Time may be an illusion to some but for most of us it’s a precious context of our lives. We value personal and family time, despair over ‘wasting’ time, and it’s something we most often want to ‘make the most of’.

Time and timing is an issue that is often overlooked in education discussions, but it merits closer attention, and especially the notable differences between how we view time in SelfDesign versus other learning situations, and especially school.

In general, the most notable differences include the enabling of learners in SelfDesign to take the time they want to explore and linger on subjects of interest, our sanctioning of longer contact periods between educators and learners (this often stretches to years of contact), and our validating of time spent ‘in-process’ (practicing, thinking, daydreaming) as equivalent to time spent acquiring and confirming knowledge.

I believe all of these confer many benefits to learners, including leading to deeper learning experiences and the creating of more supportive relationships. I see this latter point at this time of year when SelfDesign educators deeply reflect and report on learning accomplishments during the past year, a process that is generally enriched for learners, parents, and educators when it touches back to previous years. Personal growth and development, after all, arise through their own schedule, unique for each of us.

In school, the most obvious point is that it prioritizes its timing issues and agenda over a learner’s. School, after all, is where bells ring and classes change on time, testing and assignments are timed, and the duration of contact between an educator and a learner is meted out according to block-scheduling for 45-70 minute classes, over the duration of a course. Often, there is little additional contact time between kids and educators.

Every day, excepting some agreed-upon breaks, the system marches on and everyone adheres to its timing or endures the consequences of interrupting it as defined by its controllers. Detentions, grade penalties, and even expulsion are fairly common consequences for this. (*In the UK, head teachers and administrators may now fine parents for removing their kids from school during term blocks for non-emergencies, such as trips abroad).

Personal learning activities, on the contrary, are rarely set against a rigid time frame or block schedule. Personal timing has no other purpose than to serve personal interests which often reflect a natural rhythm determined by autonomous individuals, individually or collectively. “I can meet you at 10:30. Is that good for you?” “Wow, I sat and read this whole book! It was so amazing, I just lost track of time.” “I just want to practice this until I get it, and I don’t know how long that’ll take.”

That rigid timing parameters may be counter-productive to learning, and harming kids’ health, is the clear conclusion of a recent book by author-parent Vicki Abeles, ‘Beyond Measure; Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation‘. In the book Abeles writes that a false “push for productivity” by schools robs kids of the valuable time that might otherwise serve other important learning goals.

“Building a fort, daydreaming, or inventing a game might seem like dreamy luxuries,” says Abeles, “but these idylls of childhood are far from idle. It’s in these unstructured moments that children develop essential capacities for reflective thought, creativity, social skills, and self-control. And these opportunities, which now grow ever more rare, are irreplaceable.”

As a long-time SelfDesign educator, I can confirm the rich rewards Abeles speaks of from the enabling of what many indeed call ‘unstructured’ time. And despite the labelling, I have observed that such learning experiences may be highly structured and foundational for all kinds of future learning. In fact, we know this across the board in SelfDesign because we ask children and youth directly about the meaning and value of such experiences for them, and they tell us on their own terms and reveal the answers in their own time.

Written by Michael Maser, SelfDesign Learning Foundation and author of Learn Your Way! SelfDesigning the Life You Really Want