The Crime of Stealing Time: Stifling Student Agency | Niki Conraths | 4 Min Read

June 28. 2022

Time is money.

Time is luxury or luxury is time.

As babies, time is our own; we dictate the rules: We decide when we want to sleep, when we want to eat, and the entire world rotates around our time sensitivity. Then education begins. With it comes the expectation of when to sleep and what to eat guided by the parental influence that decides what is good for us.

Many years of psychology research show that agency is good for learning and choice gives us agency. In independent schools, the agency has gone. The element of choice is almost nonexistent and has to be fought for, tooth and nail, on an administrative level. The curriculum is like a brick wall: Impenetrable. The criminalization of time in independent schools also comes with a culture of lack of trust and problematic financial structures. We are competing against each other and putting enrichment or scheduled time at the center of the competitive edge. When parents look at independent schools, they demand to know the structure of time. Scheduled time is what they equate to value.

Even in the arts when I was growing up, dancing three hours per day was plenty sufficient to embark on a professional career if the training was constant and good. Today, we are telling students to dance 35 hours a week and double that amount during summer programs that often last for 6 weeks or more. Our students are exhausted and show injuries similar to those of professional dancers with decades of experience in the profession. We are trying to make young people into professionals, which is a very American way of doing things in education, sports, and the arts. Nowhere else in the world does the quest for excellence begin in kindergarten when the roadmap to the Ivy League, Juilliard, or the Olympics is discussed and funneled into conversations that add stress and negative impacts to the child’s identity development.

How luxurious would it be if independent schools only taught four hours of classes per day? When the rest of the school day could be used for deep thinking, movement, or enjoying the beautiful campus parks that mostly lie idle and empty? How many connections and friendships could be fostered with a little bit more time off? 

Here is the question: Who would pay for less structured time? How would teachers use that time?

The fear that students will either have sex, do drugs, or spend time on their screens if we give them a moment of unstructured time is unfounded. The reason that kids and adults choose to veg in front of Netflix and binge-watch a series is because we have turned them into exactly that: Vegetables. You choose this behavior when you are so exhausted that any action on your part seems impossible: Your brain is fried, your body is lethargic, you eat crap, and you feel lousy. What kind of entertainment will work in this situation? TV streaming, gaming: addictive behaviors.

If students have a little bit of energy, feel good, have a nice lunch, walk outside to see nature, and have four hours of unstructured time, then they are so much more likely to actually do something that brings them joy or explore something new. Students might actually begin a new project instead of dreading it. Perhaps students will pick up a book from a stack that they would’ve never touched. Perhaps, students will journal out of fun and not because their teacher prescribed it. Perhaps, students will just sit and have a cup of coffee with their mom or call their grandmother on the phone.

The lack of unstructured time is a crime. It takes away from social relationships. It takes away from being able to do the spur of the moment: spend five minutes with somebody who you can help, shovel the driveway, pick up soup for someone who is ill, or maybe just talk with your dad for a second. You might be finally able to keep up with your cousins whom you have barely seen. You kind of know they’re there, and most likely, the next time you will connect with them in a serious way is when your parents die.

Non-stop scheduling also has huge financial implications. The competition for enrichment among schools makes it so that the price of private education goes up and up, and the demand for financial aid is not able to meet that need. But…what if we were competing for unstructured time? What if a private education of four hours a day would be all students need to develop a creative culture where students love being together when they’re there to learn and also enjoy doing things apart? This would create new social structures within a school. What kinds of projects could emerge if we didn’t schedule them? What kinds of interests might come up? Wouldn’t education be more accessible if we offered less structure?

You may also be interested in reading other articles written by Niki Conraths for Intrepid Ed News.

Nicola Conraths

Nicola Conraths has worked in independent schools for 15 years, serving as Director of Artistic Studies at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and as director of Comparative Arts and dance instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Nicola merges her many interests into projects that connect unlikely topics, people, and places. Recently she has worked with New England Conservatory Prep School, Boston Ballet, YOLA/LA Phil, and SMOC/Headstart schools. Her newest venture, Das Surrealistische Büro, is a consulting capsule for tangential thinking. She lives in Detroit.

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