“The big hand is on the 12, and the little hand . . . “

It seems our digital era is causing yet another casualty.

It has long been a rite of passage for young children; the moment they first begin to grasp how to tell the time as their parents patiently explain the significance of the “big hand” and the “little hand”.

But the ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets, with their digital 24-hour clock, is threatening to make the art of telling the time from a traditional timepiece redundant.

So much so that a school in Scotland has found that pupils as old as 13 are unable to tell the time from the ‘analogue’ clocks hanging in classrooms and corridors.

. . .

Now the school, in the town of Bridge of Earn, has begun to teach pupils to read a clock the old fashioned way, without resorting to their mobile phones.

In fact mobiles and tablets have been banned during school hours to encourage the girls to look at the clocks around the school.

. . .

Mrs MacGinty insists … that there are some skills that should transcend the generations.

“Society is changing and the curriculum should change to reflect this,” she said. “But some skills are too important to ignore.

“For example, we are still teaching pupils to read rail and bus timetables, even though it is no longer in the senior school maths syllabus, because it is important that pupils understand how to read these.”

She added: “Having the ability to understand the movement of the minute hand and the hour hand around the face of a clock gives young people a tangible understanding of the passing of time, not just numbers changing on a digital screen.”

There’s more at the link.

Actually, I can understand how youngsters today simply don’t come into contact with old-fashioned clock- and watch-faces often enough to need to know how to interpret them.  That’s a fact of life.  What worries me far more is how they come to depend on digital technology to do things that should, indeed, be basic life skills, because without them we can get into all sorts of difficulties – even serious danger.  Examples:

  • Learning to look out of the window and read the weather signs.  Most of us grew up knowing old doggerel couplets about “red sky at night” or “mackerel sky” or what have you.  They were signs that predicted what was to come.  Many kids today couldn’t tell you what to expect without consulting a weather forecast.
  • Being able to deal with a minor emergency such as changing a car tire, or shutting off water or gas to a home.  I know a lot of people who simply don’t know how to do any of those things.  In an emergency, they reach for their cellphones and call someone else to come and do it for them.  What if no-one’s available?
  • Reading maps.  When I first came to the USA in the late 1990’s, I navigated all over the eastern half of the country, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, using a Rand McNally road atlas and my knowledge of how maps worked.  I had no smartphone, no GPS system.  I didn’t need them.  How many young people today could say – or do – the same?
  • Conduct research.  I had to learn to use a library card index, look up information in books, magazines and newspapers, learn where to find the facts I needed – not just libraries, but also museums, university faculties, corporations, etc. – and so on.  By the time I did my Masters degree dissertation, I could use computers to crunch numbers, write and format the text, etc., but I still had to plan, design and conduct the research, collect the results, and analyze them.  Nowadays, that process is so automated that I have to wonder how many students could do it on their own.
  • Meet people, carry on a conversation, etc.  If I wanted to meet girls, I had to learn to talk to them, carry myself like a halfway decent human being (clothes, manners, language, etc.), and make myself someone in whom they might be interested.  Nowadays it’s all “swipe left” or “swipe right” on a smartphone screen.  What’s more, sex was usually something that happened (if it did – it wasn’t guaranteed) after you got to know each other – not as a preliminary to that!  Take away their smartphones and apps, and how many people would be able to carry on a normal, civilized conversation, and get to know someone the old-fashioned way?
  • Personal security.  How many young people today are willing and able to defend themselves and their loved ones against criminal attack?  How many youngsters are taught to “read the signs” of a not-so-good neighborhood, or a potential predator, and avoid them?  How many kids go off to college oblivious to the fact that there are bad people out there, and end up being assaulted, raped or murdered because they take no precautions whatsoever?  I don’t blame them for that so much as I blame those who didn’t prepare them for the realities of life.

I suppose reading an old-fashioned clock face is really just an early indicator for all of those issues, and more.  How to solve the problem?  I’m not sure.  Parents don’t seem to be doing their job in teaching their youngsters how to cope with life, the universe and everything.  They appear to be abdicating that responsibility to the schools – but schools aren’t designed to do that job.  If we expect and allow them to act in loco parentis, we have no right to get upset when they teach our kids things we’d rather they didn’t learn.  That goes with the territory.



  1. When my younger daughter was in grade school some 30 years ago, all clocks in the schools had been changed to digital. It was quickly obvious that she not only couldn't tell the time from an analog clock, but that while the phrase "it's 6:45" had some meaning to her, the phrase "it's 15 'til 7" had none at all. Worse, it was apparent that the digital clock, lacking observable motion, failed to impart an understanding of the passage of time. In addition to the good points you have mentioned, this left the students with an inability to grasp that the nature of all things is to progress through time.

    "How long will take to boil the potatoes?"

    "When can Bill have the specifications for the software ready?"

    "You do understand that acceptance of gun rights won't happen overnight?"

  2. RE Maps.

    When my wife was freshly-arrived in the US we'd go out and drive around just to explore. We'd be thoroughly lost in NH or VT, and it'd be getting to late afternoon. My wife would be "OK, where are we"? and I'd say "No idea"… and she'd panic.

    But I'd explain that the sun was southwest, and that a major interstate was in thus-and -such direction. And that any road with yellow lines is a from somewhere / to somewhere road, so head that way. Within an hour we'd be on the interstate and heading home.

    To this day, she still relies on GPS for every trip. Me? I try to dope it out first.

