Monday, October 24, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high-school, it’s a wonder I can think it all,” goes the opening to Paul Simon’s lyric Kodachrome.

It’s a common enough complaint, especially from disgruntled recent school-leavers. “Why did they fill us up at school with all those impractical and useless things that have no bearing on the job I hope to get, or the way I live in this world?” Push the argument a little further, and you get strictly vocational and utilitarian ideas about education. “Forget about widening kids’ perspectives. Just get them ready for the marketplace of jobs. Those who want culture can find their own way to it after they leave school.”

But when I ask “Are schools a waste of time?”, I’m thinking just the opposite. After twelve years in the school system as a pupil, and a further twenty-five years as a secondary school teacher, I ask why schools waste so much time that could be more fruitfully devoted to real academic learning. I am appalled, not only at the functional illiteracy and innumeracy of so many school-leavers, but at their lack of cultural capital. I make this comment after some additional years of university teaching, where I have met fresh undergraduates who do not know the most basic facts of history, society or culture.

“Oops, sorry. No, I don’t know when the Second World War ended.”
“Date of the Treaty of Waitangi? No, you’ve got me there.” This from New Zealand Stage One History students who, let’s admit it, are supposed to have a livelier interest in History than the general population.
I know whenever you talk about school education in New Zealand, you have to factor in each school’s decile ranking. Not all kids have the same advantages. It’s totally unrealistic to compare an upper-middle-class state school in a leafy suburb, where the parents are professionals, businesspeople and academics, with a working class state school in a raw suburb, where the parents are lucky to have jobs at all or sole or on welfare benefits. (And note how I carefully avoided mentioning either ethnicity or private schools.).

I understand that any complaints about education in New Zealand quickly get mired in sociological analysis and those defensive statements about how well New Zealand does in literacy compared with other similar countries. 
I’m aware of all this, but I’m not mollified.

I’m still appalled at how much time of the average high-school day is pure waste, and how little real learning takes place.

Consider this. In general terms, classes run from about 9am to about 3pm.and the day is divided into five of six teaching periods. Six hours. Subtract the necessary time for morning recess and a lunch break. You now have five hours. Subtract the time pupils are moving between classes. It’s down to four-and-a-half hours. Now factor in the time classes take to settle in to each period, and the fact that (even in well-run schools) much of a teacher’s time will be taken up with controlling a class as much as teaching it. Even assuming that classes are not particularly unruly, a real school day will probably have an hour or two of real teaching and learning in it. By this I mean an hour or two in which pupils are being instructed or are working in a meaningful way. This will apply only to the more orderly and focused schools. I know (because I have visited them) that there are high schools whose main purpose is social control – a holding-pen to keep kids off the streets and give them perhaps a minimum of social skills before they have to be released. In such schools, virtually no academic learning happens at all and we have the phenomenon of 17-year-olds who can barely read or write.

Then there are the regular interruptions and “entertainments” that bite into even the minuscule real teaching-and-learning time that is available. Travelling road-shows (often government-sponsored social propaganda) supposedly preparing kids for real life by telling them about road-safety, brushing their teeth, racial harmony etc. Doubtless well-intentioned but (as I’ve observed in numerous schools) generally not making a blind bit of difference to pupils’ real patterns of behaviour (At best, such shows might reinforce the behaviour of the kids already well-disposed to what is being said, but for the mass of pupils they are simply a diversion from classroom time. “Hope this lasts until the Maths period ends!”).

Then there are special assemblies for sports-stars, illustrious former pupils etc. Plus the fact that most secondary schools have a wind-down time towards the end of each term when teachers are marking exams papers (in the schools that have exams) or otherwise allowing pupils to “revise in class” etc. etc.

When we consider that the average school year has between ten and twelve weeks of holidays in it, we are looking at between 40 and 42 weeks of school.

Okay, let me be generous. Let me ignore the interruptions, wind-downs etc., and assume that, five days per school week, the better secondary schools are delivering one-and-a-half hours of teaching and learning per day. That’s seven-and-a-half hours per school week. Multiply this by 40 (remembering that I’m being very generous in this calculation) and that make 300 hours of real learning per year. That’s ten 5-day 6-hour-day weeks. Add in the necessary recess and lunch break. We get 350 hours, or eleven-and-a-half 5-day 6-hour-day weeks.

So every school year, your kids are getting the equivalent of just over eleven weeks of real teaching and learning. And that’s in the better secondary schools. For the other 27-and-a-half school weeks of the year, they are basically wasting their time.

