Tick Tock: Learning to Tell Time in the Digital Age

A few years ago I was out walking in a park, and I stopped a teenager, about 16 years old, to ask what time it was. He stared at his analog wristwatch intently for a few seconds, as if he were trying to solve a problem. Then he took a cell phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and gave me the time.

I thought of this young man yesterday as I was reading the Common Core State Standards, which is something I do frequently during the work week. Sometimes I look at the standards to identify resources we offer—such as Sketchpad activities—that cover a standard particularly well. Sometimes I review the standards when I’m thinking about new content to develop—for example, a probability unit that fits well in a geometry course, to assist those states that choose to follow the Pathways.

Yesterday, this Grade 2 standard jumped out at me and reminded me of the teen in the park:

Tell and write time from analog and digital clocks to the nearest five minutes, using a.m. and p.m.

So I did a little research. I read the standards for Grades 1 and 3, hoping to see how the Grade 2 standard is meant to develop. I found this in the Grade 1 standards:

Tell and write time in hours and half-hours using analog and digital clocks.

I didn’t find any additional standards in later grades that develop students’ ability to tell time. So by Grade 2, students should know how to fluently read analog and digital time.

This is not a particularly unusual standard; I’ve seen ones like it in many states’ standards. Still, I wondered, What is the need for this standard? Do we need it because time-telling is a basic need in today’s world or because time-telling contributes to numeracy in general ways? For example, with consistent practice, learners will note that “quarter-til-4” is the same as “3:45,” reinforcing basic computation skills and different but equivalent ways of representing numbers or measurements. I can’t say what standards writers have in mind when they include a standard such as this, but it probably involves both of these rationales.

Is being able to read an analog clock a needed skill? Judging by the omnipresence of analog clocks in public places—such as bell towers, public offices, my workplace, and every school I’ve ever been in—it seems like a helpful skill. I don’t know whether analog clocks are considered easiest to read from a distance, or cheapest, or easiest to maintain, or most aesthetically pleasing, but they’re simply everywhere. Of course, digital watches are readily available and cell phones are ubiquitous, so people who can’t read analog clocks can probably work around their limitation.

But I wonder what might inspire a 16-year-old—such as the helpful one in the park—to learn how to read analog time? And how would he go about doing so?

These questions led me to YouTube, which I often consult when I want to learn something new, like a how to knit a particular stitch or how to stop on roller skates. Sadly, I think that the wristwatched teen, who would be in his early twenties by now, would be out of luck. Every time-telling video I found was either for very young learners, or those learning to tell time in a second language. Here’s my favorite: a helpful resource for those learning to tell time who also like a little song and dance.

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