One of the most popular responses to the disruption of learning due to COVID is to increase the students’ time in school. Many educational leaders are betting that when students are in person with teachers for more minutes and hours every week, learning that did not happen during the pandemic can be made up and students will be back on track.
However, pre-pandemic research calls this bet into question. Consider a 2019 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a respected international source for information regarding education around the world. The report documented that American students spend on average 8,884 hours in school during their elementary and secondary years. By comparison, the average time in school for students in other countries is closer to 7,500 hours. It is true that some countries have longer school years, but the total number of hours students spend in school in the United States generally far exceeds their international counterparts. The difference represents more than a full school year of additional time for students in the United States. Yet, international academic comparisons show American students generally perform in the middle ranks.
It is also true that American teachers traditionally spend a larger portion of their days and more total time instructing than the international average. The general assumption in the United States has been that time spent in front of students is the most valuable time, and teachers should spend as much of their time in front of students as possible.
The obvious questions are: If American students are spending a full year of additional time in school during their elementary and secondary school years, and teachers are spending a larger portion of their days teaching, why are we not already out performing our international counterparts? And is adding more time in school now to make up for unfinished learning during the pandemic the solution? The answer to both questions is that what matters most is not how much time, but how time is used.
Our assumption has been that if students spend more time being taught, they will learn more. This notion seems reasonable, but it misses an important point: It is not time or teaching that matters most, it is learning.
We have been so preoccupied with how much teaching is happening – measuring productivity as teacher time in the classroom – that we have missed the key point that learning needs to be the organizing element. What is most important is what is learned, not what is taught.
Many countries provide teachers with much more preparation time to ensure that each moment in the classroom is leveraged to ensure maximum learning. Some countries give students more time and opportunities for inquiry and discovery and less time subjecting them to “telling.” Still others engage students in longer term projects focused on deeper learning and problem solving.
The point is that how the time we have with learners is used is even more important than the amount of time invested. Adding days and hours to the school year will provide little benefit unless the time is used to increase learning opportunities and outcomes, not just more teaching.
The question we need to ask is how we can change learning experiences to improve outcomes. The answer to this question will tell us how to design experiences and support to improve learning results. Of course, instruction will be a part of this formula. But, so will a more active role for learners, leading to more investment in and ownership of their learning. Learning grows when learners find the experience purposeful, meaningful, and worthwhile.