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Université de Montréal

There’s no time but the right time


Bzzzz. Bzzzz.


The smart watch on my wrist vibrates again. Most likely another text message. I don’t dare check. I’m in a one-on-one meeting with a member of my team. It wouldn’t be very polite to sneak a peek at my watch in the middle of my colleague’s sentence. Another bzzzz. A furtive glance. Darn, I didn’t manage to see what it was about.


I no longer teach, but if I did these pings and vibrations would definitely bother me. Watch, tablet, computer... they would have to be muted all day long.


As a teacher, I did often check my watch. Not because I was eager for the class to be over, but rather because the act of teaching has a definite time frame that you can’t help but manage. I’m not talking about the timed-lesson plans that were once suggested to me in a teacher-training workshop. Ten minutes on this, eight minutes on that, recap the exercise for five minutes, on to the next block for fifteen minutes, all with watch in hand... I never managed to fit myself into that rigid structure, even if I know that, in some contexts, such discipline can be useful.


Nevertheless, even somewhat disorganized professors like I was need to pay attention to the passage of time. For example: I would ask the class a question and wait. For how long? A few hands went up very quickly, often the same ones—ah, those keeners in the first row, always in a rush to unthinkingly share their point of view. I wondered: should I wait a few more seconds for others to come forward, to add a little variation to the conversation? This occurs so frequently in large groups that I sometimes explicitly asked everyone to pause and think for 30 seconds before raising their hands. This always allowed me to hear from other students.


Workshop learning and problem-based approaches raise similar issues. I really enjoyed breaking up my class so that learning alternated between working in small groups and with the class as a whole. But how much time to allot to each block? Not enough time in small groups, and working with the whole class becomes laborious. Too much time, and the small groups begin to drift or start discussing something else. Through trial and error, I ended up presenting problems that could be discussed in less than seven or eight minutes, even if it meant repeating the same problem several times, adding variables and variations. Is this a universal ratio that applies to all disciplines? I can’t say.


Online, you'll come across a number of references to studies that measure the average attention span of humans as just over eight seconds, while that of a goldfish is about nine seconds. This would mean switching from one task to another at a frantic pace. But... fake news. Attention span varies according to the task, its degree of difficulty, and the environment. For work in small groups to be successful, you need to clearly define the task, make sure the participants are able to do it with little effort, set a time limit, and return to working with the whole class as soon as the discussion becomes sluggish. You also have to go from one group to the next to measure their progress, without interfering too much in the conversation. In this respect, my code of conduct was modelled on that of the best restaurant waiters: courteous, always available, never intrusive. Never mind those who come by every five minutes to check if I’m enjoying my meal or who engage in lengthy conversation with my dinner companions as if they want to be invited to join us at the table. No thanks!


“There’s no time but the right time.” I don’t remember when I first heard this bromide, but it made a lasting impression on my relationship with time. Punctuality is one of my most important rules of conduct. I always started my courses on time, regardless who came late. Latecomers are disruptive, even if they sometimes have good reasons for being late. But respect for the group requires that the start of the class not depend on the time constraints of one student or another. In the same way, I always ended my classes on time, regardless of the obligation to cover the course material. Respect was shown by recognizing that my students had other obligations, other classes, other professors who wanted to start on time. That said, since continuity from one week to the next is difficult to maintain, I made a habit of starting each class with a brief five-minute summary and ending it the same way. I read the other day that some professors ask their students to state the points they need to remember, at the beginning and the end of the class—which is a good idea!


There’s no time but the right time? Not exactly. One of my role models at Université de Montréal always arrived a little before his class, calmly settled in, and chatted with us about this and that as the room filled up. And he would stay a little while after class, slowly gathering his things, to give us time to ask him questions that were still on our minds. During the break, he never strayed far, but remained available. I adopted this practice, which led to precious moments of interaction. “Every moment is a teaching moment,” said my first dean, a very wise man. Wherever you are, even outside the classroom, every conversation with a student is a teaching space, an opportunity to be seized.


In the end, there are many reasons to check your watch... Tempus fugit.



Daniel Jutras

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