Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious on Open Salon
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APRIL 30, 2009 9:42AM

the most important skill we learn in school

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I'm concerned about President Obama's assertion that children should spend more time in school.  I absolutely disagree; I think children should spend a lot of time learning - in fact, I think they should spend all day, every day, learning, as should adults - but that "school" is only one, and not always the most effective, path to learning.

I have lots of ideas about how the school system should change, and one of these days I'll get into some of them.  For now, though, I have a question.  I'm particularly interested in parents' views on this, but everyone will have ideas - not least because almost all of us have been to "school" in one form or another.

Do children need to spend more time in school?  What is/are the most important skill(s) children and teenagers can learn in school?  Will spending more time in school help them better develop that/those skill(s)?

How can we justify giving children longer school days and school years - will there really be a payoff in terms of their lifetime success and happiness?

I'm trying to organize my own thoughts on this, and I'm very interested in hearing yours.  I respect President Obama tremendously; if he feels strongly about something that to me seems patently wrong, then I have to wonder if I'm missing something.


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I think they need to learn:

How to research a topic and write their findings;
How to communicate verbally and on paper their ideas in a coherent argument supported with facts.
How to interact with others;
How to figure out what needs to be done and best do it (ie do their homework).

These are mostly skills learned at school.

They need to know math and be able to apply it to every day situations -- understand interest on loans, create a budget and explain variance, use geometry and algebra.

They need to know history and economics and how the Gov't works. They need to know basic science and the scientific method. A grasp of statistics would be nice, too.

They need to be able to read, understand and summarize complex texts.

These are learned at school, but with the skills, the kid can do a lot of learning on his own.

I guess it boils down to problem solving using research and math with enough background information to know where to go or what question to ask.
I totally agree with the importance of learning all those skills. Do you think that the time that students spend in school now is not sufficient to develop those skills well? If what I see as a college teacher is any indication, they HAVEN'T all learned these skills well - will more school time solve that problem?
There was a time when Americans got the educations they needed (see Ms M's comment above) with less class time than it takes to turn out less educated Americans today.

I think we're all missing something, particularly America's students.

That said, as a former single mother I understand the appeal of school acting as free childcare.
I agree that students seemed to learn more in less time in the past - is this a fact? It's one of the things that strikes me. As I commented to Malusinka, many of my college students don't have the basic skills they need. Why not? Is it because they didn't spend enough time in school? This seems unlikely to me.
I have a lot to say about this too, but I think the thing that is most lacking is learning how to L E A R N ... study skills and purposeful writing, how to actually ANSWER a question and not just puke out the minimum relevant information ... ok ~ maybe this is only important to me ... can you tell we're having issues here?
Irritated Mother: It's not just you. And this gets to the heart of my concern. "Quality instruction" is often equated with a teacher's ability to teach students to do well on tests. What is being done to measure teachers' abilities to teach students to learn well, to retain their learning, and to put their learning to use in their lives?
You just asked the best question ~
"What is being done to measure teachers' abilities to teach students to learn well, to retain their learning, and to put their learning to use in their lives?"

In SW Missour, I can answer, "not much". I have had it with fill-in-the-blank study guides and I've had it with the this new lab-based science curriculum. I like the hands-on component, but we have no books ~ just a list of criteria to be met ... what happened to learning the language of science and other subjects that literally rely on understanding and using the VOCABULARY ... why are we drawing a propoganda poster about joining Saladin's army with two visuals ... WHAT VISUALS? a sketch of Jerusalem? I have grown so weary about Accelerated Reader, that I'm on the verge of hiring a hacker to break into the school computers and destry the whole program. Does answering 10 multiple choice questions about Pride and Prejudice, really show that you understand any damn thing about the period or the social commentary of Austen?
Bless you Siobhan ... if we only had more administrators and curriculum specialists that thought like YOU are thinking in this post (and your others) !!! Then we'd be making some progress.
Irritated Mother:
At the risk of inspiring your undying resentment, I have to admit that I can afford to think this way. I design my own courses within very loose guidelines and, other than a college exit exam that students almost have to TRY to fail, I do not have to worry about standardized exams.

I fully understand that governments can't operate under the assumption that all public school teachers are fully qualified, responsible and skilled in curriculum development, because they're not. At the same time, governments seem to assume that almost NO teachers possess these qualities, and so do not give much credence to teachers' input, and do not give teachers ANY trust when it comes to determining how to help their students learn. Am I wrong?
I think primary school is necessary for teaching basic literacy and numeracy that everyone needs to get by in life. And for the college-bound, high school electives are good for introducing kids to different things and getting them started thinking about what they want to pursue academically when they get to college.

