Why the Days of the Analog Clock Are (and Should Be!) Numbered

Several analog alarm clocks with different decorations sit in frame.
The days of analog ubiquity are winding down.
Damien Meyer/Getty Images

It looks like the analog clock’s days may be numbered. According to a recent article in the Telegraph, some U.K. schools are removing them from exam halls after discovering teenagers have a hard time reading traditional clock faces. Apparently the move is an attempt to reduce testing anxiety in a generation raised on digital devices. “The current generation aren’t as good at reading the traditional clock face as older generations,” said Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary at the Association of School and College Leaders, in an interview with the newspaper. “They are used to seeing a digital representation of time on their phone, on their computer. Nearly everything they’ve got is digital so youngsters are just exposed to time being given digitally everywhere.”

The news was met with as much hand wringing as I’m sure met the phasing out of such necessary skills as reading a sun dial or spooling a type writer. “I would be the teacher who would say tough - but apparently that’s not how kids are raised,” wrote one Twitter denizen. He went on to lament that these same kids probably couldn’t read Roman numerals—where exactly those two things connect, I’m still not sure. Another American analog acolyte who didn’t apparently read that the clock phase out was taking place in the U.K. asked, “Are we getting out [sic] money’s worth from government education? We know students cannot write in script. Or are they just being taught anti-social behavior, multi-gender personalities and anti-American hatred for our Founding?” A significant number of commentators responded to the news with something along the lines of, “Teach them to read it then?” To which I would answer, “Why?”

The fact that analog clocks have managed to stand the test of time in an increasingly digitized world is a bit of a wonder. While there may be nothing quite as charming as the quiet tick of a watch, the fact that teachers are adapting to the fact that a fair number of teenagers can’t read an analog clock isn’t another sign of corruption in The Youth. It means, as Nobel Prize Winner Bob Dylan once wrote, that times are a-changing. It doesn’t make sense for a teacher to waste precious class time to teach teenagers how to read an analog clock just so they can tell time during an exam. And if students can’t read traditional clock faces with relative ease by the time they’re sitting for exams, it means one of two things: Somewhere down the line their teacher prioritized other knowledge over doing countless worksheets on telling time, or they’ve just forgotten something they learned in elementary school once they tested out of that grade.

Kids in America who learn under Common Core standards are required to be taught how to read an analog clock in first or second grade; if kids in the U.K. are taught around the same time than it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to learn that they forgot how to do so by the time they’re teenagers. With the sheer amount of stuff kids are expected to know once state exams roll around, it’s understandable that they’d get a bit rusty on something they’re not using every day.

Plenty of naysayers will crow about the practical use of knowing how to read an analog clock once the electricity goes out, but since when is school about teaching practical skills? I don’t remember learning how to file an insurance claim or write a check or pay taxes in school, all skills that are objectively more practical in the long run than reading an analog clock. That’s not to say that the skill needs to go the way of cursive: Telling time on a traditional clock face is a real world application of complex mathematical skills and teachers seem to agree that it gives children a different relation to time than reading a digital clock does. “Analog clocks are great for teaching time management [and] concepts including the passage of time,” answered one Arizonan teacher when asked why she still felt the skill was important to teach. “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.”

By all means, I’m sure small children will continue to be taught multiples of five through the use of an analog clock. But it’s entirely fair for that skill to fade by the time those kids reach puberty and for teachers to adapt to the fact that the days of analog ubiquity are slowly ticking away.