Are Long Holidays a Good Idea?

1024px-HammockonBeachGather a group of teachers together, and there are bound to be disagreements about everything under the sun, but one thing they are likely to agree on: they need lots of time off. Because teaching is such a demanding job, because it tends to take over one’s whole life, because teachers need to spend time with friends and family and recharge their batteries . . . all very reasonable points to be sure, but how exclusive are they to teachers, and how much do they apply to hard working professionals across the board?

Don’t doctors need time to spend with their families? Isn’t nursing a very demanding job? Couldn’t managing a business tend to take over one’s life? Why is it, then, that teachers have so much more time off than other professionals? Three months off each year in the state system, and typically more in the independent sector, is a huge proportion of the year. No-one is arguing for giving other professionals this amount of holiday, but it has remained firmly in place in the teaching profession. And of course, you won’t find many teachers arguing against it.

The fact is, of course, that no-one ever sat down and worked out what would be a reasonable amount of holiday for the professions based on the varying demands of each. Such a calculation would be fraught with impossibly subjective considerations. So the traditional amount of holiday for teachers has grown up because it is . . . traditional. It has been handed down from previous generations for all kinds of reasons, related to factors such as the agricultural cycle, and however radical progressive educators might have been regarding other elements of schooling, for some reason, they have remained remarkably conservative about this one. Surely one of the reasons the unions hate academies and free schools so much is that they allow headteachers to negotiate term times and working hours independent of long standing traditions which are very favourable to teachers?

But surely it is reasonable to rethink the arrangement of terms and holidays? The long summer break, in particular, is very damaging for educational continuity. If we are aiming for our pupils to remember what we teach them, regularly spaced repetition is vital. Long gaps are not helpful in the slightest. Among other reasons, this must be one of the factors leading to the popularity of summer programmes amongst US charter schools.

A starting point for rethinking is simply to do the arithmetic, and compare the hours. In an ordinary job, working forty hours a week and with twenty days’ leave plus public holidays, someone would work 1856 hours a year. Divide this by thirty-nine weeks of term and you get about 47.6 hours’ work a week. So if teachers really are working nearly fifty hours a week every week of term time, then they are ‘earning’ their time off, at least compared to an average worker.

But is it a good idea to work fifty or more hours a week? I have five children, and I am very keen to spend time with them all year round, not just during school holidays. Wouldn’t it be better if I had a more balanced life and worked fewer hours each week, but more spread out over the year?

Isn’t it time to slay this sacred cow, and think really hard about the benefits of a more balanced year, with less intensive but longer terms, and shorter holidays? If we spread out the teaching over the year, we could arrange the timetable more rationally as well. For example, we could schedule all academic work in the morning and leave the afternoon for practical or physical activities.

This is not an argument for working teachers into the ground. It is a reconsideration of time-honoured traditions, for the sake of maximising the educational benefit of all the hours we put in.

(Image from Wikimedia).

Embracing Civilisation; Civilising Our Pupils

The word civilisation is becoming less frequent, with a move towards the more neutral ‘culture’. ‘Culture’ is morally neutral. We can discuss ‘popular culture’ or ‘hippie culture’ or ‘goth culture’ or ‘radical vegetable rights culture’ regardless of whether we consider these phenomena to have any aesthetic or moral value.

In contrast, when we use terms such as Western Civilisation, or Chinese Civilisation, or Ancient Greek Civilisation, we are implying that there is something of value in these cultures, something which civilises those who benefit from inheriting what previous generations have built. We also capitalise these terms because they are proper nouns (well, noun phrases to be precise), which as the old grammar books tell you, means that they name an individual object. They are not amorphous; they are specific.

This specificity and dependence upon tradition is anathema to many in the modern world, who are desperate to pretend that every culture is of equal value. The pretence of equality is actually an example of the latest phase of Western Civilisation, in which it moves into self-destruct mode, having pulled up its own roots and declared that only the latest ideas can possibly be valid, because everyone who lived in the past was a nasty narrow minded bigot, and we know so much better nowadays.

So the embarrassment about using terms such as ‘Western Civilisation’ is in fact a peculiarly Western trait, which leads to a particularly aggressive form of cultural imperialism: presentism. Presentism is when the present invades the past, and heroes from the past are turned into puppets mouthing modern slogans and confirming modern values. Robin Hood is transformed into a neo-pagan tree hugger. Disney’s Aladdin turns the genie into a wise guy cracking contemporary jokes. It turns out that all of that weird, mysterious stuff from the past isn’t alien after all. It’s just another theme park, neatly commodified and packaged for mindless consumption and rapid disposal.

We must fight against this tendency to detach ourselves from the past, whether by ignoring it or trivialising it, because every age has its blind spots, and we will never become aware of them unless we travel to that other country, the past, where people do things differently. Great literature from past eras is one of the best ways of making the journey. But we must not twist and distort it to fit into our modern agendas. To be civilised, our pupils must have a genuine experience of the great civilisation which is their birthright.

