By Jonah Ruddock and Simon Li
In America, a typical school day is around 6.5 hours long. At East, school starts at 7:45 and ends at 2:45. Students have to wake up even earlier in the “bleary bruise” of the morning to catch the bus. However, this article will not focus on early start times (in fact, we already wrote a separate piece on it in issue 11). While many people propose moving start times back, they compensate for the lost time by shifting end times back as well. In our previous article, even we suggested this move. We have since realized our folly.
What students might need, along with a later school start time, is a shorter school day.
At first glance, it may sound counterintuitive—won’t students’ learning suffer with less time in school? Yet, this idea has only a veneer of credibility, evidenced by places that have already established shorter school days and have seen no impact on learning.
In Finland, for example, schools run from eight or nine am in the morning to one or two pm in the afternoon. Lessons are forty five minutes long, with a mandatory fifteen minute break between each class. As a result, the average time spent in class is just three hours and forty five minutes per day. Despite this, Finnish students consistently rank at the top of the world in science, reading, and mathematics in the programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), placing sixteenth in mathematics, seventh in reading, and sixth in science in 2018. Back when PISA was first administered, in 2000, Finnish students placed first in reading, fourth in science, and fifth in mathematics. While the Finns excel on the world stage, American students continually place abysmally: thirty-seventh in mathematics, eighteenth in science, thirteenth in reading, finishing twenty-fifth overall. (For reference, Finland finished 10th overall in 2018).
So how can the Finns manage superb education while cutting down on class times?
Instead of focusing on standardized testing, the Finns emphasize learning. There are no standardized tests (save one) in Finland; instead, independent teacher-created tests assess a student’s performance on an individual basis. Each student receives individualized learning, with only broad guidelines dictating what students should learn, and local councils adopting policies that best suit their area. Teaching to the test is non-existent; teaching to learn is what is expected. With their free time, teachers closely monitor each student’s strengths and weaknesses, develop a specifically tailored curriculum for their students, and catch those that are struggling in order to avoid leaving them behind.
Instead of stressing about exams, grades, and homework, students instead focus on and emphasize holistic learning and play. There is an old Finnish proverb about play: “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily”. Accordingly, they take it to heart. In kindergarten, students are not expected to learn how to read (it was even banned to teach students to read at one point), rather, they are expected to play. From free, unstructured play to teacher guided play, kindergarteners learn basic social, emotional, and physical skills that otherwise would have been cut for a more academic curriculum.
In response to any praise of a Nordic country’s successes, critics will argue that their population is “too small” or that their culture is “too different” for their methods to be applied to the United States. Finland, after all, only has a population of five million, while the United States has over three hundred million. Yet, Norway, another Nordic country with a similar population and culture to Finland, is equally ranked with the United States in education—coming it at twenty-third overall in 2018–and has similar educational policies as the United States. Chock full of standardized tests and other hallmarks of the American education system, it reaps the same impressive rewards. In other words, the success of the Finns is not bound to the Finns. What matters is not the country doing it, but the policies implemented.
We are of the belief that shorter school days would lead to class time to be used in more meaningful ways.
Of course, by only implementing shorter school days and keeping the rest of our education system the same, nothing major would change. With a merely shortened school day, beloved East English teacher Mrs. Lanzone commented that “I think I would definitely have to do something in terms of driving content, how I could get through the same amount of content with a shorter class period… I would definitely have to find a balance”. A broader education reform is needed; the length of our school days is merely the first step. As noted before, it is not the length of the school day but the quality and the type of education that is responsible for success in academics. Our education system might need to be reimagined in every aspect—from what we value, to how students learn, to how we sort students, to how we evaluate students. But for now, a more reasonable goal is the shortening of the school day.
