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Kathleen Traphagen: Report on learning time misses mark

I am writing in response to “Amherst schools falling short” printed on Jan. 18. I found this article a frustrating example of what seems like a drumbeat of negative articles about the schools that fail to actually probe the real issues.

The article tells us that the Amherst elementary schools are falling short of providing our students with 900 hours of “structured learning time” per school year as required by the state. It failed to answer a few basic questions: what exactly is structured learning time and what, other than this, are our children doing in school?

I was curious, so I asked the school district for the report by the New England School Development Council. It defines structured learning time this way: “The following may not be counted as contributing to the 900-hour requirement: school breakfast and lunch, passing between classes, homeroom, recess, non-directed study periods, receiving school services and participation in optional school programs.”

The report goes on to calculate the number of minutes that Amherst children spend in activities that are not considered learning time. A few highlights:

• Despite the fact that participating in band, orchestra, instrumental music lessons, and chorus represent some of the most creative, productive, and engaging hours that students spend at school, these activities are not considered learning time. The report suggests moving these activities outside of the formal day, an option that I hope school officials reject. Moving these activities outside of the formal day will result in many children being unable to take part.

• Recess is also not considered learning time, despite extensive research to the contrary. Olga Jarrett’s “Recess in Elementary School: What Does the Research Say?” in the ERIC Digest notes: “In experimental studies, Pellegrini and Davis (1993) and Pellegrini, Huberty, and Jones (1995) found that elementary school children became progressively inattentive when recess was delayed, resulting in more active play when recess occurred. Another experimental study found that fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had had recess, with hyperactive children among those who benefited the most.

Clearly, breaks are helpful, both for attention and for classroom management.

Does time spent playing or learning detract from academic achievement? Research conducted in French and Canadian schools over a period of four years shows positive effects of time spent in physical activity. The results of spending one-third of the school day in formal and less formal physical education, in art, and in music were increased fitness, improved attitudes and slight improvements in test scores. These results are consistent with the findings of nearly 200 studies on the effect of exercise on cognitive functioning.

Research has also shown that children develop social skills during recess. Recess is the only time left during the children’s day where they get to decide what they do and who they do it with. I am glad that Amherst has maintained 30 minutes of daily recess, and I hope school leaders will reject the notion that recess should be shortened.

According to the report, there are many other things that Amherst children are doing that are not structured learning time. For one, they are walking through the hallways on their way to music, art and gym class and school assemblies. This may take them up to three to five minutes per time.

Am I the only one who believes this conversation is much ado about nothing? I don’t want to talk about structured learning time minutes. I would rather engage in a much more interesting conversation: How — given all of these ridiculous requirements — our teachers and school leaders can develop in our children a love of learning; the capacity to think creatively; have empathy for their peers and others, be intellectually engaged, and interested in positively contributing to their community and the world. That’s what I wish the community conversation was about. And that’s what I’d like to see the Bulletin write about.

Kathleen Traphagen is an Amherst Town Meeting member who has three children at Fort River Elementary School.

Legacy Comments2

Well said Kathleen. I agree with you completely about the value of music, recess, arts etc... in our children's education. Dr. Howard Gardner at the Harvard School of Education refers to Multiiple Intelligences in his work, and illustrates the importance of accessing information from many different perspectives. I recently summarized a physician's consensus conference on physical activity in elementary education which supports your comments . The results are very clear that activity during the school day improves executive function in children and thus academic performance (not to mention health!). It is time to recognize the importance of these parts of the school day rather than dismiss them or worse cut them out. Thank you for taking the time to write your piece!

THANK YOU for writing this. I could not agree more. I am saddened to have just gotten a survey which seems to suggest that the school day is going to be lengthened for next year and it is just a matter of how. We don't need longer days we need a healthier definition of what (and how) our children need to learn. Our schools could reach the same objectives of better test scores and narrowing the achievment gap by applying the money allocated for longer days toward a commitment to smaller classes and more support for teachers.

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