  3. A point not mentioned is the concept of clockwise and counterclockwise movement.

    Do the younger people get it when weather forecasters will say the winds are counterclockwise around a low or the next week when they clockwise around a high? Or tighten a screw by turning it clockwise?

  4. I have a picture of 3 undergrads on the same sofa, talking to each other by texting. No human interaction. I suspect (no, I've seen it!) a chunk of the alcohol misuse is getting over the fear of talking directly to a boy or girl without a screen as a modifier.

    Make them think.
    Bring back the shilling.

  5. I prefer to map out a course before I leave for a trip. It's worked well for me. One time the better half insisted that we use a GPS which promptly took us off course. It was up to me to get us back on track.
    How many cashiers under age 60 know how to make change?

  6. The analog clock is the only useful way to keep track of time. Digital clocks provide no information you need. For example, the analog clock gives the relative position of the hands as the indicator of how long you have until something or since some event. You really don't want to know the time it is now, you want to know how much longer you have or long it has been.
    And yes, clockwise and counter clockwise (anti clockwise, old chap) are lost with digital time.
    Real clocks forever, please. They don't have to be mechanical, of course, but let's keep the big hand and little hand.

  7. Another basic is direction. I've lost cunt of how many times a full grown man would ask me if the station was for the North or South bound Light Rail. On a sunny day in the late afternoon.

  8. A few years ago I was sitting at the bar at my favorite bar/restaurant having lunch and a group of students on Christmas break from Michigan Tech University came in and sat beside me. When I was done eating I pulled out my pocket watch as I don't wear wrist watches to check the time. The kid sitting next to me asked to see it as he had never seen one up close. After he and his friends got done looking it over he asked me what those X, I, and V signs around the dial meant. —ken

  9. Jim,
    You have a good point about making change. You can always tell the age of a cashier at any store/restaurant, etc, by how they count your change back to you. Something that I was doing for the last two years of high school, while pumping gas. We didn't have any register, we carried money in a truckers wallet on a chain in our back pocket, and often stayed outside pumping gas for a couple of hours at a time, in a 12 hour shift on Sunday. In school I worked 5-10 Friday and Saturday night, and 9-9 on Sunday, except for when I had to play a football game.
    It was one of the best jobs I ever had. Summer time,the station was on the route to a popular lake spot. And we would have carloads of hot young girls from the nearest city coming to go to the lake. And they stopped in for gas and directions. As a horny high school teenage boy, I loved standing over their car, looking down on the pretty girls in bikinis while pumping gas in their cars.
    We were also on the way to a place where a large population of African Americans had settled, and we would get a lot of people from city coming through to visit family. I remember the one time that a man dressed like a pimp, complete with a purple felt hat with a feather, and two black women, dressed like his working girls,who stopped in, asking for directions. This was in 1977, and I swear that this guy reminded me of the character in Starsky and Hutch, Huggy Bear.
    I often wanted to give directions at closing time, that would have the person driving about 4 hours out of their way, and get them so lost that nobody would ever find them. Not really, but it was a fun thought. Especially when it was a super rainy day, and I was soaked to the skin,cold and wet,and the people had been especially demanding. Living in west Michigan,I could have gotten them pretty far out into the boondocks, and they would have been pretty angry when they finally figured out that I had sent them on a snipe hunt.
    I have a 23 year old daughter, lives with us. She is sort of the savant type,brilliant at some things, but dumb as a box of rocks at others. I was never able to teach her how to understand an analog clock. And she taught herself how to program her own computer. Go figure.

  10. All 10 of my kids learned to read a map before they started driving, despite the GPS capability of their phones. I taught them they'd never get lost once they knew which direction the interstates, primary state & county roads ran. The parochial schools they attended taught students to tell time using analog clocks as well…

    It helps to teach your children these things, to plan for the unexpected, to learn how to disconnect from the electronic world…

  11. For many years now, it has been my experience that if a store looses power, they will refuse to sell any product to their customers. Took me a while to figure out it wasn't the lack of receipt that had them stymied, it was that they had no idea how to make change. I suspect that at some point the managements decided that too many clerks couldn't do it, so they forbade it across the board. The usual response I get is they are not allowed to make change, the cash register must do it.

    1. It's not just change. Inventory is done on the in-store network and without input from the cash registers/computers, no one knows what to order to replenish stock.

  12. On the other hand, I have no desire whatsoever to use my father's vernier calipers for measuring in the machine shop. And I have no desire at all to go back to a slide rule. Although I am glad I learned to use scientific notation.

    I suggest that the young shooters today might never own a weapon that isn't mostly made from plastic.

  13. "What time is it?"

    "Quarter to Three."

    "Uh… what's that mean?"

    Ox "ancient" (drives stick, fwiw), but really now?

  14. @John in Philly: Amen on slide rules. 🙂

    This fall my kids and I gathered about 10 pounds of acorns. Washed and dried, we need to crush the shells off them and make acorn meal – to prove it can be done. I'm already teaching my kids some about foraging, and need to research a local survival school. Ideally, every year go to a school in a different part of the country to learn how to survive in multiple conditions.

    Part of the problem is the "That can't happen here" mentality of so many. On LinkedIn I see article after article praising TECH and so on… what if the power is not there?

  15. Funny coincidence, my 20 year old son made the same remark yesterday was I looked at the clock to write down our check-in time at his school.

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