Do Young People Know How To Read a Clock? And Does It Matter?

Reader Sue Frantz, who teaches psychology at Highline Community College in Des Moines, WA, wrote me with an interesting observation about young people’s dependence on digital devices:

“About six months ago I was sitting in our psych lab with the door open when a student walked in.  He looked at the (analog) clock on the wall.  I said, ‘Can I help you?’  He replied, ‘I was wondering what time it is.’ Several seconds pass. He was pretty close to the clock but wasn’t moving, so I thought he might be vision-impaired.  I helpfully said, ‘It’s twenty ‘til 11.’ He looked at me, then back at the clock.  A few more seconds go by, and he’s still standing there.  Now I’m thinking maybe he’s also hearing-impaired.  I say, louder, ‘IT’S TWENTY ‘TIL 11.’ Nothing.  Another student who had been sitting nearby says, ‘It’s 10:40.’ ‘Oh I’m late!’the visitor says.  He departs, and I’m left trying to sort out what just happened.

One week later, a different student walks into the lab.  She looks at the clock.  I say, ‘Can I help you?’ She says, ‘I was wondering what time it is.’  I’m thinking, You have got to be kidding me—and do a quick scan for the hidden camera.  She decides to try it herself.  ‘It’s 11…, no, it’s 10… 10…’ Having learned my lesson, I say, ‘It’s 10:40.’  She looks at me, then back at the clock. A few seconds lapse, and I guess at the issue.  I say, ‘It’s actually 10:37.’ ‘OK, thanks!’

Shortly after this, I mentioned it to a colleague who is the father of a teenager.  He said, ‘I’m not surprised.  My daughter can only tell time using digital clocks.  Although given how often she’s late, I’m not sure she can tell time at all.’

A couple days ago we were about to take a short break in my class.  I said, ‘We’ll start at quarter ‘til.’  I caught myself and added, ‘In about 4 minutes,’ as I wondered how many of my students understood what ‘quarter ‘til’ meant.

In the greater scheme of things, I don’t care if someone knows how to read an analog clock.  I also don’t care that cursive writing is no longer being taught.  But one thing that analog clocks do (did?) is provide practice at dividing a circle.  Quarters and halves can easily be seen.  They also provide practice in rounding up and down.  To me, there isn’t much difference between 10:37 and 10:40, but to the student in the lab, the difference was evidently meaningful.  In that same vein, I heard a couple young students outside my office yesterday.  One asked the other for the time.  The student said 1:25.  Not quite hearing him, the other asked again.  This time the student said 1:26.  And what would I have said?  ‘Almost 1:30.’

Analog clocks seem to be going the way of the slide rule.  At the same time that watches are making a comeback as accessories. Not knowing how to tell time with it may make it extra retro.’”

You can read more of Sue’s writing at her blog. Readers, how about you? Have you seen this phenomenon among the young people you know?

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