Hey Teacher, Leave those Kids Alone
(Thanks to Pink Floyd for the title.)
I outlined earlier the essential elements of human beings: we’re physical, cultural, social, linguistic, spiritual, and mortal. If an education system were designed to educate real human children, with all of those capacities, it would look different from our current one. Everything that interfered with children’s learning or failed to advance children’s learning or was even extraneous to it would be eliminated. The schedule, the space, the classes, and the teachers would reflect only what the children needed and the best means for them to get it. Not only would schools look different; so would society. As part of our goal to reconsider our institutions in light of what human beings really are, let’s imagine a school system that exists for the benefit of the children. I’ll begin with the schedule.
First, the school day would be shorter and would start later. There is research both for and against this move. How this research is interpreted, of course, relies on one’s beliefs about who children are and what they need. Advocates of a shorter school day point out among other things that it would enable both little children and teenagers to get a better night’s sleep. Recent research is showing that school schedules are one reason children get less sleep than they should, and that sleep-deprived children do worse in school. Children’s poor achievement in school is one reason that people are calling for longer school days – and around we go.
People who want long school days are assuming that most education takes place in a classroom. It makes sense to them that to become more educated, students have to spend more time in school. I'll break that assumption down in the upcoming weeks, but let's at least recognize that it is an assumption, and that it's possible that hours spent in our current school environment might not equate to expertise, life skills, and critical thinking. These hours are measured not only by daily time at school but by the age that children first enter school. In earlier centuries, children didn't go to school until they were eight or so; now many schools districts are requiring kindergarten and recommending preschool for all children. And once children get to school, the common wisdom, for lack of a better word, has it that six-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds need to spend the same number of hours in the classroom, regardless of their developmental stages. (Or it could be, of course, that it's just easier to schedule school buses all to come at the same time.)
In a human-shaped school, the classroom part of their education would last only as long as was manageable for their age group. For the first few grades, that would be three or four hours – from nine to one, for example. Those hours would be broken up by time spent outside, in recess and in organized activities; sadly, elementary pupils these days are spending less time outdoors than they used to. If communities are concerned about the efficient use of their school buildings, primary schools could operate in two shifts, nine to twelve-thirty, and one to four-thirty; that would have the added benefit of allowing smaller classes.
Middle and high school students could stay on campus longer, but even they should spend less time in a desk than they do now. I recently surveyed my own college freshmen about their high school experience, and the most frequent comment was that they wanted to learn real skills in a hands-on way. They wanted home economics where they could make food and clothes; they wanted to be able to build things and fix things and grow things. They were frustrated by how much time they felt they were wasting. Home economics, shop, and gardening are still school classes, but in them students move, talk, and create. And between those classes, teenagers need to get outside, too – not just the athletes, but everyone.
We don't have to worry that students would stop learning at the end of a shorter school day. When school is done, they would ideally move on to another learning activity that doesn’t involve sitting at a desk again: shopping for food, repairing a car, playing games, reading a book. Obviously we don't want them staring at a screen eating junk, but there are – there should be – many ways to learn outside of organized school. That's another subject for future discussion.
And finally, the school day should not spread its tentacles into all waking hours, which is another way of saying there should be little homework, and none for the earliest grades. I found it baffling, when my children were in public high school, how much time they watched movies in class but still had homework to take home. I've taught students from first grade through college, and I hold myself accountable for the time I use. If I can't cover what I need to in class, including activities, practice, and assessment, then I'm not using my time efficiently. Of course there are some things students need to do at home, but most they can and should do with their teachers, where they can get help and immediate feedback.
So why don't we have shorter days with less homework? It’s been known for some time that a more relaxed schedule like this is beneficial. There are several reasons parents and school officials object to implementing it.
First, teachers worry that they wouldn’t have time to cover everything they are required by federal, state, and local governments to cover. And it’s true – they wouldn’t. The question then becomes, should teachers have to teach everything that social engineers think children should learn, keeping classroom time long, or should they teach only what fits the students? Remember that I’m asking you as a thought experiment to consider the kids here and ignore the clamor of society as a whole. We can keep our classroom time short only if we choose the subjects students need and are able to learn in a classroom setting.
This is not just an intellectual exercise. Even though students spend hours in classrooms every day for many years and cover huge numbers of subjects, they don’t know very much. I see the results of our public education system in my college classes, and they’re not impressive. Very few of even my brightest students can speak a foreign language, find countries, cities, or natural features on a world map, do arithmetic in their heads, read a book with comprehension, identify incidents from world history or place them in a chronology, or explain or use scientific principles, even though they've all taken Spanish, social studies, math, literature, history, and science. Nor do they universally practice safe sex, show tolerance to people of other religions and races, or avoid bad habits, despite the cringe-inducing health classes they endure. So regardless of how much time we are making them sit in desks and study a plethora of subjects, IT ISN’T WORKING. Let’s not keep doing it.
The second reason we don’t have a relaxed school schedule is that society wants children to be warehoused for much of the day. Public school has become free child care for parents who work, and more parents than ever are working. This reality is tangled up with wages, employer expectations, our economic model, and our definition of success, among many other things. Schools are neither home nor daycare. Despite that, they are touted as safe and enriching places for children from dysfunctional backgrounds. The assumption is that children who are at school are not getting into trouble. If they were dismissed at one o’clock, they’d be latchkey kids, they’d be hanging out on street corners getting into trouble, they’d be vulnerable and at risk. In many cases, that’s true, although as I have been pointing out, school is often a far from benign place for kids to be.
Of course I want all children to have a safe, structured life. But where children go after school is a social problem, not an educational one. If most people are away from home and child care has to move from the family to some other framework, then communities need to deal with that – communities, not schools, because remember, the job of schools is education.
I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense to keep the kids in one place all day and bring them what they need there – but as I said, it’s not working very well, educationally or socially. It’s a bit like this: we realize that kids spend a lot of time in cars (this is true). Because we know that kids need comfortable beds, exercise, and social interaction, we conclude that we should redesign cars with fold-out beds and play areas. We end up with a gas guzzling, less maneuverable, and prohibitively expensive car, and the sleep, exercise, and social interaction would still be terrible. The sane thing to do is ask, “Should kids be spending so much time in cars?” – or schools – and take it from there.
I know this is hard to hear. We’ve become used to the idea that it’s the school’s job to protect, feed, and socialize children as well as teach them; when I claim that schools shouldn’t be asked to do those things, it sounds as if I’m saying that I don’t want them done. I do, with all my heart. But schools aren’t able to do everything well. Let them educate for a few hours a day, and let communities come up with other ways to deal with social issues than dumping them on the schools.