Monthly Archives: July, 2016

Do we need longer school days or more flexible ones?

Two posts in two days is a rarity for me at the moment, but I’ve had the opportunity to do some reading this weekend and I’m a little riled up.

The first piece of reading was Lucy Clark’s Beautiful Failures, which I speak about in my last post. The second, which popped up on my Facebook feed on Sunday morning, I’m not so impressed by.

Yesterday the Adelaide Advertiser ran an article online titled “Two in three parents want the school day extended, SA Association of State School Organisations survey finds.”

‘Well, is that so?’ I thought to myself and clicked the link  to see what kind of quality reporting I might find. This is the Advertiser, remember…

So, the article basically explains that the SA Association of State School Organisations ran this survey of approximately 700 people(quite a small sample size given the many thousands of school age children in SA), 94 per cent of whom were parents, and found that a staggering 66 per cent of them wanted longer school days. There were three primary reasons for this:

  1. relieve financial pressure on families
  2. reduce the need for homework
  3. provide greater access to activities such as art, music, and sport.

Let’s unpack this a little.

Firstly, relieving financial pressure. The article states that the number of respondents who said that extending the school day would relieve financial pressure is the same as the number who place their child in Out of School Hours Care. At its crudest level, this equates to them wanting the school to provide a cheaper childminding option. What is being ignored here is the fact that the teachers who are then required (not volunteering, required) to provide the additional supervision would also come at a cost, leading to increased school fees. Not to mention that most teachers’ hourly wage would be more than that of an OSHC supervisor, so would it really be a cheaper option?

Next, reduce the need for homework. Now, I am very open to a logical discussion about the pros and cons of homework. I believe that too often it gets set for the sake of it. However, that aside, the argument that a longer school day will reduce the need for homework and therefore reduce stress makes no sense at all. The students would be spending more time at school, doing more work. A great deal of research suggests that homework is not beneficial for students so I think what is required here is not more hours at school, further exhausting already tired children and teachers (have you met a class of kindergarteners or 14 year olds at 3pm?), but an evidence-based discussion between schools and parents about the value of homework and how it is set.

The third reason in favour of longer school days was to provide greater access to activities such as art, music and sport. A valid issue that the article does raise is that a crowded curriculum and a fixation on literacy and numeracy to improve NAPLAN results means that time dedicated to the pursuit of such subjects is being squeezed out. These are subjects that encourage communication and creativity and that research suggests helps to shape our minds and make them more flexible. Lucy Clark, in Beautiful Failures, also refers to research that shows that music education is linked to positive well-being in students. Now, if this is a reason for a longer school day, or public schools offering more services, I might be able to be swayed but it would take some work because I do not believe that it can be made mandatory for all students and all staff.

So how by long did the parents who responded to this survey want the school day to be extended? Supposedly more than half wanted eight hour days, while 15 per cent wanted nine to ten hour days. Nine to ten! This, in itself, is obscene given the number of students who are already suffering anxiety and burnout. According to Beyond Blue, one in six young Australians currently experiences an anxiety condition and their greatest worries are stress and school, in that order. But sure, let’s keep them there longer…

Now, what must be noted is that the article is not one hundred per cent clear about what it means by a “longer school day.” So far I have interpreted it to be a longer instructional day, and indeed, that’s how the first part of the article and the parents’ reasoning makes it seem. It’s not until later that SAASSO’s director suggests that no-one is calling for a longer instructional day (questionable). But one of the survey’s findings was that 75 per cent of respondents wanted secondary schools to offer night classes. Now we are talking not necessarily about a longer school day for the students, but flexibility in hours. There seems to be more evidence to support this approach than the longer approach. Merrylands East Public School, in Sydney’s west has altered its school day to run from 8am to 1.15pm to ensure that students are learning at the optimum time for brain function. There is no less instructional time, but the results have been positive. There is also research that suggests most teenagers (who studies show require more sleep) would benefit from a later start to the school day. Schools such as Templestowe College in Melbourne have responded to this and operate three schedules including a 10.30am start (with a later finish). Of course logistically this would be a challenge (good luck to whoever is involved in timetabling that) but the flexibility could also be built in for the staff. Simply creating a longer school day is rigid and does not take into account the needs of many for flexibility.

As a teacher and a human being, I cannot support a mandatory extension of the school day as some parts of this article seem to be suggesting is needed. I do not believe there is any benefit in that for the well-being of students and teachers. What I could get around is a rethinking of how we structure school and approach learning to provide greater flexibility, in time, in environment and in teaching and learning style.

And on that note. Rant over for the weekend.

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‘Beautiful Failures’ – Lucy Clark

Every now and then, in the busy-ness of the term, I find myself with a very rare opportunity on a weekend to sit down and read something of my own choosing. Any teacher can tell you that that doesn’t happen often.

