During nine years as a member of our local school board, I have seen tremendous improvements in our staff development, teaching methods and student performance. I can also sense that we are now reaching a point of diminishing returns.
It is not for lack of effort; our administrators, staff, students and parents are all focused on improving student performance. We have several initiatives and programs within our schools to help children of all abilities reach their full potential. However, there is an increasing sense of, "Now what do we do?", as if cramming more initiatives into our school day will make the difference. My instincts tell me we may need to go the other way: doing "less" might actually get us more.
Many studies recently have shown that the idea of taking a little downtime during the day can improve performance at work. By disengaging our brains from work-related activity a little more often, we give ourselves the chance to integrate information, reduce stress, enhance concentration levels, allow more creativity and ultimately produce better results. If that is true for adults, could the same be true for children?
Think of it this way: when adults need a break in their work at the office, they go to the water cooler, get a cup of coffee, chat with an office mate or log onto Facebook for a few minutes. A good stretch of the legs or a brisk walk to grab lunch or run errands is a good thing. If students do that independently when they need a break, they get detention.
It is well-established science that intense schedules and workloads increase stress. Stress increases insulin and cortisol which are directly involved in weight gain, diabetes and a host of other health problems. Mental effects include decreased concentration, shorter attention spans, and reduced problem-solving ability. The pace of our curriculum and educational standards are definitely intense - much more so than when I was in elementary school. We lament student academic performance, obesity and soaring rates of various behavioral problems, yet much of our current structure is inherently designed to drive kids straight into those patterns.
I have four children, three of whom are in school. Out of seven active hours in the day, they get approximately 20 practical minutes of lunchtime; after getting through the food line and finding a place to sit, they have 10-15 minutes to eat. Elementary school children have phy-ed class four days a week, but after organizing the kids, warming up, getting equipment, etc., they probably only get 20 minutes of dedicated physical activity. Recess counts, but again, after organizing the kids, getting on their gear and giving them time to get their gear off at the end, there isn't that much time for actual play activity.
If we added time to to the school day - say another 10 minutes at lunch, 15 at recess and 15 for phy-ed class - we would give our students time to slow down and eat properly instead of wolfing down their food, time to talk casually with their classmates about what's happening in their day and get enough physical exercise to both blow off steam AND improve their fitness levels. Teachers would also have more time to do admin work, think through and consult with their colleagues on challenges and opportunities they have, and spend a little more individual time with students who may need it.
This is just my uneducated opinion, but I believe we would gradually see drops in obesity, drops in behavioral problems and improvements in student academic mastery as well as greater workplace satisfaction for staff. And although the decision whether to lengthen the school day will eventually come down to money and paradigm shifts in thinking, I would like to at least explore the concept to see what data there might already be from other districts who are experimenting with this model.