Shorter break doesn’t mean more learning

The Ministry of Education should be less focused on how many hours of teaching take place and more on what actually happens during those hours.

The current plan to shorten the summer vacation by a week has some powerful advocates, and some equally serious opposition. But I believe that the entire discussion, well-intentioned as it is, may altogether miss the most important points about educational reform.
The most famous proponent of keeping students in school longer is social commentator Malcolm Gladwell, who devoted an entire section of his book Outliers to examining the disadvantages that American students have over Asian students, building on the presumed connection between student rankings in math and the number of hours they spend in school. Gladwell advances the idea that mastery is a direct function of hours in practice. His famous “10,000 hours” theory, according to which genius is not a function of genetics, but rather a result of 10,000 hours of practice at key moments in one’s life – a theory that he applies to the Beatles and Bill Gates with equal trouncing – has received an inordinate amount of attention.
He proposes a series of actions, including more homework, longer school days, and of course shorter vacations (which he deems mostly wasteful and meaningless). He also argues that math is easier in Chinese than in English because the Chinese words for numbers are shorter, but he thankfully stops short of suggesting that all schools study math in Chinese.
AT THE other end of the spectrum are the growing parent movements that oppose the impositions made by schools. The no-homework movement, for example, basically says that family time free of school (e.g., August) has tremendous value – at least as much as school, if not more so.
Indeed, they say schools are already overly interfering with home life.
Cutting short the summer holiday is a horrifying imposition on the already limited time for family bonding.
For the anti-homework crowd, schools already have enough time with children to be able to accomplish whatever learning needs to get done in the time allotted. If they are incapable of doing that, it’s because of bureaucratic and educational incompetence, not because they need more hours with the children.
Homeschoolers take this idea even further. The homeschool claim is that the amount of learning that takes a classroom teacher a week to transmit can be accomplished in a fraction of the time with effective teaching, as is done at home.
Homeschoolers and “unschoolers” see schools as wasteful industries, where children are pushed through an assembly-line of artificial structures, like busy-work, mindless assignments, quizzes and tests – not to mention the extortionate amount of resources and energy spent on “discipline” – a euphemism for convincing active little bodies to be quiet and motionless and listen attentively.
For homeschoolers, who often find themselves in the school system because, in Israel, homeschooling is pretty much illegal, this feeling of children’s natural development being invaded by the school system will only be exacerbated by the knowledge that the freedom of August is about to be overrun by more school.
Still, the Gladwellers are armed with study after study decrying the decline in Israeli students’ test scores in math and science – studies that foresee a future economic catastrophe due to an improperly trained workforce. They see homeschoolers as anything from annoying to delusional to bad parents. The job of the school, the Israeli version of this goes, is to extinguish the kind of selfserving, spoiled pampering that comes from parents who think their children’s lives are supposed to be interesting and fun. Schools are there to produce citizens who can master math, science and English – oh, and okay, a few values as well; sure, that’s very nice. Parents who fail to instill the proper discipline in their children are the bane of the schools’ existence. Schools are there to transmit knowledge, and the more hours they have for that, the more effective they are.
WITH ALL due respect to Gladwell and the Ministry of Education, I think they are missing the point. There are many reasons why Israeli schools are becoming less and less effective at educating – not only in math and science, but also in morality and social consciousness – and I don’t really think that one more week in August is going to miraculously fix the problem.
The primary reason is that most schools spend a disproportionate amount of time doing discipline instead of education. Ask any high-school teacher how much of his or her energies are spent on “controlling” the classroom, on telling students to be quiet, on punishments, on disciplinary meetings and phone calls to parents, and the answer will be astonishing. Walk through the halls of any school any day of the week, and the amount of yelling going on will be shocking. The Israeli school system is dominated by teachers screaming at students. This is the great truth that everyone dances around. Teachers blame parents for this, parents blame teachers, and administrators smile and sweep it all under the rug. But the school system, for all its hours with children, does very little educating; it’s mostly power struggles between teachers and students.
The real reform that Israeli schools need is not in bureaucratic structures and decisions, but in teaching methods. The Israeli school system is easily 20 years behind the rest of the western world, if not more, when it comes to pedagogy. Israeli teachers have not even begun to think about many of the issues that were in vogue when I received my teaching certificate in New York State over 20 years ago. Issues such as teacherstudent relationships, promoting mutual respect, active listening, differentiated instruction, effective discussions and more – not to mention more recent thinking about using technology to advance learning rather than fight over cellphones and Wikipedia; these have not even begun to enter Israeli educational discussions. Israeli schools still think that sitting up in straight rows is the correct way to learn, when that idea has been dispelled ages ago.
Teachers themselves barely know how to have a discussion that involves listening – an unfortunate fact that I learned from five years of teaching Israeli teachers. To talk about learning styles and learning stations with Israeli educators is about as effective as teaching math in Chinese. Israeli educators give close to zero thought to educational methodology and pedagogy. They tend to think that if they can “control” the students, then students will listen, and they equate listening with learning. These are fundamental mistakes, and overwhelm the school system.
The Ministry of Education should be less focused on how many hours of teaching take place, when and where, and more focused on what actually happens during those hours.
There is more to education than knowing when to ring the bell.
The writer is a researcher and consultant specializing in education, gender and organizational development.
She holds a doctorate in education from Hebrew University.