But for the university-bound kids AND students who won't go to college when they graduate, school is tremendous for developing what my mom calls a "hate it but do it center" in the brain. Thomas Huxley's summary is perfect: "Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not." That's a crucial skill no matter what your post-high school plans are. If you can make yourself write that stupid paper that no one of importance will ever read about a Jane Austen novel you didn't like, you can also make yourself get up and 6:30 AM, be at work by 8, and stay there until 4--even if you don't want to. That's a universal need.

As far as expanding school hours, I'm of two minds. For kids who have a "unique" interest and parents who expose them to different stuff and nurture those interests that aren't discussed or accommodated in school, having less time in the classroom is a beautiful thing. I think of my brother--he's brilliant but not academically inclined, but he's a science whiz and he likes wine. Over summers and breaks, he parlayed these passions into making wine and brewing beer in our basement. Now he's 21, didn't finish university, is somewhere close to the top of the hierarchy at a successful winery in the Willamette Valley, and he's currently working on starting his own brew pub/restaurant in Portland. He has a job he loves in a relatively safe profession, and will probably always make more money than I do. For him, school was good for the basics, the chemistry electives, and the time-management skills, but not much else.

But that's because he had parents who encouraged him and enthusiastically helped him pursue interests that didn't fit into the school's plan. A LOT of kids don't have that. Especially for kids who are straight-up neglected or whose parents aren't educated themselves, school is a safe haven and the ONLY way they get exposed to things their own parents won't or can't teach them. For them, more time in school is a tremendous blessing. I worked in at a respite daycare for a couple of years, and so many kids whose home lives were hell told me, in the disguised way children do, about how favorite teachers and favorite subjects and activities--all school-related--were their only joys in life. I can't tell you how many smart, poor, and neglected kids told me, "Mr. Y is so nice, and Ms. Z is the best teacher ever. I wish I could be in school all day." And it makes me sad that with a shorter school day those kids would have to spend more time in an environment where they are not nurtured, encouraged, or exposed to things that could interest them and ignite that spark.

To be more concise: I think it depends on a kid's home life, and their parents' human capital and financial resources. So I don't know.
Thank you so much for this extended and insightful comment. The point you bring up here is a very good one - that some students get a lot of things at school that they can't get at home, and that others get little out of school beyond the basics and are better off exploring their own interests in a supportive home environment. Do you think that this is part of what's behind President Obama's thoughts on this matter? When he says children need more schooling, is he referring to children who need the structured school environment to promote their academic and personal well-being? I think your point is absolutely relevant, but I'm not sure that this is the motivation behind the president's assertions.
Oh, and Jessabelle, the "hate it but do it" skill is a crucial one. The way the schools are working now, though, at least here in Quebec, many students manage to graduate from high school without it. I have students who never hand in a paper and are then surprised when they fail my course. So I'd love it if schools paid more attention to developing this part of the brain...
To answer your questions, I do think students need to spend more time in school. But to do that, in my world you require learning in the arts, phys. ed., and time spent reading as well as some free time to "play."

They should learn basic reasoning skills, reading, writing, math, critical thinking, the beginning aspects of time management, research, history, government, arts, physical education, interaction with other people with different ideas and basics in science, especially the scientific method. The key with all the above is applying it in everyday life, which is something that can be learned at school and practiced outside of it.

If done with less emphasis on standardized testing and canned answers, yes, students can learn and develop these skills at school. Many of these kids go home, or to daycare, or wherever afterward and flop on the couch to zone out into la-la land. That's a whole other problem in dealing with parents' workdays and the emphasis on career over family.

You know, maybe I'm naive. Maybe I'm stupid. But I really think that kids like school. Not all the time, certainly, and not all the subjects they study. But even the most reluctant and difficult kids are interested in and challenged by something in a well-rounded curriculum. They're their own worst enemies though, especially when they're in bad situations.

I grew up in a community of mixed white and Hispanic students, and my high school was 50-50. There were plenty of illegals in the mix, and kids who spoke no English. There were lots of gangbangers too, and other kids with enormous problems. But it always seemed to me that even the worst kids wanted to be praised for doing the right thing, and for learning and participating, especially when we were all younger.