I Love Everything About Michaela

I must admit I had a slight doubt at the back of my mind. Having read so much about Michaela Community School, and being a great fan of everything for which they stand, I was slightly worried that the reality would not match my expectations.

But as soon as I was walking down the corridors, I knew I was not going to be disappointed. A calm, purposeful and studious atmosphere is present throughout the school. Notices around the corridors proclaim that ‘silence is golden’, and I have never experienced a more ordered and civilised school environment. I witnessed one changeover between lessons, and it is (or should be) the envy of every school in the country. Pupils walked steadily, silently and purposefully to their next lesson. Wonderful. I often think of how much time is lost at the start of lessons when pupils arrive chatting loudly, in completely the wrong frame of mind for the serious business of studying.

In the classrooms, I saw pupils working hard in exercise books, on impressive artwork, or enthusiastically demonstrating their French abilities. They were using the subjunctive, something which I never learned to do in five years of studying French up to GCSE. Perhaps my teachers thought it was too hard for me. It certainly wasn’t too hard for the Michaela year sevens.

Lunch was the greatest illustration of the civilised culture of the school. Typically school canteens are fairly raucous and rowdy places, but not at Michaela. There is a seating plan, and pupils fetch the food and serve it up to their table. It is a wonderful opportunity for learning good manners and consideration, qualities which were abundantly in evidence on the table where I sat. Even better, Joe Kirby spoke to everyone and suggested topics for conversation, and lunch finished with ‘appreciations’ where pupils and staff could publicly thank others.

My grateful thanks to Katharine Birbalsingh and all the staff at Michaela, particularly Joe Kirby, who spared time during his busy day to show me some of the resources used in the English department. It was an unforgettable experience that gives me much food for thought.

On the sign outside, the school proclaims that it has a ‘private school ethos’. I think that is giving private schools too much credit. Michaela is going further than private schools typically do, in its determined and admirable creation of a civilised, ordered community.

And if you don’t believe it really is that good . . . go and see for yourself!

The Importance of Digression

Teaching the whole class is the only effective and just approach, because it allows you to give the maximum attention to the maximum number of pupils. Individualised instruction leads to the neglect of most pupils, most of the time.

The simple arithmetic and logic justify whole class teaching as the most effective way of instructing large numbers of pupils. But it has other benefits too. When the teacher is engaged in discussion with the whole class, it gives him the opportunity to digress.

In conversation, digression happens continually, and we hardly notice it until we ask ourselves, ‘how did we end up talking about this?’ In class, it cannot be allowed to happen in an uncontrolled way. But I often do let it happen when a pupil asks an interesting question that is tangentially related to the topic we are covering.

A pupil asks an interesting question, and I choose to leap upon it, seizing the opportunity to broaden knowledge and give just a little glimpse of all the wonderful things there are to learn.

It’s at moments like these that pupils get a taste of how enthusiastic a teacher is about knowledge, not just in his own subject, but across the range of human endeavour, to the point where he has to discipline himself to keep on topic, because there is so much more to learn! It’s the original and best method of cross curricular linking.

My pupils know there are certain ways of provoking me into a mini lecture on my favourite topics, and I know that they know. They think they are being terribly cunning when they ask a certain question and they see my eyes light up. Sometimes I allow myself the pleasure of digressing, and sometimes I don’t. But I’m glad that my pupils know that there are things which I care about and which I consider to have great significance for deeper understanding of the humanities generally. Also, the very fact that they deliberately ask such questions shows that they themselves are beginning to see how knowledge is interrelated.

I remember the moments when my teachers digressed as some of the brightest spots on my own time at school. And it was always when they were standing at the front, engaging with the whole class. Nevertheless, as they discoursed about their favourite topic, it felt like they were talking directly to me.

The Uses of General Knowledge Quizzes

As the summer holidays approach, the demand for ‘fun’ lessons increases. What pupils usually mean by this is ‘lazy’ lessons in which they don’t have to do any thinking or work on anything challenging.

One tactic for manoeuvering around these demands is general knowledge quizzes. After all, people really do participate in such things as a leisure activity. And it’s amazing the difference between the reaction when one announces a quiz, compared to a test. But quizzes, conducted orally, are far from being a waste of time. They can be a great way of assessing and building general knowledge, which is so essential and so often neglected in the curriculum.

General knowledge quizzes also provide a great opportunity for gathering data about how much your pupils know, or don’t know, about topics which you might have considered to be quite straightforward. You might have thought they would pick this stuff up somewhere. But where, if their days are filled with ‘fun’ lessons and their evenings with video games and random comprehension worksh**ts?

