Bob Myer, writing at American Thinker, says that, faced with flat-lining student performance, American schools are thinking about making the school day longer. He doesn’t think that’s a good idea, and neither do I. Bob’s reasons focus on the very limited potential benefit conferred by extending a kids’ school day to the length of a parent’s work day (turning the school into a perfect, albeit potentially dangerous, babysitter for working parents). As he points out, kids are already being drilled to death as is, and adding more drills may break a whole lot of little camel backs:
By attempting to use extended days to improve test scores, governments may very well practice test students out of learning all together. Students already spend an inordinate amount of time practicing, taking and reviewing federally, state, and locally mandated standardized tests. Any person who asks his or her local high school just how many class periods this takes will probably be shocked. Imagine tossing an extra two or three hours of test preparation a day on top of that. Learning how to test is mind-numbingly boring for students and teachers. It tends to stifle creativity and focuses on number-based outcomes – usually measured in school and district passing percentage.
You can read the rest of the article here to see a whole lot of other, solid reasons for opposing this trend.
As for me, I have what is probably a very radical suggestion, but I’m going to make it anyway: How about if, instead of making the school day longer, we actually make it better? In a long article I wrote for American Thinker, I had some ideas about how to teach kids how to learn, instead of just stuffing them with facts. My article mostly focused on math, an area in which I urge educators to start teaching the “why” of things as a predicate to teaching the “how” — a method that would abandon the boring and often pointless use of bite-size pieces of meaningless abstractions that we currently use to stuff our kids full of mathematical factoids and formulas.
Having done a decent amount of volunteer work with 4th grade students learning English, I’ve also come to the conclusion that, if we completely reevaluate the arts and craft factor in American education, we could make the school day vastly more efficient and, for the children, surprisingly more interesting. Let me begin at the beginning.
When those of us over 40 were in school, education was strictly a verbal thing. We read our books, or listened to our teachers, and then wrote reports. That was it. This system worked pretty darn well for me, because I’m an extremely verbal person, but it definitely shut out people who are less verbal, and who are more comfortable communicating through imagery. I don’t quarrel at all with this proposition, but I do quarrel with the mechanical and pointless way in which the truism about “different people learning differently” has been implemented in America’s public schools.
Nowadays, every assignment, from kindergarten on through community college seems to have a mandatory art component in it. Children don’t just read a book about a famous historical figure, they’re required to make a puppet of that figure. Community college students aren’t just told to learn a subject and give an oral report, they’re required to fill a poster board with “x” number of illustrations. Everything has to have an arts and craft component to it.
The problem with this whole arts and crafts focus, though, is that it sidesteps thinking and analysis — and that’s not the fault of arts and crafts per se, it’s simply how our educational systems use them. Take the fourth grader told to give a report on a historical figure and required to accompany that report with a puppet. I saw this approach in my child’s class, and could not discern a pedagogical reason for it.
First off, it was obvious to me that many of the puppets were Mom’s work product, not the child’s. Second, the puppets had no manifest relationship to the learning that was supposed to take place about the historical figure. Taking a paper bag, drawing a face on it, and announcing that it’s Marie Antoinette or Louis Pasteur is not a learning experience — it’s just time-consuming busy work. Likewise, to read a book and then be told to draw a picture of the title character invariably results in the children simply copying the cover illustration — something they lavish time on without gaining any insights into the book itself.
In other words, the assignments are so trite, and so focused on play over thinking, that they’re boring. The children yak away as they work because their brains aren’t engaged, and they have absolutely no understanding of or appreciation for what they’re doing. It’s draw the picture; fill in the blanks; do the fancy lettering; fill in the blanks; draw the picture; ad nauseum. They’re programmed to complete the task with no interest in actually knowing what they’re doing or taking away anything from their effort. It’s just sad. My bet is that a longer school day would simply see the teachers fill time with ever more of these pointless, but mildly amusing, craft exercises.
Wouldn’t it make much more sense to tell the children what they need to convey, and then allow them to select the medium that best enables them to do so? For example, let’s say the children are asked to give an oral report about a famous historical figure. As a teacher, the sensible thing to do to maximize each child’s strength would be to tell the children what your analytical expectations are, and then to allow them to use their own problem solving to figure out a vehicle to fulfill those expectations.
Under the above model, the assignment would be: “You are to give a ten minute oral presentation about a famous historical figure. You will be expected to tell us about the person’s childhood, what made that person famous, and what lessons we can learn from his or her fame. You can write out your report, write a poem, do a puppet show, write a play, draw pictures, or pick any other way that you believe will best help you make your presentation.” The teacher would explain her basic requirements, of course, so that a child could not simply appear with two stick figures, announce that they’re Ferdinand and Isabella, bow and sit down again. My approach, rather than having children treat school projects as mere coloring books, forces them to think about their material, really think about it and, at the same time, allows them to use their imagination, and play to their strengths.
This approach applies as easily to adults students as to children. My sister, who has been taking community college classes in biology and geology, was complaining about a report she is slated to give about animals native to her community. Her problem is that the assignment forces her to cut out pictures and paste them onto poster board. She’s a very tactile person, and thinks this is incredibly limiting. Were she allowed to do so, she would bring in isolated bones and full skeletons of animals (things she’s found on her hikes), and present them to the class. Her presentation, rather than having people listening to her just “blah blah” along, while pointing to pictures printed off the internet, would allow her fellow students to feel 3-D representations of the animals about which she speaks. In that context, the pictures she’d inevitably bring in would simply add more depth to an interesting report. She’d be engaged and so would her audience. As it is, she’s already bored by her assignment, and focusing almost entirely on the mechanics, instead of the material.
One last anecdote to make my point: When I was in college, many moons ago, I took an art history class on medieval Flemish painters. The teacher was a dynamic man who made the subject truly fascinating. My already strong interest in this painting style grew by leaps and bounds. Then came the horrible day when he announced the term paper: we were to compare and contrast the painting styles of the two leading medieval Flemish painters: Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden. The moment he mentioned this typical, trite, robotic assignment, my brain instantly went into a paralysis of boredom. Fortunately, there was still enough of me left active to hear his addendum: “You can demonstrate your knowledge of these stylistic differences any way you please — an essay, for example, or a play. Heck, you can even write a poem.”
That evening, as I sat in my kitchen, I really, really thought about the two painters, and everything he taught us about them. Words started crowding into my mind, and I suddenly was on fire, compulsively writing a long poem that carefully (and, I think, colorfully) set out every single thing the teacher had taught us about these painters and their individual approaches to art. In other words, his open-ended assignment sparked me to do the only piece of truly creative work I’ve ever done in my career as a student, a lawyer, a mother, anything. It’s long, but just for my own entertainment, and so that the project I’m most proud of can see the light of day, I’ve published it as a part of my blog. You can check it out here, just for fun. (And what’s even more fun is that, with hyperlinks, you can see which pictures I was thinking of as I wrote these verses.)
So, let’s not make the school day longer, with ever more time for posters and drawings, and other busy work. Let’s teach the students well, and unleash their innate creativity so that they can dive into and enjoy their subjects. And, as I know from my poem, they can remember forever the lessons they were taught.