I'm sorry, I'm rambling. Didn't mean to clog up the comments section. Great post, Siobhan, as usual.
I just read Jessabelle's comment about the "love it or hate it" section of the brain, and OMG, she nailed what I took a lot of space trying to bumble out.
Oh, and I agree with Malusinka--school, especially high school when kids first become capable of abstract thought, is necessary for teaching kids how to think rationally and acquire skills that make our democracy effective such as effectively interpreting statistics; basic micro and macroeconomics for understanding how taxes, employment, and trade work; how to form and deconstruct arguments; the differences between the scientific method and religious dogma; and all the rest that Malusinka mentioned.
You're not rambling at all: your comments are very useful. And you bring out one point that I think is crucial: if kids are spending more time in school, what are they going to be doing with that time? Do they need to study more math? Do they need to study more grammar? (My impression is that this is the kind of "further schooling" the president is talking about.) Or are they going to be given more music classes, more drama classes, more art classes, more gym classes, more recess? Are they going to spend more time preparing for standardized tests? Or are they going to spend more time reading books of their own choosing and learning how to communicate effectively with each other?
I would agree with Malusinka's list of objectives. Unfortunately, some kids will need more time in school to reach them than others. I read some very interesting studies about the adverse effects of spending the first few years in a language poor environment.

I also would like to see vocational education make a comeback. Not every child is college material and there are benefits to having them ready to enter the workforce at graduation. Also, one of my friends from high school got her license as a hairdresser there and then used it to support herself while working her way through college.

Her Maj is transferring from private montessori to a public school for gifted children. I have heard from friends with kids there that there is a lot to like. Daily journaling from kindergarten on for one. There is also a bit too much homework (I don't think kids should have any in kindergarten) and school projects that are simply beyond the skills of their grade level.

Sadly, my friend the schoolteacher says you cannot simply rely on the schools, it's important to supplement your kid's learning at home.
I agree: abstract and analytical reasoning are things that are difficult to develop outside an academic curriculum. Or within it, if some of my students are any indication.
It's true that you can't rely on the schools to fully support your child's learning, but I'm not sure I think that's a sad thing. My impression is that more and more responsibility is placed on schools for nurturing children in ways that, ideally, would happen at home. There's no question that all sorts of factors interfere with parents being able to engage with their kids' learning as much as they, and their teachers, would like. But it's simply not possible for schools to pick up all the slack.
Oh, and I agree that vocational training needs to be given more attention. I taught at a high school here in Quebec that included some vocational programs, and it was of great benefit to students who couldn't or wouldn't go to college.
I'm in a rush but want to say a couple things.

I think the primary problem is that there are different populations, some of whom would benefit from more school, others who would not. It all has to do with the alternative: what are they doing at home? Here in my suburb, kids spend the summers doing expensive camps, sports, or even leisurely, real-learning kinds of activities like building forts, making their own movies, interacting socially by lounging at the pool, or reading under shady trees. And they vacation with their parents to Washington, D.C., France, or Philadelphia, soaking in museums and history. This is not the same picture for most urban kids, who, studies show definitively, benefit from earlier and longer days in school. It's those studies Obama is drawing on. My druthers involves treating these groups differently, but alas we run into the equality issues, no small concept in our country's history.

I also want to reiterate what Irritated Mother and others say when they reiterate that school should focus more on critical thinking. We should be developing and nurturing genuine, constructive thinking, not regurgitation of facts. No Child Left Behind, generated by the excellent intentions of decreasing the achievement gap, again forces us to emphasize bringing up the lowest performers to some basic foundation of knowledge rather than investing in higher cognitive thinking.
I guess I didn't phrase my last comment correctly - I feel like I should support Her Maj's education by reading to her, helping her explore areas of interest, making sure she does her homework. My school teacher friend means actually doing a certain amount of teaching (the kind with workbooks) at home.
Siobhan--First off, the entitlement of some students for good grades is stunning, and I think it's even worse at the college level. Good for you for failing students who don't do the work.

I'll be honest, I did not hear Obama's talk on this matter. But when he says kids need "more schooling," I can't help but wonder if he's confusing quantity with quality. Like I said above (before I read your reply--sorry for clogging up the comments!), a shocking number of high school graduates don't have the necessary skills to be an informed and functional citizen in a democracy. Read a CNN message board on gay marriage or swine flu (or pretty much anything), and there's all the evidence you need that a huge swath of our population does not have the ability to form a cogent argument, break down and refute a crappy argument, or intelligently interpret statistical or economic information.

Maybe having longer school days/years will be a means to giving children those skills, but I don't know. Can we improve education quality by increasing the quantity of classroom hours? I doubt it. But the point still stands that the effect of school on one's education is highly dependent on parental skills and home life.