With a general knowledge quiz, you can quickly discover how much your pupils know, for example, about their own country, after x years of studying geography. Do they know which is the most southerly county? The most mountainous one? Can they name three common native trees or three things which grow in the hedgerows?

Give it a try, and you will be enlightened about how many gaps exist in the most basic knowledge of young people once you leave behind the narrow confines of the curriculum. Then start thinking about how you’re going to start filling them in. It’s never too late to start consciously aiming to build the broad general knowledge which is so essential to being part of the cultural conversation.

You could consider, for example, the books you study and the books on your recommended reading list. Do boy wizards and futuristic dystopias help teenagers build up their general knowledge of the world they live in, and its history? Or do they just transport them to fantasy worlds?

Or you could think about how much factual information is taught elsewhere in the humanities. Do they really need to study global warming or coastal erosion again, or might it be more beneficial for them to learn something about the country in which they live, such as the names, locations and principle features of the counties, for example?

You, as a teacher, just know this kind of stuff. But where did you learn it? Not at school, I’m willing to bet, but through growing up in a relatively literate and educated family where people read broadsheet newspapers and actually talked to each other. Are you going to help those who do not have your advantages, or are you going to abandon them to lifelong exclusion, not through stupidity, but simply through ignorance?

Assessing Swimming Progress

A few years ago, we enrolled our older children in a programme run by a local company who had a small swimming pool of their own and ran classes. It was a popular and successful course as measured by the number of children enrolled, and it all looked very professional. Parents could relax in a waiting area while their children were instructed, so I had leisure on a Saturday morning to look over the notices on the walls about how the programme of instruction worked.

It looked terribly complicated, much more so than the lessons I had received as a child, which mostly involved, well, swimming. Here, they appeared to be learning so many things! Progress was divided up into levels and at each level there were numerous objectives to be reached before the pupils could move on. It seemed that swimming teaching had advanced considerably since the primitive days of doing widths and then moving on to doing lengths, and maybe diving for a few things from the bottom of the pool.

Trusting that these professionals knew what they were doing (they were, after all, accredited by a national organisation) we continued to take the children to lessons dutifully each week, but when we took them to a swimming pool ourselves, they didn’t seem to be making much progress at all in the main thing. They weren’t getting good at actually swimming. At the same time, we weren’t being alerted to any problems by the swimming instructor. Their slow progress in the central skill must have been expected, or at least far from abnormal.

Finally, we gave up and withdrew them from the classes. We found an individual instructor who was attached to a nearby independent school, and made use of their large swimming pool for lessons. This instructor did not have a large check list of objectives. They had one objective: to teach our children how to swim. Actually swim. You know, stay afloat and move about in the water. Not really that complicated. At last, the children started to make reasonable progress.

DrownedFiddly and diffuse objectives applied by well intentioned but misguided teachers leave children sinking to the bottom, and the worst thing is, everyone is so busy merrily ticking their boxes that they don’t even notice the children being far out, not waving, but drowning.

(Image from Wikimedia).

Non-Competitive Approaches Legitimise Envy

One reason often given for avoiding testing is that it will damage the self esteem of our pupils if they find out that others have performed better than they. They do indeed discover this, whether or not we tell them directly, as there is always a comparison of grades amongst class members once feedback has been given.

The same argument is used for holding non-competitive sports days. Won’t it hurt their feelings to find out that others are stronger and can run faster and jump higher than they? Won’t they be traumatised by all this public display of physical differences?

I’ve argued elsewhere for the necessity of testing from a pedagogical point of view, as well as for accountability. Here I want to focus on its role in building character. We need to ask ourselves what assumptions lurk beneath the idea that it is traumatic for children to discover that they are not the smartest, most knowledgeable, fastest or strongest in their class.

When we seek to protect pupils from that knowledge, we are assuming that it will necessarily lead to envious and bitter thoughts, as they nurse grudges and wounded pride following their public humiliation. These are indeed damaging experiences. But are they inevitable? Does the discovery that we are not in fact the best always have this result?

Finding out that we are not the best can have very positive results, if it is taken in the right way. It can be humbling, rather than humiliating, and we can work on overcoming any envious thoughts we might have. We can seek to congratulate those who have done better than we have; we can reflect on how much it benefits us to have such knowledgeable and intelligent peers.

So instead of seeking to protect pupils from the revelation that there are others who are smarter and more knowledgeable than they, we can teach them that envy and wounded pride are not the inevitable result of this knowledge. A humble and generous attitude will allow us to profit from our defeats, and this is what we should be helping our pupils to cultivate.

It’s not as if they will be able to go through the whole of their life thinking they are the best at everything. As with so many of these educational fashions, a non-competitive approach only creates an artificial bubble which temporarily shields pupils from reality, and will lead to a nasty shock later on. It is much better for our pupils to find out the truth about their own shortcomings, and deal with them in a way which contributes towards character development.