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Learning How to Read A Clock Face

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There are times in our lives that we wish we could go back in history and apologize for our mistakes either as a parent or as a teacher. The Arrowsmith Program, created by Barbara Young, often makes me reflect on the students I have worked with in the past and how much they would have benefited from her program. Here is just one example of a brain exercise created by Ms. Young many years ago and how it relates to new findings from neuroscience.

For the last 30 years Ms. Young has used the Clocks brain exercise to develop the reasoning abilities of children with learning disabilities. This brain exercise improves various achievement abilities (reading comprehension and math problem solving) and overall school success.
Big Ben Clockface
I have observed reasoning and intelligence measures improve significantly after the Clocks exercise has been completed within the Arrowsmith Program. Updated psycho-educational assessments show sharp improvements in fluid reasoning and perceptual reasoning abilities of children who have completed the Clocks exercise. Research in neuroscience indirectly highlights some of the reasons why this might be happening.

In 1992, I was a first year Special Education teacher in the small town of Truro, Massachusetts. I recall telling parents at Individual Educational Program meetings not to worry if their child could not read a clock face. These parents would come visit my classroom and say, “Sarah can’t tell time and she is in Grade 4. I am really worried about this. She has been trying to learn to tell time for 4 years and can’t get it.” I often said, “don’t worry about it – there are digital watches now.”

I now realize that reading a clock face is an important indicator of a child’s ability to understand multiple concepts and to improve reasoning abilities.

A concept is a general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences.  The clock face is quite abstract and requires a number of concepts to be understood (such as a 24 hour day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute and the knowledge that the hands of a clock face signify a placement in time that is constantly moving forward). Of course, there are other concepts, such as before and after, that need to be understood when reading a clock.

What is critical for the child is that all of these concepts need to converge into the ability to look at a clock and tell the time. If the child is struggling to analyze the relationships of all these concepts, it often means they will also struggle with reading comprehension and math problem solving, as these achievement abilities also require the ability to analyze and synthesize a number of concepts simultaneously.

Back in 1992, I was telling parents that these concepts were not important to learn, as their child could simply wear a digital wrist watch; in other words, a child could bypass this problem by using technology or an accommodation (i.e. someone else could tell them the time). I was also not giving the child the chance to build brain capacities to understand multiple concepts and improving general reasoning ability.

I should have been trying to teach the child how to tell time on a clock face with significant repetition and review. So, what is the big deal? Research on the reasoning areas of the brain tell us what the big deal really is.

Here at Eaton Arrowsmith School, students work to quickly and accurately analyze clock faces on a daily basis. The changes in the students are truly amazing.

Students who used to struggle with math problem solving are now moving on to more and more challenging math classes…some even pondering taking Calculus in university! Students who would take hours to understand the plot of a movie – reaching that ‘aha’ moment far after they left the theatre – are now able to participate in discussions about the movie with their friends.

Finally, the best changes are reduced anxiety and increased confidence. To be able to interact independently with the world through improved reasoning ability, that’s quite a gift, and quite a thank you owed to the analogue clock!

Entry written by Howard Eaton. He maintains a website with more detailed writing on neuroplasticity and the connection between reasoning, logic and a clock face.

Related Story: The Arrowsmith Program was at the centre of the debate over the Toronto Catholic District School Board budget as the program was controversially cut in a cost-saving measure.

Photo “Big Ben Clock Face, London” from FreeFoto.com.

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