I'm really, really enjoying this thread, by the way--thank you so much for such an interesting post and such a wonderful discussion!
Kids don't need more "time" in school, they need more "days" in school. The problem isn't "time." It's effective time. Our long school day results in ineffective time at the end of the day. It's wasted and counterproductive to have school last much beyond 1 pm. The countries kicking our butt educationally, have more days in school, but equivalent or less hours in school. They generally end their school day at lunchtime.
This is so astute, and, like Jessabelle's comment, throws a whole other perspective on the question. Is there any way to have different structures for different populations? It really does seem like a can of worms.
Jessabelle: I didn't hear Obama's whole talk, either; I've heard snippets and read some news reports on it. As I was hoping, some of the comments here - like Lainey's mention of the studies Obama based his remarks on - have helped me understand his positon better.

Please don't apologize for clogging up the comments - there is little that pleases me more in life than lots of reader comments.

I absolutely agree that the world needs more critical thinking skills, and I share your ambivalence as to whether more school hours will translate to that.

As you and Lainey have said, though, the benefit a child gets out of more school will be largely dependent on the other sources of learning in his/her life.
I taught English at junior high schools in Japan for a couple of years. The students there were at school from early in the morning (8 a.m.) until late in the afternoon (I believe the school day ended at 4, although it could have been 3); then they had "clubs" and they often attended "cram school" in the early evening. They also had half a school day on Saturdays. In terms of days, there year was, as far as I remember, about the same as ours.
Wait, I mean in terms of months, not days: late August until mid-December and then early January until June. But, all that being said, I totally agree that fewer, longer school days are far less effected than more, shorter ones.
Between the six or so hours in school and then an hour or two of homework, I think there's an OVERABUNDANCE of time spent "accomplishing" something each day. Kids could stand a bigger chunk of open, unscheduled time to do whatever they want to do.

Ideally in a neighborhood without busy streets so kids can wander around.
And I guess the problem lies there: "open, unscheduled time" is a great thing if you have a back yard or shelf full of books or a safe playground. Otherwise, there's bound to be trouble.
I couldn't agree more: the inability of most people to do basic math, much less statistical analysis or higher-order computations, is not acceptable. Do you think that the problem is that not enough time is spent on math skills in school? Or do you think it's that the skills are not being taught effectively?
No! More time in school is not good. Four hours is probably enough for most kids. They need to get exercise, read, and do projects.
In the 70's some schools had split shifts, 4 hours of school with no apparent harm.
I think the gov't likes to have alot of control, and people fear kids walking around. An exchange student from Norway said she is allowed to leave school grounds when she feels like it. They also start at age 7.
How about a shorter school day, combined with after school recreation of the kids (or parents ) choice. Then they could do art,reading etc or just play. Not necessarily with real teachers.
What do you think of Lainey and Jessabelle's comments about how some kids need more school time because it's difficult to find a space for productive activities (like reading, exercise, etc, as you suggest) in their homes and neighbourhoods?
Ah, you answered my question as I was posting it. So I guess it comes down to our definition of "school"?

I disagree. My children have a much more rigorous education than I did at their age. I can't recall doing a tenth of the writing they are doing. Their 3rd and 4th grade spelling words are what I would think a middle schooler would have. The only weakness I see in their education is a lack of emphasis on math "facts" (i.e. memorization of multiplication/addition/etc. facts).
I'd rather my offspring puff on a Kool.
Or, chew Scroll chewing tobacco. Cool.
IF they become a politico? I go boohoo.

I'd rather teach posterity to sip at a bar,
than haggle in lawyer's barroom. O Yes!
They remind me of kindergartens party!
Maybe the question is: if more is being demanded of them, are they actually learning more?

I don't have children, but I do teach college, and my impression is that many of my college students know/understand less than I and my peers did at their age. But this is easy to say in retrospect. Does anyone else have thoughts on this?
Hilarious, if cryptic.
I feel like they're not learning; they're being taught to regurgitate. When I look at the work my 17-year-old sister is doing, she spends a lot of time memorizing short answers to feed back to a teacher in a fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice format. That has its place, but the emphasis belongs, in my mind, on being able to think critically about issues and tie them together to form a coherent answer.
Ash: yes, once again, the critical thinking problem. This is what it keeps coming back to. Can children learn to think critically - and, more generally, can they learn to LEARN - by spending more hours in school?
More school hours won't solve the problem, if we're targeting critical thinking. Rote repetition bores the heck out of people; and why shouldn't it?

