Sunday 24 October 2010

Is this the way to do well at school?

I am a fascinated reader and contributor over at Maralyn Parker's education blog at the Tele. The arguments that rage there are a hoot - compared to other areas of the blogsphere, it has the atmosphere of an academic staff room where professors in gowns argue over cups of tea and biscuits. The usual "you are worse than Hitler" type rebuttals are never to be seen.

Over the last few years, Maralyn has canvassed a wide range of education topics. No matter what the topic, those doing the commenting are concerned with one key theme - how do we get the best out of our kids? Do private schools get better results than state schools? Do state schools need more funding? Will computers improve teaching? What is the best pedagogy? (I had to look up the meaning of that word). How do we deal with useless teachers? How do we motivate teachers? And on and on it goes.

One thing that I don't ever remember being canvassed is the impact that workload has on results. ie - the more you study, the better you'll do.

We accept that in sports like golf, tennis, swimming, cycling, cricket, football and so on that elite athletes are very, very good because they train an awful lot. Tiger Woods hits a lot of golf balls every day. Pete Sampras probably practices more serves in a day than I do in a year. Baseball players and cricketers stand in the nets, hitting ball after ball served up to them by other players or machines. Jonny Wilkinson thinks he has kicked a rugby ball one million times - he puts in 250-300 practice kicks per week. I could go on and on, but it's generally accepted that to be good at something, you have to do it an awful lot.

Same goes for chess, or playing the piano. Do you think concert pianists are just naturally good? One of my relatives is a concert pianist, and he'll practice 8-10 hours per day, 7 days per week for months before a concert. For a single 1 hour concert, he might put in 800 hours of practice.

For some reason, this idea of effort equals results seems to be missing when it comes to school and educations. The arguments are always about money and resources (and how "unfair" it is that private schools have more), rather than a discussion about how to maximise the output from a given amount of learning hours.

Let's crunch some numbers.

Assume schools are open for 4 terms of 10 weeks each. Schools teach 5 days per week, with 6 periods of 50 minutes each.

In an ideal world, that gives us 4 x 10 x 5 x 5 = 1000 hours per year, or 12,000 hours over the course of primary school and high school.

Now a reasonable amount of that time won't be spent teaching. Two periods per week are used for sport, another for religious education (or ethics) and a few periods on useless, wanky shit like PDHPE (which seems to consist entirely of explaining how to have anal sex, why lesbians should have children and how to get gonorrhoea). So we have 26 periods left per week to teach stuff like Maths, English, Science, History, Geography etc etc. We've shed 13% of our available teaching time - what happens with the other 87%?

In my day, we lost a few minutes traipsing between classes, and a minute or two at the start and finish of each lesson as we packed and unpacked in each class. About half an hour per day was lost to these activities - 10% of the school day. These days, if we are to believe the likes of Frank Chalk (which I do), that 30 minutes has exploded into several hours. We used to line up silently outside the class door, march in when instructed, sit down, immediately unpack and be ready to be taught within about a minute. About 75% of our week was actually spent listening and learning, giving us 750 hours of solid instruction per year.

Those days are gone. Turning up late and unprepared now seems to be the order of the day. Taking forever to unpack, assuming you have what you require, is the norm. Trying to pack up and leave early is de rigueur. Instead of spending 45-50 minutes sitting there with your yap shut, listening to what the teacher was saying, classes now seem to be as chatty as Oprah. I know I can't talk and listen at the same time, so I don't know how anyone can learn if their lips are moving.

So let's assume that out of the 1000 hours per year that we start with, that half of it is wasted in ambling between classes, arriving late, fluffing about with unpacking, chatting instead of listening and generally wasting time. How much can you learn in 500 hours as opposed to the 750 we used to get? Well, if my maths is any good, you'll learn about 2/3 as much.

The same goes for homework and study time. Those that do more homework and study more - ie, put in more hours - will get better results. With repetition comes more retention, and hopefully - eventually - understanding.

I'll even make up a graph to illustrate this idea. It's not a straight line, because once you pass a certain point, every hour of effort results in diminishing returns.

I would have thought that if you want to achieve a certain result level, the idea behind all education policies would be to work out how many hours of study and homework the average student would need to achieve that level, and then do everything in your power to actually make sure they do that many hours of in-class learning, homework and study.

If for instance it requires 200 hours per year to achieve a mark of 70% in Maths for an average student, then every Maths teacher should be going all out to deliver 200 hours of instruction and study.

And by "study", I don't mean just sitting in the class room throwing spitballs at the ceiling, or 200 hours on the school premises (ie, behind the bike shed having a smoke). I mean 200 hours of sitting down and crunching through thousands of problems on your own.

This seems to be the missing element in modern education. It doesn't matter how interesting the course material or how engaging the teacher is - if the student isn't sitting in class and paying attention, they won't learn a bloody thing.

Why bring this up?

My sister was a complete party animal in high school - and her grades reflected that. Then, in year 11, she knuckled down and started working really hard. Nothing else changed (she still partied, but worked as hard as she partied). Her results went from crap to top of the class.

The teachers didn't change. The way they taught didn't change. The curriculum didn't change. The school didn't get a new hall. She didn't get given a laptop. The school didn't change - she changed. Her attitude changed. Her behaviour changed. And from that, all else flowed. She went from putting in a few hundred hours of effort per year to about 2000 - which meant she zoomed right up the graph above.

She put in the effort. She got the results. She stopped wasting time, avoiding work and fluffing around, and actually started paying attention, working in class and studying at home.

It's pretty bloody simple, isn't it?


Aus_Autarch said...

Hi Boab,

Amazingly simple statement; too simple for the "pedagogical experts" who influence educational policy that is inflicted upon teachers and students. I am a teacher in a large southern secondary school, and we are endlessly informed we can't expect students to pay attention if we don't make our classes intereting.

I do agree that there are more and less effective ways to help students develop their knowledge and understanding; endless "chalk & talk" is not an ideal educational delivery mode, but regardless of how educational opportunities are presented, it requires a concommitant effort from the learner.

Two resources to share: "two million minutes" is a documentary comparing the educational experiences, attitudes and expectations of students from different cultures:

Second, while Frank Chalk is fine, a more detailed look on the disaster that is modern (UK) schooling try Old Andrew's Scenes from the Battleground:

Boy on a bike said...

Thanks for the links - excellent stuff.

Aus_Autarch said...

Hi Boab,

I'm coming back for another go at this topic. You end this post with "It's pretty bloody simple, isn't it?". I am (obviously) sympathetic with your outlook, but it is (equally obviously) not broadly accepted. I'm not talking about the students themselves; I don't believe that "kids these days" are inherently worse that any other time in history (the good old days fallacy). However, I am of the opinion that the broader cultural expectations of education seem to have changed, across the western world at least (This isn't a statement about the (lack of) superiority of western education, just a recognition that I don't have the information about the success or otherwise of eastern education).
This change of attitude towards education is clear in the collected data (NAPLAN, etc), and the trend towards "teacher-bashing" in the media. I was wondering if you had an opinion/idea about what is causing this general downturn? You say the reason is a lack of work(study) ethic, but why is there this lack? Information and education are more important than ever in our society, yet the processes of modern education seems not to reflect this. What is going on?