Is time a variable? Is learning a constant?

I think that I need some counseling – a reality check, if you will – about the meaning of: 

Time is the variable and learning is the constant. 

Is it true all of the time, some of the time, regularly with some exceptions, or only applicable to small children learning to walk and talk?

There are deadlines – we have an exam coming up that signifies the end of first semester.  So let’s take the idea of unlimited time off the table.  What, then, does “Time is the variable and learning is the constant” look like in practice, realistic on-the-ground, in-the-trenches, day-to-day practice?

A child performs poorly on a relatively high-stakes assessment; an assessment that carries a grade that some use to “define” this child.  Do we offer this child a mulligan?  Do we offer every child the same opportunity for said mulligan?  Do we require the “do-over” of this child?  Do we require the “do-over” of every child?

Let’s break these questions down with some details and more questions.  If we embrace “Time is the variable and learning is the constant”, then YES to the 2nd chance… or…are there more questions to be asked?

  • AG was sick the entire week prior to the assessment…mulligan?
  • DP is so nice, sweet and tries so hard…mulligan?
  • SM was irresponsible having no homework showing no effort…mulligan?
  • JH is disrespectful and disagreeable…mulligan?
  • RT is misplaced in this course (shh, she just can’t cut it here)…mulligan?  

If yes is the answer to any (or all) of the above, is the do-over optional or required?

What about an assessment?  Is time a variable?  Should AG, DD, SM, JH, and RT be able to (have to) express their learning, understanding, and growth in the same 55 minute time frame? 

  • AG is a visual leaner; she needs to draw and outline her thinking before documenting it formally.
  • DP is a memorizer; as long as there are no curve-balls on the assessment, she is great.
  • SM is unprepared but SMART; he can pull the information back, but it is slow going due to lack of practice.
  • JH checks his work on every question; he is determined not to make a mistake.
  • RT is carrying a heavy personal load at home and can’t concentrate; everything is a struggle.

Do we provide these students additional time to show and document their current level of ability, work, and understanding, or at the end of the period, is time up?  Does it matter which child you are? Does knowing more about why the additional time is needed change your feelings about providing additional time?  (What if you can’t know every child’s story?)

The two latest arguments being discussed within my team are that we were not preparing our students to take the SAT if we give them additional time and that something is wrong if you can’t do the work in the given time-frame.  I don’t wake up every morning planning to improve the future SAT scores of my 8th grade students; should I?  How will I know what is wrong if I can’t see this child’s work?  How will this child know what is wrong if they are not given the opportunity to “fall down”? What am I unintentionally teaching by providing or denying additional time?


  1. I think the important question is do we think a child’s understanding of a topic can change? If so, why should we average his first score on a test with the last score? Shouldn’t we only care about whether or not he has mastered the concept by the end of the semester?

    I think making time a variable, especially in a subject like math, which is so riddled with anxiety for many students can be very counterproductive. I hear stories of students who, in high school, still carry a sense of failure for not being able to complete the timed multiplication tests in elementary school fast enough.

    To me, the SAT and other standardized tests are just tests of how you make “quick strategic guesses with limited information,” and I don’t see this as a skill that is either essential to success in life, nor is it a skill I really want to encourage my students to develop at the expense of a love of learning, willingness to explore, and learn from mistakes. And I’d also say that with over 830 four year colleges not using the SAT or ACT to make admissions decisions (and more every year), it is now entirely possible to have a wonderfully successful college process without ever having to take a standardized test. I think the future of the SAT as it exists now is looking less and less bright.


  2. I think we have a case here of “new wine in old wine skins.” According to the industrial model of assembly-line education (metaphorical tract of 55 min of math, 55 min of English, etc.; as well as 6th grade, 7th grade, etc.), time is a relative constant. [Now, you know I want time to be the variable, but we have to sail the ship we have while changing the planks on deck.] You are making some great plank changes with second-chance testing, for instance, but a final grade is still expected to be reported. For the most part, schools are still set up to teach subjects. When schools move more to teaching students, I think that time can become more of a variable. Perhpaps integrated studies, problem-based learning, and balanced assessment – if implemented well – can lead to more teaching of students…more leisurely walks with learning and spiraling understanding as one strives for more complex grasps of tools needed to explore increasing complexity of more mature problems. And maybe, just maybe, grades are the antithesis to time as a true variable.


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