Behind the Blackboard: Telling time on an analog clock should not be lost to new generations

Rick Wagner • Updated Sep 19, 2016 at 6:00 PM

I was minding my own business one day in late July when across my email blared the following: "Study Reveals 75% of Children in the U.S. Can't Tell Time."

I immediately thought of four folks: my younger son, junior son, senior daughter and grown step-daughter. The youngest is in third grade in Hawkins County, the middle two in Kingsport City Schools and the oldest graduated from Hawkins. That's four folks, and the result of surveying them, actually just interaction over time, has shown 75 percent more or less can't tell analog time, on a round-face clock, which was the point of the email. I remember once time telling my older son in late elementary school it was a quarter till or quarter after a certain hour. He asked if that was 3:25 or 25 minutes till 3.

These digital natives read time as 3:15 p.m. or 3:45 p.m., not a quarter till or quarter after anything. But analog clocks and before that sundials have been around almost as long as civilization. The youngest is learning and nearly complete in understanding analog time; the other three, not so much at all. They use their cell phones for time except for the youngest. He borrows his mom’s phone or asks somebody. I asked him recently, and he said he prefers digital clocks because they are easier for him to understand.

Before I go any further, I need to point out that a watch retailer put out the release to promote its program with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America “to educate children across the U.S. on how to tell time” and creation of “a self-learning watch.” So the watch seller has some self-interest in mind: Create life-long time tellers, and you create a market for your product. I also need to point out the survey got nowhere near Tennessee or Virginia.

"A recent survey conducted by ... online watch retailer, DiscountWatchStore.com has revealed that 75% of children across the U.S. are unable to tell time on an analog clock. In a mission to raise awareness of this issue, the watch retailer teamed up with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to put on ‘Time Telling Workshops’ throughout the country, and has now designed the ‘Easy Time Teller’ —  a custom self-learning watch to better facilitate the learning process.” So it's a watch to teach children how to read a watch. 

In Tennessee, Robin McLellan, supervisor of elementary education for Sullivan County schools, said time is taught in grades 1, 2 and 3 and involves both analog and digital time, in contrast to a period in which standards did not specify analog. In first grade, she said students are to learn how to tell and write time in the nearest half-hour intervals, in second grade, students go down to every five minutes and use a.m. and p.m;. and in third grade they go down to the minute and learn how to measure intervals in time by adding and subtracting and how to solve word problems.

"Your begin in first building foundations and then add more skills," McLellan said. For the time three of the four I referred to earlier were in school, analog time was not a big deal. For me, it was practically the only deal. My first “digital” alarm clock circa mid-1970s flipped over a new number or numbers every minute. It is (yes, I still have it) like a Rolodex, not to be confused with a Rolex watch. If you don’t understand any of this, never mind. You probably don’t know “Time is on My Side” by the Rolling Stones, “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce or “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” sung by Frank Sinatra, either. (The latter starts out: “It's quarter to three. There's no one in the place, except you and me.”

According to the news release, the analog time telling survey consisted of 15 questions and was split into three levels of varying difficulty. It was distributed to 2,100 children between the ages of 6-12 in New York, Florida, Connecticut, Washington, Nevada, Utah and Texas. Children unable to obtain an 80 percent mark in levels 1 and 2 or a 70 percent mark in level 3 were judged not to be able to tell time to an adequate level. Only 263 children out of the entire survey achieved full marks on the test, with 527 children achieving scores of a sufficient level. Based on the sample, findings and criteria stated it was revealed that 25 percent of children were able to tell time.

"Through educational workshops, the nationwide initiative has reached thousands of children across the U.S., seeking to highlight a significant problem with today’s youth growing up in the digital age, and allowing the youngsters the opportunity to learn a fundamental component of early childhood and development. The survey assessed over 2,000 children between 6-12 years old in seven states across the U.S., with only 1 in 8 children scoring full marks on the test and only 1 in 10 children even owning a watch," the release said.

However, the premise is important, much more important than selling watches.

"It is alarming how many children only know what a digital clock reads, and despite an era of digital technology, there will undoubtedly come a time when today’s youth will need to read the time on an analog clock. It is a basic skill every individual should posses," said DiscountWatchStore.com owner Zai Zhu. (Notice how he got “alarming” in there in a news release about time pieces.) "We’ve been going up and down the country holding workshops with children in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to help educate our children. It is these workshops that inspired the idea for a specially-designed watch for children to learn how to tell time.”

The educational watch has a color-coded design, with hour blocks and specifically catered hour and minute hands that correspond with the appropriate information, allowing children to learn to read time on a round dial on their own. The campaign recently had a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to raise funds and reach as many children throughout the U.S. as possible.

"The ability to tell time on a regular watch is not something being taught to our children. It is important that they learn this lost skill," said Steve Davidson, chief operating officer at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada. "At our clubs, we are using the ability to tell time also in our daily math tutoring program."

Today’s lesson: I'm not trying to sell watches or with the Boys & Girls Clubs, but I couldn't agree more with the importance of learning about analog time. 

Bonus question: What time is quarter till 3 in a song Frank Sinatra sang?

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times-News and can be reached at rwagner@timesnews.net or (423) 392-1381.