Do We Spend Too Much Time at School? - Margery Evans, Chief Executive Officer of AITSL, 18 August 2014.
I recently participated in Dry July with my colleagues from AITSL, so bear with me on this one. All that clean living and giving things up might just have affected my judgement.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about whether we should give up on schooling. Before the outrage starts, allow me to explain.
Recent data published by the OECD raises the question of how much time spent in school is enough. There is an expectation that, during the compulsory years of schooling, children will actually spend their days in school. On the surface, this is unremarkable and, since the inception of mass education, it has become a social norm. How many of us could imagine life without school-aged children being, well, in school?
Dig a bit deeper, though, and the data point to an intriguing bunch of variations. Across OECD countries, the average amount of time it is intended that children spend in school across their primary and secondary education is 7,751 hours. The country with the lowest total required time in school is in Hungary at 6,054 hours. The country with the highest total time in school is Australia, with 10,710 hours of required class time. That’s a big difference!
It might be assumed that achievement would be higher in countries where children spend more time in school compared with countries where children spend less time in school. Analysis of 2012 PISA data indicates that this is not necessarily the case. For example, the 10 countries where children spend the greatest amount of time in school have a mean PISA score for mathematics that is 20 points below that of the 10 countries with the lowest amount of instruction time.
Put simply, more time in class does not always lead to improved learning outcomes for students in core subjects.
In the 1970s, the Austrian philosopher, Ivan Illich, made a case for ‘deschooling’ society. Illich argued that achieving the goals of universal education through schooling is not feasible. Part of his thesis was that expanding the responsibility of schooling until, in his words, it ‘engulfs’ students’ lifetimes, would not achieve the goals of mass education. Illich’s remedy was a form of learning where students are provided with the opportunity to ‘transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring’.
Could Illich have been right? Have we been heading in the wrong direction all these years and are the data now showing us the error of our ways? There is something seductive in this argument, but I don’t think it’s time to give up on schooling just yet.
Over 40 years on, there is lots of evidence that some schools are becoming more like the hotbeds of lifelong learning that Illich envisioned. So, yes I do think it’s time we gave up outmoded, outdated forms of schooling and instead direct our efforts more purposefully to ensuring schools provide every child with a challenging and personally relevant education that supports ever more learning.
For me, the OECD analysis of time spent in classrooms indicates an ongoing need to focus on improving and even transforming our education systems and schools - not abandoning them. The OECD report itself concluded, ‘The amount of time spent in school is much less important than how the available time is spent and on which subject, what methods of teaching and learning are used, how strong the curriculum is, and how good the teachers are’.
Interestingly, the OECD’s analysis also indicates that our capacity to measure the full range of the results achieved in schools and by students is, as yet, incomplete.
No one would argue that the core knowledge and skills of literacy, numeracy and science aren’t important components of school education but they are not the entirety of what we aspire to for our children. The Melbourne Declaration emphasises that students should become confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens as well as successful learners.
Part of the reason that Australia and other countries require a higher number of hours in school is to enable teachers and communities to focus on broad learning goals. The outcomes of such learning can be less amenable to objective measurement than areas like English, maths and science, but this doesn’t mean qualities of character, creativity and communication are of lesser value.
In seeking to transform the Australian education system, I believe we should continue to place emphasis on schools playing a very important part in providing a well-rounded education that meets the diverse needs of all students.
I think this a goal worth continuing to pursue. I will be interested to hear what others think.
Photo courtesy of Winnond from Free Digital Photos