The way students are taught needs a revamp. I'm still in favor of more school, but it has to be more school time with an emphasis on arts and phys. ed. and creativity. Couple that with a de-emphasis on rote learning and we're getting somewhere.
Here are a few things I'd be happy if everyone knew by the time they left high school:

How to recognize when one doesn't know enough about a topic. How to find information, evaluate the information and the source, and use the information to increase one's understanding.

How to evaluate risk. (When I was in college, I didn't get to statistics and probability until I was a junior. There has to be a better, earlier way to teach the basics.) How to evaluate specific common situations: for example, is flying more dangerous than driving? under what assumptions?

How to communicate thoughts, one's own or others', in clear language. How to figure out the logic of an argument. How to have an argument.

How to work with others to solve problems.

I think all of these things are good skills for coping with life, for being good citizens, for doing almost any kind of job. And I think they're achievable by most people. Is more time in school going to help? I think it will take something different from that.
They are certainly learning to write better than I did. The rest will remain to be seen.
In today's world, school is where the kids learn, home is where they recreate - but that isn't the world I grew up in. It's too bad more kids can't have my mother :) There are so many things I learned at home and on family vacations (when we had them) that I would never have gotten in a school setting simply because of logistics.

I'm not sure what the right thing will be - but I know it won't be 1 answer to suit all children's learning needs. Some families won't need more school time, others will. Parent involvement will be essential to answering the question.
I don't have any problem with children spending more time in 'school'. But please, for the love of God and Mothra, don't ask kids to spend one minute longer in classrooms. They should be in plays, running obstacle courses, on a protest march, baking cakes, learning to knit, having a 'burning man' day, etc, etc. Anything but the dreaded classroom.
I think my experience with "rote learning" in schools have been different than yours, in that I haven't seen an awful lot of it - the emphasis nowadays seems to be more on "project-based" and "experiential" learning. But that may just be my perception.
I think you may have entirely summed up my own views on the matter. Thank you for that.
I think your experience echoes the points above about how some children need more school because of what they lack at home and in their neighbourhoods, while others are better off with fewer school hours and more unstructured learning.
I have to agree. Or maybe we just need to change the definition and execution of "classroom".
My children attend a private school with a "balanced calendar." They begin school in mid-August, have a week off in October, two weeks at the end of the year, a week in March, another at Easter, and finish mid-June. The idea is that they have a shorter summer break, and less opportunity to forget what they learned the previous year. Personally, I could do without the week-long breaks in October and March, but that's mostly because I have to find childcare those weeks.

I agree with the poster who said our kids are given harder work, earlier, than we were given at the same age. My 1st grader is always so proud when I told him that I couldn't read as well as he when I was 6. A friend who is a nurse says her high school age son is doing the kind of math she did in college.
If I were king of America, I would probably experiment with having elementary school kids have a 4 hr academic day, followed by lunch, followed by an after-school program of arts (visual and performing) and physical activity. I also would turn kindergarden back into a place to nurture children, rather than the new "first grade." Kids don't need to learn to read before the first grade.
Probably true; I'm in Colorado and under the thumb of the dreaded CSAP tests. How well students perform on CSAP determines the level of state funding given to school districts, so there's a lot of emphasis on teaching to the test. Hence, rote learning.

The school district my mother teaches in and I graduated from is in the lower end of CSAP results because of a high population of ESL students being expected to test at a comparable level with kids who are first-English speakers, and a high poverty level besides. The district is under constant threat of being taken over by the state and schools becoming charter schools.
I forgot to mention this:

"Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not."

I don't know if Huxley was talking about formal education, but I think this is something that can be learned outside the classroom. And probably should be. It's too easily abused, the idea of giving kids busy work so that they'll be doing something (possibly for diminishing returns), even if the kids hate it. How do you evaluate such a strategy, anyway? By ensuring that assignments are done on time, naturally, but you can do that for other reasons. Education is tough enough without teachers having the duty to make kids learn to do stuff they dislike. I think.
Annie: as much as I appreciate my long summer vacation, I do appreciate the idea that it cuts into students' retention of their learning.
On a similar note: the CBC program "Ideas" (a must-listen - subscribe to their podcasts here:

recently did a program on such "educational entertainment" as Baby Einstein and the like and their neutral-to-negative effect on childhood learning. Fascinating.
Ash: I am continually puzzled by American policies on this stuff - not that Canada has it all figured out, but the issues we're dealing with here seem a lot less extreme.
I'm of two minds about this one. I had a roommate who used to rail against "Sesame Street syndrome": the affliction that means you can't do anything, learn anything, appreciate anything, unless it's "fun." Now, I love Sesame Street and "fun" as much as the next person, but I also think we've gotten real lazy. Learning that doing something hard and not particularly enjoyable is still valuable is a pretty useful skill, I think.
If only we were so lucky. CSAP has good intentions, but fails miserably in meeting them. If you're curious, you can visit

for more. I warn you, it's mind-numbing.

