Give the kids a break: The myth of ‘maximised learning time’

Occasionally I read a piece of education research and say to myself “I wish I’d done that”.

Research reported today, led by Ed Baines from UCL’s Institute of Education, exploring the reduction of break time in English schools is just such a piece.

Baines’ work on children’s social life in and outside school,  struck a chord with me as both researcher and ex-teacher with over 15 years’ experience of teaching in challenging secondary schools in London and Nottingham.

This research highlighted something I have experienced myself as a teacher – a reduction in the amount, and duration, of break time, a similar reduction in the duration of lunch times, and for me a term which still makes me feel positively unwell – ‘split lunch’.

The reduction of break times signals a far deeper reorientation of what school is and for. Stephen kemmis talks of the tensions between schooling and education.

In many ways, these tensions are encapsulated in Baines’ report.

Schools are about ‘schooling’ – passing examinations – not about ‘education’ – learning to be us.

The pressure put upon Head teachers and their staff to evidence their effectiveness through indicators of schooling is immense and increasing. Little wonder then, that in an attempt to improve schooling they rely upon increasing the context where schooling supposedly takes place – lessons.

Of course, there is only so much time in the day so if lessons get longer, breaks must get shorter.

The folly of this logic has always been apparent to me.

From my first teaching job in the East End of London, to the Lisson Green and Paddington estates of central Westminster, to the Forrest Fields of Nottingham I always enjoyed break duties. I really did.

I found beak duties – and interacting with the kids during their breaks through leading clubs – vital in developing relationships.

The relationships built with some of the ‘characters’ who came to my lunchtime basketball clubs were deep and special.

The trust and respect which was built stayed with me and these young people through all the time we shared in the school and beyond. For years after, I would get a cheery “all right Sir” from one of the young people who I worked with in break times.

The simple fact though, is that it is impossible to run a club in 30 minutes at lunch and extremely difficult in 40 minutes.

However, shorter beaks do not only impact on clubs.

Attempting to ‘process’ – I cannot think of any other word – many young people through canteens in increasingly short times has huge implications.

I have seen a negative impact on the social norms of sharing food with one another. Children cram food into their mouths, discard what they do not need where they were siting and move on – leaving dinner staff with a few seconds to clear away the detritus before the next customer arrives.

I must stress, this is not the children’s fault. Nor the teachers and dinner staff tasked with policing the canteen.

Such a short time period allocated to the very social activity of eating together erodes the social norms of table manners, relaxing, chatting, laughing and enjoying the food.

I am aware I might sound a little like “it were better in my day”. This is not the case.

lunchtime in my state comprehensive was at times ‘interesting’.

Having said that, I always had a meal, I used a knife and fork, I cleared away my tray, I got to know the lunch staff (in old money ‘dinner ladies’) who knew my mum and would gleefully report back any misdemeanours real or imaginary.

This, in my view, is maximising education rather than schooling.

The febrile quest for maximum learning time is not confined to break and lunchtimes however.

In my research looking at informal learning in science clubs, I saw first hand how these clubs were changed to become examination preparation sessions.

Rather than children being able to do the science not included in the time constrained curriculum, the school leadership applied pressure on science teachers to change the focus of science clubs to course work catch up and test question rehearsal.

I witnessed the heart-breaking effects of this – heart breaking for the young passionate science teachers and heart breaking for the kids who simply stopped coming because they wanted to do science not tests.

Of course, having longer breaks does require staffing.

But in my experience – and supported by Baines’ work – the greater number of opportunities offered to students during breaks lead to positive behaviour, to reduction in obesity and to – perhaps most ironically – improved progress and attainment.

Baines signals that our young people increasingly play video games and engage in social media which are social but also solitary. Crucially, and sadly, children are less likely to visit friends with school ever more the only opportunity for social contact.

What a sad state of affairs.

The myth of ‘maximised learning time’ is just that – a myth. Young people are not robots, nor are teachers.

One of the reasons I left teaching was the urgency and power school leaders attributed to the mantra of ‘pace, pace, pace’ in lessons and that teachers must take every opportunity to maximise learning.

Baines’ work suggests that in a headlong dash for supposed improvements in our schooling, policy makers and Government have missed the point – maximising learning time does not = maximised learning.

As such, I make a simple plea – for goodness sake, give the kids a break.

Andy Clapham

Associate Professor, Nottingham Institute of Education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s