Polychrons in Our Classrooms

One result of the article, “Distractions in the Wireless Classroom”, which advocates limiting technology use during university lectures, has been some lively discussion on several listservs.

Generally, the discussion is a “blame the student” type of thing. There are variations on the theme; but it can be summarized as, “students are too distracted and limiting their distractions by removing their access to technology during lectures is an effective way to improve their learning”.

As the discussion has progressed over the last week it has shifted ground on two fronts: 1) it has morphed into discussion of multi-tasking and its effectiveness and 2) the status quo (lecture) side of the group has begun mis-characterizing the anti-lecture side to be arguing for “entertaining” the students.

Anthony Fontana, from Bowling Green University had an interesting response to this line of reasoning.

“They are not nervous…The correct term is “Polychron”.

‘If you’re a polychronic personality, you work happily with many things happening at one time, in a non-linear and emotional way that lets you change your plans at a moment’s notice without distress and without worrying about deadlines. It’s the opposite of the personality type that human-resource experts say works best in the modern workplace, one that’s termed monochronic: time-driven, working in a linear and orderly way, intent on getting one job completed before starting the next. ‘


Related links here and here.

Developed from Edward Hall’s theory of Polychronic Time here .

Replace “entertain the student” with Engage the Student. . Entertainment is passive. Engagement is interactive.

Give them strategy guides, clear and achievable goals, a reward system that appeals to their sense of reputation. Give them passion and energy and yes, real world application

If I’ve had to change something… it’s an expectation that the “desired” behavior was Monochronic.

I want to know… what does a polychronic classroom look like? Is it completely digital? With SL, IM, Skype, and Google all open and working? Is it class that does not have a set time to meet, but rather a specific set of goals that must be accomplished using a highly networked collaboration of students with the teacher as ‘game master’? Can the monochron, or normative student, work asynchonously contributing at regularly scheduled times while the polychron is always interacting but not always contributing?

I believe, the key to the polychronic classroom is a highly motivated individual with an ability for both modes of operation. Otherwise, we’d have to identify and separate each type of student.

Professor Fontana raises some important points …not all students are going to thrive in a polychronic classroom. Some students will do better in the more traditional monochronic model. How will we structure our environment to engage both types of learners’? What will this polychromic classroom look like?

I think the concept of polychrons and monochrons is an interesting way to frame the discourse. It is not age or generation-based, as is Prensky’s “Digital Native, Digital Immigrant” analogy. A polychron can be any age.

Anyway, as Fontana says,

”Don’t put all you polychrons in one basket.”


5 thoughts on “Polychrons in Our Classrooms

  1. What public school teacher ever really gets to be monochronic? I mean, when trying to teach, we’re dealing with discipline, multiple state and district requirements, the attendance computer that’s on the fritz, three kids who need to go to the bathroom, one kid that just came back from the counseling office, three disruptions from colleagues, and that one student who won’t stop tapping his (or is it her — I can’t ever catch the kid) pencil on the table.

    I actually wonder if our students are the monochronic ones. But perhaps I misunderstand — or am simply projecting a busy day somewhere it doesn’t belong.

  2. Bud;
    The atmosphere may appear to be polychronic; but the institutional infrastructure is, for the most part, monochronic. We all learn the same things, at the same time, in the same place, in the same way. Most of our teaching and learning is designed and not emergent. Of course, there are exceptions to this; but this is the way we have organized our schools.

    I tell the story in “Kill the Messenger” of a teacher who kept re-setting kids to their starting point to keep them busy because she didn’t teach division until the spring.

    I don’t think all kids are polychrons. In fact, I tend to agree with you that many kids like the structure of the monochronic classroom. I don’t think it’s a generational thing, like the Digital Immigrants analogy.

    You make a good point Bud. I am wondering myself whether students have just lowered their expectations for school and are willing to “play let’s pretend” with us.


  3. Pete,

    In Mr. Bugeja’s article “Distractions in the Wireless Classroom” he states:

    “Apply it to education, and education is about technology. All must adapt, and in so doing we lose centuries of erudition because principles no longer apply in practice. Worse, because autonomous technology is independent of everything, it cannot be blamed for anything.”

    Education IS technology.
    Technology is not independent of everything… it IS everything.
    The wheel is technology. The classroom is a technology. Our pedagogy is technology as well.
    We do not ‘lose centuries of erudition’ we Evolve.

    The ideas of promoting ‘responsible computing’ or turning the technology off will stifle and endanger the classroom and the students.

    Imagine this:
    Today in Mrs. Smith’s History class Johnny passes Suzie a note. The teacher sees this particularly sly move on Johnny’s part and intercepts the note. She will embarrass him by reading the note in front of the class. It reads:
    ‘She’s covering what we read for homework last night. Plus, I saw a documentary about this on the History channel last week. I’ve read up to chapter 17. How about you?’

    The IM is nothing more than a glorified note. And perhaps if students were given the opportunity they could be chatting about a lecture or topic in a chat room or to another student while hearing the lecture.

    Or better yet, why does this lecture have to take place in a classroom? Could the students not get this information from a wiki text, video, or podcast? Is the lecture interactive? Is there a discussion component? Is it engaging?

    Lectures are not a one-way medium. Students with laptops can be answering questions about your lecture, posting their notes to a blog/wiki, discussing it on a chat board, applying the information in practice, etc.
    Read this: http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/academics/center/Teaching_and_Learning_Tips/Developing%20Effective%20Lectures/8stepstoactive.htm
    And you see how easily technology fits in a lecture… let alone a polychronic classroom.

    Anthony Fontana
    Bowling Green State University

  4. I have studied monochrons and polychrons especially in relation to time management, but the most important thing I have realised is that forcing either style to become the other results in chronic stress. It is very refreshing to find an educator embracing this knowledge.

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