In our current system, most classes evaluate learning through exams. In fact, AP courses are often structured around the ultimate goal of preparing students for the AP exam instead of teaching the content in a deep or meaningful way. Few students would be surprised to hear that experts place test-taking at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to effective ways of showing and retaining knowledge. Take, for example, the APs you finished mere weeks ago. How much of what you studied do you remember now? How much will you remember in a month? In a year? How about when you finally land that dream job? How about when your grandkids need help with their homework? How about when you’re in a climate-disaster induced bunker and are tasked with rebuilding the world’s knowledge after the burning of all the great libraries and the collapse of the Internet? (A plausible future!)
It would be more than sufficient to say that you will not.
With a shorter school day, standardized exams would become obsolete. There simply wouldn’t be enough time to force students to learn through rote memorization—leading to a transition from shallow learning to deep learning. As Mrs. Lanzone put it, “I think I would have to make sure my instruction is really meaningful, and I think I’d have to do the same thing with my homework, to make sure whatever I’m assigning has real value.” A focus on independent research, creative projects, and hands-on applications in addition to normal lectures would be the best way to make the most of class time. Students learn for the sake of learning, for the enrichment of their own knowledge, not to regurgitate the contents of what they learned onto a standardized piece of paper. Productivity, learning, attention spans, and most importantly, the willingness to learn will all be bolstered; schools can finally become a true center of learning.
Accordingly, schools may need to make sure that homework does not overwhelm students, that they can truly experience the freedom of a shorter school day, that students would have time to play while it was actually light outside.
“We need to have some kind of homework policy, because I see really quickly that some teachers would adjust to the shorter time and say, ‘Okay, this just has to end up on the cutting room floor in terms of curriculum and I have to forge ahead,’ and I think some teachers may just find a balance by pushing more of the content and curriculum to homework which could then take some of that free time away, is what I fear, but if you had more free time to spend with your family and friends, I think you’d reap infinite benefits to your mental health, and you’d get more sleep ideally, and you’d feel better prepared for your classes. I know if my kids had a shorter day, our lives would be infinitely improved,” quipped Mrs. Lanzone.
Some, however, may fear that teenagers will squander their time out of school, picturing the stereotypical high schooler that spends their free time sleeping, scrolling through social media, and languishing about. However, these behaviors are not natural and arise from sleep deprivation and burn out. After hours of school, homework, work, and extracurriculars, it makes sense that kids would seek mindless entertainment instead of conjuring up the energy required to experiment and invent. In our current school model, creativity and inquisitiveness suffers.
What would teenagers do with their increase in spare time? Yes, they will sleep, and they should. Yes, they will relax, and they should. Yes, they will play copious, blasphemous amounts of League of Legends. But it’s possible that students will also pursue music and writing, woodworking and painting. They will seek internships. They will be able to sacrifice less in order to work more, if need be. They will watch their siblings. They will read out of interest. They will organize and protest for causes they care about. They will spend time outdoors. They will volunteer for causes they feel passionate about. They will live.
While students can already do these things, they do so with the risk of damaging their sleep schedules, social relationships, and mental health. The bottom line is that teenagers shouldn’t feel like they have to fight for the time to take part in activities that make them feel human. This goes not only for students but for all workers battling a forty hour work week. The current system makes raising kids, running households, working, maintaining relationships with friends and family, and living in a way that feels meaningful–deciding how you want to spend your time on this earth and pursuing that–unnecessarily difficult.
Already, hints of change are appearing here in Williamsville. A committee with teachers from all three high schools are considering revamping the school day, according to Mrs. Schoeppich, and plan to present their ideas to the Superintendent, Dr. Darren Brown-Hall. While not directly tied to a shorter school day, the committee is advocating for a mandatory “break” period where all students and teachers are free to make up tests, meet up with teachers, study, or simply chill. Quite frankly, with the amount of courses some students elect to take in a day, a mandatory break could be needed to relax and recover. Students who miss a week or two of school because of any reason also struggle to make up work, as noted by Mrs. Lanzone, and this period would be incredibly helpful to help those students catch up.