BTW, this is a fantastic conversation you've gotten started.
Thanks for the link, Ash. Yes, I'm delighted people have climbed on board this one with such vigour!
Depends on the kid, depends on the school.

I HATED school until junior high, and only began to actually LIKE it in college. What I learned academically in high school could have been condensed into a year's worth of actual class time. By senior year, I had arranged my schedule so that I went to two classes in the morning (we had block scheduling), one of which was band and one of which was P.E., and then spent the rest of the day in the library. (At the time, the State of Indiana had a whole lot of "give" in the amount of credit hours needed to graduate, even with an honors diploma. The system was designed so that students could fail required classes, not have to go to summer school, repeat them the next year and still graduate on time. You could also take core classes in the summer, even if you hadn't flunked them. So, other than senior English, I'd gotten my requirements out of the way before my last year of high school, but still was required to be on campus from 8-3 five days a week.)

Most of what I learned between the ages of 14-17 that I actually USE in my day-to-day life I learned working for the local radio station.
2 observations:

1) School is a necessary evil. There's just no other way to jam the facts & figures into the little squinkers heads. Whether it's less formal, or more traditional, or a combination, time in school=education. I believe the time could be better used with some less formal periods interspersed.

2) It does no good to make the kids stay in school longer with bad teachers. We make the kids take tests, but not the teachers--time with a bad or below average teacher is counterproductive.

There, I said it. Cue the sh&tstorm from America's teachers. I'm hiding under my desk.
I definitely think kids should spend more time in school in a well-structured program. If there is a specific alternate program they want to argue should suffice to replace it, that's one thing. But leaving them free time on the assumption that they'll show the initiative to fill it by seeking out such programs (or that their parents will) is quite another. I don't think the present amount of school is adequate to remain competitive in a modern work environment and I think we need to develop in our kids more skills and better competence. I think school is the right vehicle, and if we have problems fixing the schools we should shut them down and rebuild them in a new image. The concept is the right one even if as an institution they have sometimes let us down.

I'm all for having a union act as the guardian for certain basic rights like health care, but once they expand in scope to say that incompetent teachers cannot be fired, then either the teacher's union had better clean their own house or expect me to support any measure whatsoever to have the union go away. The protected status of incompetent teachers is a major problem with the present system and it must be dealt with, but to claim we have to accept that and then that we can't bother asking our schools to do more for us is nonsense. If schools are ineffective, let's reinvent them. Saying they're broken so we shouldn't have more in-school learning is wrong, I think.

Students' lifetime success will come from having more and stronger skills instilled in them early in life. This will make them more marketable and more able to do well whatever they end up doing. Telling them in their childhood that they should not worry so much about studies will have the opposite effect, making them happy kids and growing up to be less marketable and less good at what they do, having fewer job options, making less money, having to work longer hours to compensate, and having overall less time for all the fun things later in life.

Every US child should be bilingual. Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, etc. should be added as options. More math, although maybe not all for scientists, some for business or people who need to understand news reports. Classes that don't exist or are rarely featured should be taught centrally, like logic (anyone who's going to participate in a democracy should have a command of logic and what does and does not constitute a proper proof in spoken English), abstraction (the ability to understand metaphors, analogies, diagrams and charts, etc.), problem solving (how to go about solving new problems one has never confronted), etc. Not to mention that things like typing, use of graphic tools like Photoshop (or its freeware equivalent The Gimp), etc. should be taught at an early age the same as handwriting so that every teacher can rely on those capabilities being in place. Probably everyone should be able to do at least a little programming.
I'm not finished reading all the comments, but I wanted to say that
Rob, who wants more critical thinking but doesn't think it needs to happen in schools, and icemilkedcoffee, who wants learning but not in classrooms are really saying similar things. Bricks and Mortar Schools (B&M) are actually antiquated when you think about it. I'm not suggesting that all schools go digital or anything but rather that education become something much more modern and in line with the growth of every other field. I think in a few decades education will be a lot more individualized, with people "buying" math and science here, English and writing there. I'm not talking about physical buildings, necessarily, but a host of myriad experiences, whether writing groups with the real-life purpose of publishing valuable content somewhere or a science class in a laboratory filled with science teachers who work on real-life projects for companies and the government. There could be some online things and independent research at libraries or whatever. All I can say is that when I want to learn about something--let's say the history of al Qaida when 9/11 happened--I go online, call experts, visit museums, listen to talk radio, etc. I don't sign up for a class and wait for Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to two to find out what I want to know. I'm NOT diminishing the need for excellent teachers. People will always need leaders, facilitators, coaches, etc. But we need to be so much more creative than the old-fashioned classroom. Classrooms look today like they did 100 years ago. There's something wrong with that picture.