You see that I can work up quite a head of steam when I discuss this subject. I could go further and add rude comments about the low level of academic expectations; the lousy second-rate novels that students are asked to study in English classes because they are easy or fashionable or preach a currently-acceptable message, while real literature is ignored; the creeping dumbing-down of syllabuses (or syllabi if you’re a Latinist) etc. etc. But I think I’ve made my point.

And, of course, I can also spot the radical flaw in my whole argument.

I am not Mr Grandgrind at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, who (like a true utilitarian) thinks of children as empty receptacles into which knowledge can be poured. (“Facts, sir, what we want are facts!”) This is the perceptual  trap of many pushy parents. I can understand the impulses of home-schooling parents, especially if they can’t afford to send their kids to private school or want their kids to avoid an especially noxious local state school. Home-schoolers are on the right track if they realize that the average high-school day is poorly-conceived and  badly used.

But I have read enough theory and have enough experience to know that the school day cannot be an endless academic pushing of students. Not only do individual kids work at different rates, but all kids (indeed all human beings) require a pattern of alternating relaxation and effort to learn anything, to take anything in or to be instructed. The breaks, pauses and times of sanctioned goofing-off are absolutely necessary to the process.

Also schools, as I’m sure somebody has been itching to say up to this point, are as much about socialisation as they are about formal academic learning. Sharing activities with other adolescents, having fun, learning to get on with other people and learning to cooperate are as much what schools are about as formal learning. I do not advocate a race of repressed swots, child geniuses who have learned theory but know nothing of people, “peer-group isolates” and other horrors. From my school-teaching years I can recall times of watching kids playing happily in the playground during breaks, and reflecting that for many of them this would be the best thing that would happen to them in the whole school year.

I take all this on board in full consciousness.

And still I think that much of schooling is a waste of time.


  1. Yes, secondary schools are a waste of time and everything that you have said makes sense. But they are still a necessary part of life, and there are many things in life that are considered to be a waste of time. Most of what I do in my job can be considered a waste of time but it gives me money. Likewise, secondary school education involves a lot of goofing off but the socialisation is the result.

  2. I am anonymous B. My view is similar to anonymous A, above. I will, however, add this: I teach kids at university and the majority of their lectures are two hours long. To be precise, this is two fifty minute back to back sessions. After the first 20-30 minutes, I can see their eyes glaze over. Very little goes in afterwards. My point is that very few people will be able to learn for sustained periods of time. The idea that a student could learn for six hours a day is impossible. I don't blame them as I think that it is the human condition. I certainly can't focus my attention for more than half an hour without needing some sort of break.

  3. I am Anonymous C. I wonder if our school system releases students into specialisation too soon, Naturally one would not expect a science inclined student to take arts subjects right through tertiary stages or an arts inclined student to take sciences at tettiary level , even if increasingly tertiary studies can include elements of arts in science courses and applicable science in arts courses.
    My general complaint would be that elements that you would expect in the knowledge of a 'generally well-rounded, educated person' can be missing. There should be no excuse for anybody emerging from secondary and tertiary education being generally ignorant about New Zealand history, for example. Yet I have met many erudite people who still say "I don't know. I didn't do history at school".

  4. I am Spartacus, but you can call me Anonymous D.
    I've often thought that the Primary School system is actually much more successful at teaching than the secondary school system. By having one teacher for a full year, the classes can be adapted to the mood of the kids. Sure it might have been a bad thing that one of my teachers would threaten Maths if we didn't settle down. But on the other hand English and reading were seen as the prize topics to be focused on if we were very good.
    This is why learning standards in primary school could actually result in a drop in education standards. The more strict a timetable the teachers need to adopt, the more difficult it will be to fit the lessons to the mood of the students.

  5. Schools have been described as sausage factories, which I take to mean that all those fed in at one end will emerge with their minds standardised or looking the same. But I prefer the summation of schools as places where one learns in order to earn.

  6. Learning in order to earn does not necessarily make for a well rounded or fulfilled person. It is a shame that few schools teach art/music appreciation for their own sake and literature is, as Nicholas Reid says, usually easy and dumbed down. My experience of over 20 years at a high school was that one lazy teacher used the same novel for his classes year after year. If the students weren't bored by it you can bet the teacher was which surely made for dull uninspiring lessons.

  7. Knowledge is sush a thing it never stolen by thief and how much you will distribute it ,that will increase never decrease .
    And secondary education plays a very important role about this..... jamesweggreview

  8. I do not dissent from from what everybody else has said above concerning aims and content of formal courses right through from primary to tertiaryy. Having been fortunate to have had people I regard as outstanding teachers I have reached the conclusion that the best thing is not only when education convinces you certain subjects and areas are so interesting you want to investigate them for the rest of your life, but most of all it shows you how to learn and teach yourself.