The best time of day


When my kids get home every day, I ask them, “How was school?” but the only thing I really want to hear about is recess. Just like when I was a kid, it’s still the best time of the day.

All around us, education is changing, but for far too many students, far too much of school remains a bore. All around us, reforms are being rolled out, and problems are being debated, but for students, the reforms are largely invisible, the changes aren’t addressing the biggest problems they face, and the solutions seem unlikely to improve their lives.

The Common Core promises to bring more complex thinking, and different tests. Race to the Top pledges to rid our classrooms of ineffective teachers, and No Child Left Behind is still whining like a toothless, stray dog, slobbering all over any school unfortunate enough to be housed in a state that can’t get a waiver, but largely ignored by everyone else.

Meanwhile, bullying, anxiety, and depression might be getting worse, and certainly aren’t going away. Childhood obesity has doubled in the last thirty years. And the population is changing, meaning that more and more students are learning English as their second or third language, and more and more students are growing up in poverty.

And those are probably not even the biggest problem students face.

The biggest problem is already upon us, yet, like a boat in mid-ocean under the crest of a tsunami, we have no idea of the powerful force we are riding.

In the next twenty years, according to an Oxford study, 47 percent of the jobs that people do now will be automated.  That’s right. Half of all jobs will be gone.

Bank tellers and receptionists – already gone. Next up might be truck drivers – the technology for driverless cars is almost perfected. Even accountants or doctors – computers can diagnose fraud or illness by sifting through reams of data.

Machines can do all the rote stuff better and faster than people. This may be great when it means robot vacuum cleaners, but it also means schools need to change a lot more and a lot faster.  But how?

MOOCs, iPads, and broadband in every school? I doubt technology will save the day. Teacher evaluation and value-added models? Better evaluation might help if it’s done right, but there seems little reason to believe that these changes are being made thoughtfully. Common Core? Something tells me new standards and tests won’t get us there, and won’t capture the imagination of students or adults.

So here’s an idea that just might be a better and more magical bullet, to help us with not just this drastic need to increase kids’ creativity, but with all those other problems: obesity, depression, anxiety, and even implementing the Common Core.

Increase recess. Drastically. How about two hours a day?

Kids would get lots of unstructured, but safe and supervised play. Kids are getting less and less of this type of play, and experts are accumulating more and more evidence that it is important to developing creativity (constructive boredom can force kids to come up with their own amusements), strengthening critical thinking (young kids intuitively know how to think scientifically, but lose this ability as they grow up), improving social skills (children learn to be aware of others’ needs in order to keep the game going), and building mental health (freely chosen play is a testing ground that allows children to develop confidence). And the benefits for physical health almost go without saying.

Teachers need recess, too – unstructured time to meet together, plan, and grade. More time to plan and collaborate is desperately needed, especially with the new demands of implementing the Common Core. It’s hard to imagine how we can significantly improve student learning without significantly improving teaching, and for teachers to get better, they need more time to plan lessons, reflect on their practice, and analyze student work. And perhaps they wouldn’t have to carry so much work home.

And parents would get a school schedule that more closely maps onto their work schedules.

We can do something about a lot of big problems, and we can do it by doing something that will be incredibly popular: extending the best time of day.

Teacher unions might worry that districts and principals would steal that time back from them and force them to attend unhelpful PD and meetings.  Lawyers might worry that more recess accidents would increase liability risks. But those are small problems, and they can be solved. If we don’t do something about this big problem soon, we might soon find ourselves living in the worst of times.


2 thoughts on “The best time of day

  1. Right on, Mr Schaaf! When teaching high school in South Korea, the students spent long hours at school, a good portion of it unstructured. I witnessed an amazing self-discipline in these particular students as a whole during these times. They would work on class projects, practice songs, study and sleep. There was some goofing off, but as you proposed it was in a safe and supervised environment. Learning how to manage free time wisely is a huge and important skill. My daughter’s school is currently considering adding on an aftercare program to accommodate working parents. I believe this extended school day is already coming – I like your call to embrace it!!!

  2. This is a seemingly simply idea with potentially profound consequences. It flies in the face of so much of education reform these days, which emphasizes more and more structured “time on task,” more and more time in the classroom, more and more boredom. But these reforms (and the reformers who propose them) seem to forget what it’s like to be a kid and how real learning happens. Open, unstructured time gives kids (and adults) a chance to explore on their own and discover unexpected things.

    When I taught school in the Mississippi Delta, our principal took recess away from our elementary school students (there already was no PE, music, or art) because the test scores were too low and she wanted them to be in class more. Result? The kids and teachers went stir crazy!

    Strangely enough, I also taught in South Korea (like the previous poster), and she’s right. For all the talk about Korean kids being in school longer, there’s little mention of the unstructured, unsupervised time that they and their teachers have each day. Most teachers are in class for 20 hours a week; the rest of the time, they are expected to be planning and working with other teachers. Teachers do not stay in their own classrooms, isolated from everyone else; instead, the kids stay in the classrooms (by themselves much of the time) and the teachers have shared, grade-wide offices so that they can see and work with their colleagues for several hours a day.

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