Thanks for this great post, Siobhan. As usual, you have your finger on the pulse of what many of us like to talk about and explore. And as usual, I seem to agree with almost everyone on everything when it comes to education, which is another way of saying there are lots of problems with complex solutions that work for some but not all. No wonder public policy people have such a hard time with it! As a final word, I'll say again what I often say: What's good for the individual student (as in each parent's child) is not at all the best solution for the whole system. I want my own kids to be themselves, to be able to explore and think differently, outside the box. But as a teacher with a class of 25, that's an impossible task when combined with accomplishing specific state standards. It's wildly frustrating.
I had a roommate who used to rail against "Sesame Street syndrome": the affliction that means you can't do anything, learn anything, appreciate anything, unless it's "fun."

Yes, you're right; I was oversimplifying. I definitely think that there are other worthwhile motivations for doing things than that they're fun. And in the long run, if kids can get a sense of accomplishment from having done something hard, that'll be more useful to them. (Lately I've been getting a sense of satisfaction when I step off my treadmill--and I hate that kind of exercise. But it's the feeling of accomplishment, having gotten something done.)
Back when I thought I would have children, I wanted them to go to a progressive school without a set curriculum (or be home schooled) so they could study what interested them and find focus early in life. I think that self direction and self motivation are the two most important qualities that rarely, if ever, get taught/learned in public schools.
That said, I don't think most parents have many choices regarding their child's education. If you are not well off, the only option is public school; and the school available for your child is likely to be dangerous and incapable of teaching due to overcrowding, lack of community support, and low funding. Having your kids spend more time warehoused in that dangerous environment doesn't seem like it would increase their learning.
I forgot the foreign languages :) Kent's right, we need to not be so dependent on English. Other languages need introduction before age 6, right along with English, so the vocalizations will be natural. Programming should be taught along with writing sentences, and keyboard skills should be taught alongside pencil and paper writing.
I highly respect Pres. Obama, but if he truly made that comment then I would have to say I disagree. I think 7 to 8 hours of school is more than enough for most kids. Now, if they don't have any sort of life outside of school, then maybe he's right. It's better that kids be in school vs. the streets. In my opinion, kids don't have enough time just to be kids. Not only are they in school most of the day, they come home with loads of homework on top of any other team or organization they may belong to. That leaves very little time for play whether it be riding bicycles, hanging out with neighborhood friends, reading a good book....Of course, I am mainly thinking about grade school aged kids. HIgh School is another topic.
Siobhan Curious, I would love to hear your opinions on my post, "Why I Homeschool My Children."
Wonderful thread and conversation! Thanks for starting this.

It seems to me that time management is a part of this question. I would rather see children (and teachers) complete a grading period, take a good break (a 4 day week at least, or a week like European systems), then come back fresh for another go. The French calendar give longer than a week for fall, Christmas, winter, and spring breaks, then July and August off school. The pack-it-all-in to 36 intensive weeks is exhausting and provides diminishing returns.

Children fortunate enough to have a parent at home will learn as much outside school as in; children fending for themselves may do better with more hours of the day with adults and peers at school.
btw, I missed where Obama said this. I do know, though, that Ohio's Democratic Governor, Ted Strickland, did specifically call for the elongation of the school year. I believe it is to start right away, as in next year.
Humans are wired to learn. We are learning all the time. The curricula kids are exposed to now is more challenging than what most of us were exposed to. What I've seen lacking is what children once learned from adults as part of life. My parents spoke to me, questioned me, taught me.

I've taught Saturday school to students whose standardized test scores were below "basic" (there's far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced.) I've not seen the data that would measure if it made any difference--it'd be interesting to find out if it did make a difference and then I could answer your question.

