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Nothing to do August 1, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, societal commentary, teaching.
Tags: , ,

As I was standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for the new checker to figure out what she was doing, I saw that Time magazine had a cover article titled The Case Against Summer Vacation. (The complete article isn’t available online unless you have a subscription to Time.)

Despite the way the title came across and some of the pictures featured kids sitting in a traditional classroom, the article itself is more balanced than I thought. It doesn’t seem to favor leaving kids in school longer but employing more summer learning programs that try to teach skills but don’t require seat work.

The article probably had the opposite effect, however, in that I was wondering why, if these programs are so effective, aren’t they utilizing the same methods during the school year?

Particularly damning, in my opinion, was a chart of data compiled by Karl Alexander at Johns Hopkins. I’ll reproduce the data here. The chart gives several countries, the number of days children spend in school, the number of total instructional hours, and average math scores for fifteen year olds in each country.

South Korea204545547
New Zealand194968522

Looking at this data, it does seem like there is a pretty good correlation between number of days spent in school and math scores (with Mexico and Brazil being notable exceptions). On the other hand, if you look at the relationship between total instructional hours and math scores, there is absolutely no relationship.

If anything, this says to me that we’re not getting a good ROI. The US has the highest number of instructional hours with middling math scores. We’re taking all this time from children and then telling they need more instruction to compete internationally? Again, this indicates a lack of effective teaching and instruction.

One thing that really bothered me was this excerpt:

Karen West, director of Corbin’s Redhound Enrichment program, says, “Eighty-eight percent of our children live in latchkey families, and we have no Boys & Girls Clubs. Really, there was almost nothing for them to do.”

This bothers me for the same reason that pictures of kids sitting in classroom with the teacher in front bother me: learning and education do not equal sitting in a classroom. There seems to be this notion that if we aren’t programming and scripting children’s every moment, they are doing “nothing” and not learning.

As a child, I would have been classified as “at risk” because I lived in a poor family, the kinds of kids that this article focuses on. However, summer was never a time where I had “nothing to do.” If I was bored, my parents always said, “You know where the library is.” I was taking care of my younger sister when I was 8 and she was 6. (Yes, I’m quite aware that’s illegal now and would certainly not expect something similar from my children.) I learned how to cook and clean. I had chores to do at home. I read books. I learned to enjoy listening to music. I drew pictures. I dug holes in the yard. I made up and wrote stories. My dad was a carpenter, so of course I became interested in woodworking. When I was a bit older, I volunteered to be a counselor in training at various day camps or would check out the local museums. And I wandered over to the library a couple times a week to find new books. Yeah, those antiquated devices that have ink and paper.

To be perfectly honest, I think the real problem is how much time is spent in school already. Kids come to understand that ‘learning’ means sitting at a desk. They come to despise books so that a trip to the library is often seen as punishment (especially when some schools won’t let them check out anything outside of their grade level). They’re so programmed that they never have time outside of school or sports or whatever to enjoy other hobbies or interests or even to learn how to deal with boredom.



1. NJS - August 1, 2010

I didn’t develop a grudge against books because of school, but I’ve always been antsy in passive lectures. I was lucky that some of my teachers recognized this and let me forge ahead at my own pace. I am also lucky that my dad is a natural engineer (GED only)–he could design and built a house if he had enough manpower to do the work–so I learned practical skills outside of school and saw their value firsthand.

Society connotes book learning with intelligence, especially in math and science, downplaying the value of experiential and artistic education. How often is someone who earns a humanities degree or apprentices as an electrician viewed as taking the easy or non-smart person way out? Even people who pursue math or science need creativity to solve new problems or solve old problems better. The traditional education system is far from perfect.

A little off topic perhaps, but it’s a pet peeve of mine.


mareserinitatis - August 2, 2010

I think that the “teach to the test” mentality has really overtaken schools, which may factor into the perception of intelligence as book learning.

It would suck being a kid these days: you have to learn and compete, everything you do is to make you a pro at something, and no, having fun is out of the question.

No wonder we’re turning into a nation of neurotic people. 🙂


2. abbireads - August 2, 2010

I’m going to argue that while people like you and me were able to find plenty of things to do as children without the benefit of after-school and summer programs, not all children have the same motivation and/or opportunity. You know as well as I do that plenty of children who, when left to their own devices, will find destructive ways to spend their time, whether it’s because that’s what they want to do, that’s what they fall into or that seems to be their only option. And not that’s not to insinuate that every kid with unstructured time will find a way to blow something up or rip someone off, but there are enough kids in “at-risk” situations who find themselves needing some structure, some guidance, some inspiration so their less-than-ideal situation doesn’t get worse.

Part of the problem with education is the mixed signals children get (the disparity between what their emphasis is at school and what their emphasis is at home, etc.). If programs are what can help give more weight to the importance of learning and responsibility, if through them children can learn to be independent learners or at least learn that they have options and that there people who want them to succeed, then I’m all for an after-school or summertime program. We can’t just say, “I did it this way and for that reason you should be able to, too.”

A friend of mine and I have been talking a lot about the Harlem Children’s Zone lately (http://www.hcz.org/home) and the work they’re doing there to reimagine 100 blocks of Harlem and give families the tools to build better lives for themselves and for their children. The total package here — that education begins at home, that it’s linked to nutrition and health and healthy families, that kids need support to succeed — is absolutely amazing. It’s an organization that says that a latchkey program isn’t enough — the community’s attitudes have to change too.


mareserinitatis - August 2, 2010

Oh, I got in trouble when I was a kid, too. But I also learned constructive things to do with my time. I think any kid is naturally going to have a little of both, although the bookworms may stir up less trouble.

Unfortunately, I think people spend so much time worrying about kids causing trouble that they never give kids a chance to do anything, and this is a major problem. If we never let them figure out how to deal with anything until we turn them loose as adults, they will go into the world completely unprepared. It’s like society has become a monstrous helicopter parent and depriving kids of the opportunity both to cause trouble but also learn how to handle things the right way.

I actually agree that many of the programs they talk about are really great for the kids. But it’s funny to read comments like, “You can teach physics with a basketball,” made in reference to one of the programs when no one in a regular school would go for it. And yet, I imagine it does the kids a lot more good and stays with them longer.

Yes, there definitely needs to be a change in mindset. No argument there. As cliche as it may be, it takes a village to raise a child well.


3. Fluxor - August 2, 2010

I have a problem with how the number of “instructional hours” are reported for Korea and Japan. A good deal of children in both of these countries are subjected to after school tutoring in math and English, where the amount of unofficial schooling in these topics may exceed those received at school.

This doesn’t change any of your conclusions, but this is just in case someone was thinking that the East Asian educational model is something to look up to.


mareserinitatis - August 2, 2010

Agreed. Some of those kids will sit in various programs until midnight, then have to get up at 6 a.m. to go to school the next morning. They’re also extremely focused on ‘testable’ areas and aren’t nearly as diverse in topic matter as what is done in most US schools. But there are other places where they don’t do that and the kids don’t seem to be any the worse for it.


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