In this blog, Abi Clark – Head of Content at Sparx – shares how Sparx has researched, tested and iterated ways of teaching Time to Key Stage 3 learners. Read on to understand why Time can be so hard to grasp and how we have tackled the topic. 


Time is a concept we all use in our everyday lives: deciding whether you have time to grab a coffee before your next lesson or meeting, working out what time you need to arrive at the airport to drop off your bags, or scheduling when to shop for (or panic buy!) a birthday present for your other half. But how did you learn to tell the time?


I remember the clock that sat next to the dining table in my childhood home, and the matching one next to the TV. They were a golden colour, and if you got close enough you could hear each second tick past. You could watch the second, minute and hour hands move around the clock face. Today, if my friend hadn’t bought me a clock with mathematical symbols on I doubt I would have an analogue clock in the house. Youngsters nowadays live in a digital world. Many schools have removed clocks from their walls to avoid students clock-watching, and instead they live by the bell. Time doesn’t “tick” by in the same way, it just passes. 


I still remember the first lesson we created on Time like it was yesterday. It was five years ago. I hadn’t been at Sparx for that long, and we had only recently started working on Key Stage 3 content. We were still very much in the research and development stage, working closely with teachers and students at a local school to find out what worked and what didn’t. We had had many successes and felt we were close to a structure that worked well for learners and educators alike. A few of us, myself included, had spent weeks researching, refining and creating a lesson on telling the time and proudly took it to a class of Year 7 students. Nobody predicted quite how epically it would fail – not us, and not the teachers.


What we found was that a student’s mathematical attainment level and their knowledge of time had no correlation. Some of the highest attaining students in the school struggled with interpreting a digital clock, whilst some of the lowest attaining could solve complex problems involving time. Many of these students had come from the same primary school, and had the same teachers; it was their home lives that were vastly different. Problems involving money showed a similar pattern. It was clear that a different approach would be needed for such topics and that our research and development stage wasn’t over just yet. 


The subject of Time is different in many ways. Most of the units of measure we use today are metric, using 10s, 100s and 1000s. But not time. There are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour, yet there are 24 hours in a day. There are 7 days in a week, and 365 (ish) days in a year. We say there are 52 weeks in a year, but there are a couple of extra days too. Then there’s days in a month! There are 28, 30 or 31. Or 29, but only one month every four years, and only if the year number is divisible by four (unless it’s divisible by 100 in which case things get really interesting!). 

Imagine you have never seen a clock before and you haven’t really got a grasp of time. You know that 50% and 0.5 mean a half. You know that 1.5m means 1 and a half metres. Now you see the time 3:50 written down. It would be perfectly natural to assume that this means half past 3, and that in another 50 minutes you would reach 4:00. 

Trying to do calculations with time would likely leave you in a right pickle. “What time is 10 minutes after 3:55?” you are asked. You are left baffled as to why 3:65 isn’t right. You are sure that 55 is the minutes part and you added 10 to that. Finding a time earlier than a given time is even harder. Turning to your trusted method of addition and subtraction, the column method, leaves you even more confused (give it a go – you can have ten “ones”, but only six “tens” and 24 “hundreds”!)

Five years later (I’ll let you work out how many days that is, remembering there have been two leap years) and we have a vast bank of content available for 11 to 16 year olds, suitable for a huge range of attainment levels. Our latest addition is content on time. As with every new piece of content we release, the overwhelming emotion is excitement at being able to help students around the world learn such vital skills. That’s why we do what we do. But for us this topic means something more; it is a symbol of how far we have come in the last five years. A combination of many more years of experience, new faces and ideas, and new ways of delivering content both in the classroom and to independent learners has unlocked these topics. And on a personal note, it felt only fitting that Time was the first topic we released since I recently took on the role of Head of Content. 


You can find this new content in the following topics: 

  • Using clocks (KS3)
  • Calculating time differences (KS3)
  • Using timetables (KS3)
  • Using calendars (KS3)
  • Converting units of time (KS3)
  • Reading, converting and calculating with time (GCSE)


We are in the process of creating even more content including topics such as transformations and vectors. As always, we will test our new way of delivering this content in the classroom (or via homeschooling at the moment) and combine feedback from teachers and learners with a wealth of data to constantly improve the objectives, questions and videos. Watch this space – we will let you know how we get on.