body of popular science writing not written to advocate any specific policies or approaches but rather simply to understand the brain and its relationship to time, stress, discipline, etc. Despite my best efforts, I found most of these articles in The New York Times—indeed, many were written by Benedict Carey. I've cited the most relevant of the bunch here. What I would have liked to see, and what I simply could not find, is solid, research-based writing on how the brain manages time, juggles multiple tasks, weighs consequences, etc.


Perhaps my problems stem from a scientific problem, though. Carey writes in his article "Where Did the Time Go? Do Not Ask the Brain," "In fact, scientists are not sure how the brain tracks time." Neurologically, it may not even exist: "some psychologists say [that] the findings support the philosopher Martin Heidegger's observation that time 'persists merely as a consequence of the events taking place in it.'"3


Regardless, I found my most valuable information in a New York Times opinion article by Stefan Klein. "Our society is obsessed as never before with making every single minute count," Klein writes. "People even apply the language of banking: we speak of 'having' and 'saving' and 'investing' and 'wasting' it."4 This article is not science writing, and yet as I read it, I realized that my question was perhaps broader than I'd intended. What I wanted to find but couldn't was a careful comparison of the brains of free schoolers and, say, public schoolers as they went about their days. Because what I imagine is that there would be some neurological evidence of our obsession with "saving time," as Klein describes it.


Suddenly, the work of someone like George Lakoff seemed quite relevant here, as it dawned on me that this entire notion of "time management" might be nothing more than a very foundational conceptual metaphor. After all, "time management" presupposes that there is some fixed quantity of time that requires our, well, management. But the clearest scientific data I could find indicates that this supposition is false. Studies of people's understanding of time found that we tend to miscalculate the passage of time based on a variety of factors: the kinds of things that are happening as time passes, the relative importance of those things, or whether we are under the influence of stimulants or other drugs, to name a few. For example, Carey writes, "In one classic experiment, a french explorer named Michel Siffre lived in a cave for two months, cut off from the rhythms of night and day and manmade clocks. He emerged convinced that he had been isolated for only 25 days. Left to its own devices, the brain tends to condense time."5


Klein has his own examples to cite, as well. He also mentions Michel Siffre, but goes on to describe experiments into more minute—oops, no pun intended—misjudgments of time. Klein writes, "Peter Tse, a neuropsychologist at Dartmouth, demonstrated that [time seems to expand when our senses are aroused] in an experiment in which subjects were shown a sequence of flashing dots on a computer screen. The dots were timed to occur once a second, with five black dots in a row followed by one moving, colored one. Because the colored dot appeared so infrequently, it grabbed subjects' attention and they perceived it as lasting twice as long as the others did."6


Both this example and the Michel Siffre example are far from the specific questions I asked at the beginning of this paper. But I think they're important for the ways they destabilize our understanding of time as something concrete, with a fixed quantity. And it's also important to emphasize that much more work remains to be done before my questions can fully be answered. The studies I read about are all quite traditionally experimental: they use physical responses and movements to depict the ways time affects us. But none really went where I had hoped they would go: deep inside the brain, where, presumably, the secrets of our perception of time remain, still hidden.


As it is, though, this exercise was valuable for me, because I realized that what I thought was an intriguing and seemingly simple neurobiological question was, in fact, simply the product of a much larger framework governed by the conceptual metaphor of "time management." With that in mind, though, I think I can offer some reflections on how I imagine a free school setting might affect our understanding of time.


If "wasting time," "spending time," and "time management" are products of an environment in which ideas like "efficiency" and "productivity" are prized, I'd imagine that free schooling would work to destabilize those ideas. After all, in a free school, it is, to some extent, impossible to "waste time": your time is yours alone, to use as you see fit ("using time"—you really can't ever get outside of conceptual metaphors).


Growing up in such a place would be, I think, unbelievably liberating. No longer would one stress about spending enough time on required activities or balancing "personal" pursuits with things like (school)work. In some small sense, time would almost cease to "exist," in the sense that one would have the freedom to spend as much time on a project as it seemed to warrant. "Time" would simply not be something one thought about—or at least would not be something one worried about. Now obviously, even free schools have structured activities: classes (even if they're optional), meals, meetings, etc. But generally, I think such an atmosphere would be quite positive: even if only to a limited extent, we could stop worrying about how we're living and simply live.


1 Quoted in Richard E. Bull, Summerhill USA (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970).

2 Quoted in Bull.

3 Benedict Carey, "Where Did the Time Go? Do Not Ask the Brain," The New York Times, 4 January 2010.

4 Stefan Klein, "Time Out of Mind," The New York Times, 7 March 2008.

5 Carey.

6 Klein.




Carey, Benedict. "Where Did the Time Go? Do Not Ask the Brain." The New York Times. 4 January 2010.


Jensen, Eric P. "A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education." Kappan Magazine. 2008.


Klein, Stefan. "Time Out of Mind." The New York Times. 7 March 2008.


Lakoff, George. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.


Summerhill USA. Compiled and edited by Richard E. Bull. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970.


Paul Grobstein's picture

time, metaphors, education, and the brain

"we could stop worrying about how we're living and simply live."

And that, in turn, raises some interesting problems about brain organization/function, as do, as noted here, issues of time and self-discipline.   If time is only "a consequence of event's taking place," what does that imply about our sense of time and how it comes to be in the brain?  Where do the metaphors come from?  And what in terms of the brain is the distinction between living and "worrying about how we live"?