Editorial | More is more

A longer school day is good for kids, but adults must structure that time wisely

It should have come as a surprise to no-one that the government chose to end the school lockout last week and force councils to allow teachers to resume teaching. By requiring teachers to spend more time in the classroom, the government puts into place the cornerstone of its proposed school reform. If it has learned anything from the lockout, it will do this gently. 

Politically, the reform looks like a sure bet, but in the classrooms and around the dinner tables, there is less certainty about the benefits of asking children aged six to 16 to spend what amounts to three additional years at school. While extending the school day to 3:30pm isn’t revolutionary by any standard, we can understand the unease of students and teachers used to completing their school day by the early afternoon.

There is much good about the school reform, and if administrators can win the backing of teachers and parents, a longer day that combines learning and physical activity will benefit children’s learning. Decision-makers, though, should be wary of making changes as a reaction to fears that other countries – particularly in Asia – spend more time in the classroom, outperform Danish kids academically and show better discipline. This is an accurate comparison, but what it doesn’t take into account is that these countries are seeking to learn something from the Danish educational traditions of creativity and independent thought. 

With the push for a longer school day, it’s worth keeping in mind that until 1970, Danish children were required to go to school six days a week. Many of the adults from that generation will take a certain pride in recalling the rigour of their schooling, and few would doubt that a more regimented school day benefits subjects like arithmetic, spelling and history. A return to such basics would benefit many of today’s children, but it would be a mistake to assume that they can get by with only those same skills. 

It would be just as much a mistake to continue teaching under the assumption that all students will go on to the next phase of their schooling needing the same skills. A school system that makes it possible to offer both seated book learning and activity-based learning would seem to hold more potential than the current one-size-fits-all model that stifles academic excellence, marginalises vocational skills and overemphasises ‘socialisation’. 

In defending the status quo, teachers will point to research supporting their position that when it comes to learning, less time in the classroom is more. Instead of putting forward other research suggesting differently, proponents of the reform should give teachers a bit of parental advice: don’t knock it until you try it.