Should We Still Teach Analog Clocks?

Sandy Merz Current Affairs, Education, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Mathematics, Professional Development, Uncategorized

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On Friday, my colleague Steve Andre wrote in a staff wide email that he was considering teaching how to tell time on an analog clock to his seventh grade computer students because they can’t read the one on his wall when they sign out with a pass. On one hand, Steve was for it because analog clocks are still prevalent so it’s still a relevant life skill. But he adds that people don’t wear analog watches so much, and analog clocks’ days are numbered. He wanted our opinions on the matter.

Our opinions, and those of outside friends who have joined the discussion, crossed emotional, pedagogic, and philosophical lines. Emotionally, many were dismayed at the loss of this skill, one was even “appalled.” Many teachers were frustrated because the clocks on our classroom walls are analog, so kids need to know analog time. (I wonder why they’re not frustrated that our facilities are stuck in the 20th Century or that half of the clocks don’t work anyway.) One bridged the emotional – pedagogic divide by expressing the frustration of  teaching a skill that first or second graders are not developmentally ready for.

Other pedagogic arguments included the value of using an analog clock as a concrete example of math skills. Miriam added that learning analog clocks helps visual learners:

…I believe that the analog clock can provide a vivid representation of time that digital clocks cannot. Analog clocks are great for teaching time management, concepts including the passage of time, how much time we have left to complete something, etc. Even our little kids who don’t yet have the concept of numerals can understand that “when the big hand is on this red line it’s time to line up.

Philosophically, several people compared learning analog time to learning cursive writing, another skill that’s about as common these days as an 8-track stereo. They pointed out that all anybody seems to write in cursive anymore is their signature. But isn’t that a reason to stop teaching it, rather than continue?

Barb, my favorite non-conformist, wrote a response that combines emotion, pedagogy, and philosophy:

I don’t know if it’s necessary to learn to read an analog clock; but I definitely think it is good for the brain and even better for the mind. Even though the analog clock “moves time” through a single plane or two dimensions, at least time is moving through space at some level. And time needs space although not as much as space needs time. Digital clocks offer only a linear time, and even the linearity is broken up—a kind of dotted line of time. I think our conditioned and cultural tendencies in the west—forever– and increasingly all over the planet, are already towards a mental and psychic linearity( and very much broken up at that ) which lacks depth and scope and a connection to the non-physical world. So, I love the analog clock and the sense of something moving through time and time moving through something….The only thing is that analog watches ALL lose time on my wrist pretty dramatically. But I have a great analog art clock made out of those little firecracker things that you stomp on– hanging in my kitchen. It ticks and tocks, too. I still love sensations and the tactile, visual world—so yes, analog clocks.

That makes me want to teach analog time just so I can then teach them how to find south with an analog watch.

Her comments also led to a mental digression. Our English unit of length began as the average size of sixteen residents’ feet in a given village. Daylight was divided into six equal parts so how long an hour lasted depended on the season and your latitude. So, time and distance were proportional the cycles of nature and her human inhabitants. A meter, by the way, is 1/299,792,458 of the distance light travels in a vacuum in one second. (Why not 1/300,000,000?) A second is equal to the duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation in an energy level change of the Cesium atom. (Why not 10,000,000,000?)

My own response to Steve’s original question was that I think reading analog time is about as virtuous as using a rotary phone or zip-a-grade. (I was going to use put in a picture of a zip-a-grade for younger readers, but couldn’t find a single one. There are, though, lots of zip-a-grade apps.)

Instead of comparing analog time to cursive, I compared it to reading dice, which a lot of kids can’t do anymore, either. But the digital games they play instead:

…are more cognitively demanding and require more planning, collaboration, and communications skills than board games. Plus, like any good teacher – the games they play don’t let them move on until they’ve mastered their current level while providing the motivation to continue. I’d love to be able to teach grit the way World of Warcraft does. My kids never asked me a geography or history question after playing Yahtzee or Monopoly, but they do after playing Assassin’s Creed.

To that, my colleague Cheryl fairly pointed out the advantages of dice games in developing number sense.

And to Steve’s earlier point about the prevalence of analog clocks in public places, I’d add that yesterday I visited the supermarket, the mall, two libraries, and a party. In those peregrinations, I saw exactly four analog clocks hanging on walls. The last was at my friend’s party in her home. Her clock was quite lovely and made me think that in terms of decorative value, analog clocks win hands down.

At the end of the day, Steve wrote to us all that he had decided to teach analog time-telling.

I’m going to pass some time watching Cesium atoms radiate.




I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

Comments 15

  1. AmyinMN

    I know I’m late to the party, but I just read your article and it touches on something I’ve been wondering. Without the “spatial” and geometric concepts of time developed with analog clock concepts, do young people think about and understand time fully? Or do they have more trouble, for example, budgeting time or estimating it, especially when this involves going past the hour? I would love to hear what others have observed as teachers, since I can’t find any research on the subject.

      1. AmyinMN

        I was thinking because they would internalize the idea of time passing as the minute hand passed the arcs of a clock. Without an analog clock, time is just a bunch of numbers (to me).

        1. Romony

          But to a non-visual learner, a “bunch of numbers” is a highly meaningful concept. To a non-visual learner, a couple of “hands” moving round a circle is “just” a couple of moving shapes that bears no relation to the concept of time. To a non-visual learner, it’s far more meaningful to calculate minutes in terms of their numerical values.

          1. AmyinMN

            Absolutely! But we are never going to get rid of digital (or some future equivelant). The question is should we continue to teach analog, when digital is all around.

      1. Amy Villanueva

        They wouldn’t let me edit the comment and I do know how to spell minute. It’s hard to correct mistakes on a smartphone

  2. Kevin Childs

    Nice read! I’m an analog type of guy who is quite dismayed when library patrons ranging to age 35 or more ask for the time when the analog clock is right behind me. Analog is gone, and cursive is not taught….the world is coming to an end!

  3. Leslie Solis

    Um…First and second graders aren’t “developmentally ready” to learn to read an analog clock? Then how come I vividly remember my entire class and I learning in second grade with no problems back in the early ’90s?

    1. Rom Caitlin

      Because you were a child and thus stuck in your own world, only conscious of what you personally learned….unlike the teacher, who was aware of all the children in your class who didn’t actually succeed at that skill, as well as the fact that you did. Children have a very poor sense of what the rest of the class is experiencing. I was at school at the same time. I could read 24 hour time on a digital clock before I reached school, but I couldn’t read an analogue clock til I finished school. Why? We had several VCRs at home (all with 24 hour time on them) and the first time I ever had to use an analogue clock in my life was when I started catching a bus at the bus interchange, where they had an analogue clock (the same interchange today has a digital clock in the same place).

  4. Nima

    This is how us mentally spacial people function. Ten minutes to me isn’t the numbers between 1 and 10, it’s the space between 12 and 2. This is how my non-mathmatical brain works in base-60…you know our actual system of keeping time?! There’s something significant about watching a second hand move that gives you a better “sense” of time, of it’s movement, pace, and passing rather than staring at a digital number and waiting for it to change to the next one.

  5. Rom Caitlin

    Fascinating thoughts on the topic. I think the amount of time it takes in class to teach this skill is not an effective use of time (pun intended). If there are any benefits to analogue reading (of which I’m highly sceptical), it takes so long for children to be able to master the analogue clock, that the time would be better used learning a different skill.

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