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Rethinking Learning Time by Teaching Students How to Be in School

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If you’re a teacher, politician, or anyone with a stake in the American educational system, you might be feeling a little baffled by the state of U.S. education right now. You might be wondering how, despite all our efforts, countries like Finland and Canada continue to outperform us academically.

It appears that what we thought were solutions to education challenges just aren’t working.

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, it’s clear educational standards have been raised. Additionally, the amount of standardized tests has increased (in my state, there are at least two per year beginning in third grade), and educators are carefully critiqued and evaluated. The word rigor is becoming as common as preschoolers learning their ABCs. Yet education in the United States still ranks far from number one in the world. Why?

In order to find the answer, let's take a step back from the talk about rigor and focus on what is being taught—and more importantly, how much time is being spent teaching it.

As a 2nd grade teacher, I can easily tell you how much time I spend each week teaching reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Or rather, I can tell you how much time is scheduled for each of those subjects. However, those vital learning activities do not always come to fruition, due to a problem that seems to increase each year—many of my students do not know what is expected of them in school. Their conduct, or lack thereof, often negatively impacts their own learning.

Classroom Interruptions

If you walked into my classroom on any given day, you would observe one of three scenarios taking place:

1. Twenty-two students engaged in their learning. Several are working independently on an assignment, while those who require extra help are working with me in a small group. Occasionally, one or two students will leave their seats to confer with one another (following our “ask three before me” rule). All 22 students are focused, remain on task, and complete the assignment successfully during class.

2. Nearly half of my 22 students are attempting to complete an assignment, but there are issues. One student is angry and throws the assignment on the floor. Another student bangs his pencils and books on his desk, shouting incessantly. Another student, although on task, sings while she works. Under the pretext of the “ask three before me” rule, the rest of the class gets out of their seats to chat with friends. I frequently leave the small group I am working with to redirect students who are not on task. My actions require students in my small group, who need extra support, to try and work alone. They begin to feel unsuccessful and discouraged and start their own off-task conversations.

3. The classroom environment is somewhere between scenarios 1 and 2. While I’m happy to report that my students are more often on task than not, I see plenty of the other scenarios in my classroom. And if you asked other teachers, they would probably report the same. In fact, I frequently have conversations with my colleagues in which they express disappointment that particular lessons weren't taught to completion due to negative classroom behavior.

So the question emerges again: Why? My students have already been going to school for at least two years. Why, then, don't they just DO what is expected of them? I've already established expectations and routines about how students should conduct themselves at school. We've modeled and practiced, and students are aware that there are consequences and rewards for certain behaviors. In addition, I differentiate instruction frequently to address student needs, collaborating with colleagues to ensure my instruction is appropriate and on target. Yet too often my students do not observe classroom norms and are too frequently off task.

Recently, I participated in a project that led me to discover a likely answer. A group of teachers in Colorado and Massachusetts explored expanded learning time through a series of webinars and discussions about school schedules, time tracking, and how time is used differently in American and international schools.

In one webinar, a group of teachers from across the world discussed how other countries (particularly Finland and Canada) run their schools. It was a wonderful opportunity to glean knowledge from teachers in other contexts. My interest was especially piqued when I learned that students in Finland do not begin school until they are seven years old. A Finnish teacher, Anna-Leena Ahlfors-Juntunen, explained why this particular age was determined for students to start attending formal classes.

While seven is usually the norm in Finland, some Finnish students start school as early as six or as old as eight. Ahlfors-Juntunen explained that students’ entry age depends on their maturity level, which is determined by a test to see if students can concentrate enough to be successful in school. In other words, Finnish students are tested to see if they are developmentally ready to handle the expectations of a school setting.

I remember thinking, “Wait a minute… They’re just tested on concentration? Not literacy and math skills?” This sounded amazing to me. Then came the kicker: Ahlfors-Juntunen noted that if a student is deemed not quite ready, they can enter what is referred to as “grade zero.” In this grade, students learn how to be in school so they will be ready to attend formal classes the following year.

Teaching students how to be in school. For an entire year. It makes sense. With that much time to establish routines and expectations, Scenario 1 must occur on a regular basis in Finland! Here in the United States, I almost feel ashamed to admit I spend a mere three days doing this. The first three days of school, to be exact. Obviously my students and I continue to model and practice these skills throughout the year, but those first three days are the only time I spend solely establishing expectations. There is so much pressure in American school systems to begin academics right away that I feel guilty taking even that much time.

So what can we learn from this? That maybe, just maybe, increasing our academic standards, increasing testing, and increasing rigor are not the best use of our time—particularly at ages five and six. Let’s consider starting our students later, depending on their maturity level. If this isn't possible, consider Finland’s grade zero.

Let’s also empower teachers to spend more time teaching social skills, study skills, and basic work habits. By doing so, our students will spend more time successfully mastering academic skills. We need to take a step back from this crazy educational pressure and relax—starting by teaching our students how to school.

This infographic, and the resources it provides, are great tools that can help improve student learning. However, after you look at your time tracker, think about what you’d change in your classroom, and contemplate other school schedules, you might be asking yourself: So where do I go from here? Check out the steps below.

1. Start Small: Make One or Two Classroom Changes

You can’t expect to make drastic changes to how you utilize learning time overnight—that would be overwhelming for your students as well as yourself! Reflect on what you’ve learned, and think about what you’d like to change sooner rather than later. Make one or two small changes that you think could improve student-learning time. For example, is there a bell ringer activity that will better focus students, spur their creativity, and review content and skills they learned the day before?

2. Take Time to Establish New Routines

Even small changes in your classroom can be a BIG DEAL to your students. Take time to establish these new routines through modeling and repetition. Don’t be afraid to go back and practice as you see fit. Even if you’re not necessarily teaching academics, it doesn’t mean your students aren’t learning.

3. Reflect, Change, Repeat

Once your changes have been made and routines have been established, make sure you take time to reflect on whether those changes are working. Use the time-tracker organizer again, and compare the results to the first round. What’s working? What isn’t? Can you improve? Do you need to try a whole new way or just tweak what you’re currently doing? Reflect, make changes as needed, and repeat. Most importantly, don’t give up!

4. Spread the Word

You’ve made changes, they’re working, you’re noticing a difference. Don’t keep these successes to yourself! Who can you tell? Colleagues? Your principal? Can you invite them in for an observation? Could you run a workshop? Bring it up at a school committee meeting? It never hurts to ask—and share these resources for more and better learning time.

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