How Much Learning Time Should There Be?

A few years ago one of those periodic major article comparing class schedules and instructional time across Canada’s provinces and territories was published in the national English language newspaper The Globe and Mail.

Discrepancies between and within the provinces can be seen — British Columbia, whose system I have had several nasty comments about, especially in terms of high school graduate competencies in basic communication, is one of the jurisdictions that puts in the least instructional time, either on a daily basis or over the course of the year — but I am loathe to just jump to the conclusion that “more time would make the difference”.

Here’s why: apparently changing from the 19th century rural life-favouring “summer off” calendar to a year-round calendar has made no real difference in student retention across holiday periods, nor in material mastered.

Again, I am not going to make too much of a point about mastery given my previously-expressed views on standardized testing, but apparently “calendars” also aren’t as much of an issue, at least in North America, as we thought.

Nevertheless, both the hours of instruction, the number of days in the year in which instruction is given, and how those are distributed throughout the year are all subjects worthy of discussion and probable revision.

Let’s be clear: Canadian and American students are falling behind their counterparts overseas in Europe and Asia.

Our educational philosophy in elementary and secondary school is not geared to the building of rapid skill execution (we no longer learn times tables and snap off arithmetic problems as we once did, for example), memorization of facts (history by the kings, wars and dates might have been boring, but one ought to have something come to mind when 1066, 1492, 1776, 1867, etc. are put forward), and organization of material for use either in life/work or in tertiary education.

Our efforts, instead, are fundamentally placed in graduate schooling, at which we excel world-wide, but at what cost in lost potential between the ages of 4 and 22 and in anyone who does not make it through to the Masters’ degree programme and beyond?

Let’s start by recognizing that the world generates knowledge at a prodigious rate: last decade it was commonly projected as doubling every 3-5 years, and that rate is certainly being maintained (there are some quality questions surrounding the impact of the Internet that I’d like to avoid, if I could, by being conservative in my doubling estimate for the 2000s).

In the 1800s and most of the 1900s, for instance, subjects such as geology, ecology and environment were specialist topics kept at the university: today, showing how plate tectonics has created environmental stressed, how ecosystems work, and how and what to read into “events” is prime preparation for citizenship, as these issues are finding their way into political discourse, and thus time must be given to them before the age of majority is reached.

Our understanding of computation and information theory — our thoughts on how languages link together and what migrations and battles in history show us about language growth and decay (if you haven’t read it, Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is eminently accessible at a secondary school level and well worth building a term on civilizational growth and decay through history around) — the list could go on and on.

In any event, we have far more to teach! — and more time would be helpful in handling that load.

In a world where generally two parents work, as well, adding more teaching days, and lengthening the school day, both would probably be positively received.

A lengthened day could be used to alternate times of structured information — what I’ll call “times of listening”, even though exercises, debates, etc. may form much of that time (it’s “listening” as the student should tune in to their internal dialogue about the material) — and times of doing — which could be music, art, phys. ed., whatever, but in any event are performance or action oriented at the core.

Handling the longer day, in other words, should not put undue stress on youthful patience! — and the alternation would allow for the productive employment of specialist teachers in these “doing” disciplines (or even in some of the specialist sciences and humanities materials) and give the core faculty much-needed down periods in the day to plan lessons, mark papers, and even kick their shoes off and enjoy a restful cup of tea away from their charges for a couple of periods each day.

(Before you say “couldn’t they bloody well put in a full work day”, you get in the classroom and put the focus required to treat each student as an individual into play, then prepare for tomorrow, and mark the assignments!)

The lengthened school year should be built around periods into which holidays can fall — it would do no one any good to have an entire province, state or country need to go on their family vacation in the same three week period!, for neither workplaces nor travel sanity would countenance it — in which those at school are working more independently and teachers are “advisors and dons”.

This would, for instance, require that students attend a minimum of four weeks out of the ten weeks of summer vacation, up to a maximum of eight.

Families could still plan lengthy family trips or take advantage of summer camp programmes for there is flexibility in scheduling both dates and durations — but meanwhile school remains open and work from the year is deepened.

Yes, the scheduling is more difficult — there are a number of computer programs that run on Macs or PCs that can do that job in a minute or two — and yes, more money will be required to pay teachers for 12 months of the year at full pay rather than for a 10 month year. It seems a small price to pay.

We may want to go further. We could abandon the idea of terms and move to much smaller modules oriented around two week durations.

A variety of modules are available in each two week block throughout the year. (Certain two week periods might be blocked out, such as Christmas, one in November for the US Thanksgiving, the first half of May in the Netherlands where many public holidays lead to just taking the whole period off, etc. but by and large the schedule is year-round.)

Modules have prerequisites. Students are free to keep taking connecting modules without regard to grades: if fire in the belly leads a student to explore mathematics, why not let them do modules that span several years’ worth of grades in one calendar year?

Teachers are hired to (as in a secondary school) teach modules: each has a portfolio of them, and offers them.

“Subject completion” is completion of either a certain number of modules in that subject area, or completion of certain terminal modules for that subject; “Graduation” is completion of a required number and breadth of “subject completions”.

Students can leave school to go to university or work with more completions if they have achieved them.

This would provide a highly flexible school structure, which allows for personalized attention and individual education plans, and one that meets the needs of the student at every step.

Likewise, modules would be offered throughout a day running from 0800 to 1700, with a requirement that students register for a minimum number of hours in the day, but not all of it. The student with afternoon sports or club activities would tend to bias toward the start of the day; the student who wants more [say, a gifted child] would possibly do a longer day; the teenager who has trouble getting up in the morning starts as late as possible within the minima, and the student who wants to accelerate out of the system can focus on the track for completions and finish early.

Again, flexibility and passion are allowed to breathe, and one school could offer many different kinds of programmes within the same core facilities, components and faculty.

Special needs? Modules for ESL (or whatever the country language is), remedial modules, all of these can be worked in.

So, too, modules that provide essential job skills — those that want to know how to handle money, do basic bookkeeping, prepare for a trades apprenticeship, etc. would easily fit into the modular approach. Students could even (by lengthening their school day) hedge their bets — and leaving options open until the passion for a particular first career is found is a good thing.

How much learning time should we have? More should be available. It should be much more modular in format (this would facilitate using eLearning to augment the options, especially in country schools where finding the faculty can often be a problem).

Likewise, more community resources — especially amongst the retired or semi-retired — could be used as “subject experts”.

With it, we can finally treat each student as an individual, following their own dynamic path. Now that’s education as it could be!



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  1. I think I will read the book you have recommended.

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