So when an invite appeared in my inbox to a presentation by journalist Lucy Clark, author of the recently released Beautiful Failures: How the quest for success is harming our kids, I opted to pick up a copy from my local bookstore and settled down on the couch to read. That was yesterday. I finished the book early this afternoon.

beautiful failures

Clark presents an account of the flaws in the Australian education system that are leading our children and young people to experience unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, disengagement with school and difficulty finding employment at the end of their education than ever before. This could easily have become an exercise in teacher bashing, and as someone who fakes a smile but secretly seethes each time a friend jokes (I know, they’re just joking, stop being so sensitive, right?) that as a teacher I only work from 9am – 3pm each day and am basically a glorified baby sitter, I tend to put up the defences when it comes to people who might actually be arguing that seriously.

But this piece, by Suzanne Leal at The Australian, coupled with the invitation I received convinced me that the book might be worth a read. And, boy, was it!

Clark draws on a large body of research to consider the nature of our educational system and other systems around the world and to explore how the high stakes competition and testing impacts children who, like her daughter and many others, are “square pegs in round holes”; they don’t fit the mould that the traditional educational model, dating back in many ways to the nineteenth century, imposes upon them. And because of this, they are seen as failures – the deficit is with them.

It would be the easy way out for Clark to start pointing fingers at teachers and I can already feel people bristling as they read that last sentence. Yet this is the opposite of what she does and she recognises that most teachers and principals do not see their students that way. However, Clark doesn’t pull any punches in her deconstruction of the current system’s manner of reducing students to numbers and rankings and limiting the creativity and professional agency of teachers and principals. The well-being of students is severely compromised as is that of their teachers. Curriculum is prescriptive and tests and exams carry with them the perceived threat of “not achieving in life” and sometimes the very real threat of being limited or excluded from subjects, schools, and universities. She cites incidences of higher rates of teenage self-harm and suicide in countries and areas (including Australia) where this pressure to achieve a number as determined by a set of criteria can, in the minds of many, literally define a young person. As I read through her analysis of what this competition is doing to many students, I couldn’t help but nod my head sadly. I cringe each time one of my students asks for where they ranked in the class after an assessment task, and the fact that in some places this actually gets published in black ink on their report card galls me. My heart breaks for the students who try so hard and yet see that number and perceive themselves as ‘unworthy.’ I worry as much for the straight A student in middle school whose worry – and it was a distressing one for this child – was that she wouldn’t top the class this year because of one B on a task. Clark asks, as many parents and teachers would ask, is this what education is really there for?

Clark explores the government’s powerful role in shaping the environment in which students learn. Education, she says, is like a political pawn or football that is tossed around by those in power to satisfy their own agenda, even if all research says this is to the detriment of our kids. And with the Australian government currently changing it’s Prime Minister almost as often as a pair of underpants, stable leadership in the matter and bipartisan support for projects that espouse a long-term solution is difficult to attain. One only need look at how bipartisan support for Gonski has diminished and fluctuated since the Liberal government took over under Tony Abbott to see why we manage to achieve such little change as a system.

Parents are not left out of Clark’s consideration either. She looks at how often well-intentioned parents bring their own ‘baggage’ and past experience of education to the table when it comes to the schooling of their children. There is an exploration of the “Tiger Mum” phenomenon heralding from East-Asia, the exhausting hours of coaching children are signed up for, the pressure felt by parents to get their children the ‘golden ticket’ into the most elite and selective schools, and the tendency of some parents to believe that they know best about education just because they went to school themselves. She calls for respectful partnerships between parents and schools, where the teacher is the expert in education and the parent is the expert in their child. Yes, question the teacher about how they are doing their job, she says in one chapter. As a parent you have every right because they are working with your child. But do so with respect and do not tell them how to do their job.

In a conversation on Twitter today, someone mentioned that parts of the book left them feeling quite disheartened about education, and there were times when I certainly felt the same way. But Clark shows the same compassion towards parents, teachers and principals as she is advocating for for the students who don’t fit the specifications our industrial model education system places on them.  She describes an education system that has some inherent and serious flaws and I found myself nodding my head in agreement the whole way through. Alternative solutions are offered through explorations of Finland’s high achieving, low pressure approach to education (they top the PISA rankings, consistently ahead of countries such as Korea where students could be involved in study for 16 hours a day, and are well ahead of other western countries such as Australia and the United States), Steiner education, and progressive and collaborative schools who have entirely rethought their approach to learning such as the Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney and Templestowe College in Melbourne. But I’m still left wondering, unless something revolutionary occurs at the level of government and policy, will Australia ever be able to adequately address these flaws in the system, which lead to 26 percent of teenagers not completing high school, on a national scale?

Clark’s book is conversational and engaging and I have only managed to scratch the surface of her extensive research. Despite the complexity of the issues she deals with, this is a book that is as accessible to parents and people less familiar with the inner workings of education as it is to educators. If you have the opportunity and are invested in any way, shape or form in our educational system, have a read. It may make you curious, it may make you angry, it may make you disheartened and it may make you hopeful. But it will certainly get you thinking.

 

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