As June creeps along at what likely seems a snail’s pace to many kids anxious for summer holidays to begin, the thorny question gets raised again about whether or not a shorter —or perhaps longer— academic year would help improve student learning and development. And more and more, educators are coming around to the conclusion that Canada’s two-month-long summer break is part of the problem.
“Yah, I think school is too long,” says Maria, a grade six student at Mutchmor Public School in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood. “They should give us three months off for the summer instead,” she says, expressing a familiar sentiment for this time of year.
But what if in reality the July-August break was doing more harm than good? That’s the premise behind the year-round school, which looks at the question of how many school days and instructional hours should be in an academic year and says that maximizing the number isn’t as important as spreading the days out more evenly.
In education, less is sometimes more
While it seems almost a truism that devoting more time to any activity will bring more reward, the complexities of schooling, it seems, make that principle not so easily applied.
Take the international rankings for academic success. The PISA rankings (Programme for International Student Assessment, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) track academic performance for 72 OECD countries, and in 2015, the most recent results gave Canada high marks, putting Canadian 15-year-old pupils above the OECD average in the core areas of math, reading and science and giving them an especially high result in science, where Canada tied with Finland for fourth best score behind Singapore, Japan and Estonia.
Yet, when it comes to compulsory hours of instruction, Canada is well above the OECD average of 791 hours for primary education and 907 hours for lower secondary schooling, while other top-achieving countries like Finland, Japan and Estonia all have their kids in class for less than the OECD average. It appears that less can be more in education, if done right.
“Instructional hours are a fairly simplistic and blunt tool for measuring success,” says Dr. Greg Thomas, Professor of Science Education in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, in conversation with Cantech Letter.
“A lot rides on what you think schooling is all about,” says Thomas. “If you’re concerned with results on standardized tests, maybe instructional hours are important, but if you have broader aims for education such as developing traits like teamwork, creativity and flexibility in students, things that employers most often value, in fact, then increasing the length of the school day isn’t always going to be that helpful.”
How do the Finns do it?
Finland is often held up as a shining example of how to provide smart, effective teaching in a shorter timeframe, the observational consensus being that a strong program of continual instruction and pedagogical training for teachers makes a big difference for the Finns, as does a premium put on learning experiences outside of the classroom. But a cultural belief in the importance of giving children playtime — and in making sure that everyone takes full advantage of precious summer days in their northerly climate — make for a Finnish society not at all anxious to up the hours of class time for their children. In fact, in comparison to Canada’s average of 190 days per school year, Finnish schools are teaching for often less than 165, with multiple holidays sprinkled throughout the school year.
In a report on Finland’s model, Mika Risku, Director at the Institute of Educational Leadership at the University of Jyväskylä, spoke to school heads and members of local education boards and put to them the question of increasing school hours. “They did not want to extend the number of school days or lessons,” says Risku. “For primary school pupils, they wanted to have more playful extra-curricular activities and were happy this has been one of the focus areas of the ministry of education and culture and the National Board of Education in recent years.”
At the same time, there is some evidence that more teaching can produce higher yields. In the United States, the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, a network of state funded charter schools, are well-known both for their long school days — averaging 1,700 hours per academic year in comparison to a national average of 1,170 hours — and their ability to consistently outperform other public schools in academic achievement.
Cutting out the summer lag in continuous learning
Overall, though, and perhaps to the dismay of number-loving advocates for education reform, there is no hard and fast rule which says that more hours means better learning. Cantech Letter spoke with Dr. Charles Pascal, Professor of Applied Psychology & Human Development at the University of Toronto, who said that the research on the number of instructional hours in the day has come back with “an unequivocal maybe.”
“The problem is that it’s difficult to control for all of the variables,” says Pascal, “but what we do know is that it’s not really the addition of time that necessarily helps but the more effective use of teaching hours that creates better learning outcomes.”
To that end, Pascal supports what he sees as a growing trend in education worldwide: year-round instruction. “We’ve kept summer vacations quite long because of our agrarian heritage, but it interferes with the goal of providing a continuous opportunity for the student to apply their learning,” says Pascal.
New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Korea are just a few of the countries that use a more spread out, year-round school year, the aim being to give students shorter one- or two-week-long breaks throughout the year, enough for them to recharge their batteries but not so long that they cause a significant dip in academic progress. “That time in-between blocks of learning is crucial,” says Pascal. “There’s a problem if they’re too long.”
About 150 public schools in Canada currently operate on a more year-round schedule, starting in August and ending in late June. “Kids retain more,” said David Tran, a Grade 6 teacher at Roberta Bondar Public School in Brampton, Ontario, to CBC News. “The breaks are not long enough that they forget classroom expectations, school expectations. So they’re ready to learn immediately after the breaks.”
In fact, kids (after the initial shock, we imagine) report enjoying the more regular breaks in the school year, while for teachers, the approach seems to be better for their health and well-being. According to a study at Spul’u’kwuks Elementary in Richmond, BC, a year-round school, teachers used an average of 1.2 fewer sick days than their colleagues at traditional calendar schools over a four-year period.
Spul’u’kwuks teacher Renata Hyrman told the Tyee in a 2012 article that the wellness benefits of year-round schooling can translate into huge savings for school boards, too. “I think there’s millions of dollars to be had,” she said, “if we can take teachers and all of their assorted adult support staff and give them regular breaks, better breaks.”
One of the only groups likely not enthused by year-round schooling? “Camps,” says Pascal, “Summer camp operators are probably not happy with the idea.”