If we, as a people, really value learning then our children would be interested in learning. I think we kid ourselves about this. Learning includes learning about ourselves so that we can be responsible and mature.
I will respond to these in short order, but just to clarify: I wasn't sure exactly what Obama had said on this subject either; as I commented above, I didn't see the whole education speech. So before putting up this post, I did a bit of searching through the news sites to confirm that this was his positon. Here's a representative quote, from

"Obama also wants kids to spend more time in school, with longer school days, school weeks and school years — a position he admitted will make him less popular with his school-age daughters. Children in South Korea spend a month longer in school every year than do kids in the U.S., where the antiquated school calendar comes from the days when many people farmed and kids were needed in the fields. 'I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas, not with Malia and Sasha,' Obama said as the crowd laughed. 'But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom...If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America...'"
Until our public education system changes, students spending more time in school will only prolong the agony for both students and teachers. Time spent is not the same as, or equal to quality learning.
I think the questions of whether kids LIKE school, or whether they learn things there that are "applicable to real life" in obvious ways, are slightly different questions. As a couple of people in this thread have pointed out, learning to see the value of things that we don't like or that we don't immediately see as useful is one of the things school can be good for.
When I was a math student (whether in primary school or university), we learned math mostly by doing problems in class, after a bit of interactive-style lecturing from the teacher. Has this changed?
I'm not sure why anyone would react badly to your comments. We're all well aware that bad teachers are, well, bad. And although I think it's a shame for school to be considered a "necessary evil" (people living in countries where schooling is a luxury might describe it differently), I think a lot of us would agree that the school system as it stands now does not address the needs of everyone in an optimal way.
"Students' lifetime success will come from having more and stronger skills instilled in them early in life."

I agree. I am not certain that more hours in school (as opposed to a complete overhaul of the curriculum) will accomplish this.
Thanks for another thoughtful comment.

I'm not sure I agree that classrooms need to be particularly modernized. I'm not opposed to the idea in general, but I also feel that a classroom can, if the teacher chooses, be a place where students can, for once in their lives, turn off the buzzing/ringing/globally connected devices and instead, with a pencil and paper and the people around them, examine themselves and others and important ideas. I like the idea of the classroom as a sanctuary from a lot of the distractions that keep us from really thinking. I go online to research factual matters as well, but when it comes to actually thinking about stuff - and many of us seem to be saying here that critical thinking is the most important, and least effectively taught, skill our students need - all I need is my brain, and maybe something to take notes with, and maybe someone else to bounce my ideas off. That's pretty much how my classroom works.
When it comes to the treadmill, I really wish my sense of satisfaction overrode my sense of desperate longing to be somewhere, anywhere else. If someone had done a better job of teaching me to appreciate that sense of satisfaction, I'd be a better, and thinner, person today!
I have a somewhat broader perspective because over many years of caring for foster children, I've seen how our local education system serves children with a wide variety of needs.

Our school district is currently considering a four-day school week for budgetary reasons. I absolutely do not think younger children would be well served by longer days, and I believe the schedule for older students would have to be very carefully crafted. I keep hearing that students will have the same amount of "seat time" (a phrase I find disturbing), which leads me to the conclusion that maybe I do believe our students need more time in school.

Homework is all well and good, but in my community, more often than not a student is taking it home to a parent, just one who may not often be present and who probably did not graduate from high school. There are other problems, certainly relevant, but I do think they'd benefit from more structured time in the educational system. While that may not seem to be the responsibility of the educational system, the results will be problems for all of society, so I believe it's implicit in our social contract to devise a system that actually produces results.

My own older children reached a point at which their homework in the subjects that most inspired them was beyond my recollection, if not my education. Yes, I could teach them critical thinking, research methodology, prioritization, etc., but they would have benefited from time with skilled teachers, in labs, in groups with other students, etc. They have peers who went to private schools (a decision we resisted because we fear the social consequences of "people like us" abandoning the public school system), and the difference is apparent.

At the same time, our district must serve students across a huge range of skills, backgrounds and abilities, from the Ivy League-bound children of professional parents, to children whose parents have tremendous disadvantages, to children whose parents have no intention of doing much parenting at all. As I look at that, I cannot see a group that would not benefit from more instructional hours.
I'm glad to see this got EP, and have been enjoying the post, and the comments. Alas, I don't have time to join the fray! I may be back though - this is a subject very close to my heart. My degree is in Secondary English Education (Spanish Minor) - I didn't become a teacher, though, because I was too pissed off with schools in general. I've mellowed some, but still a bit too much of a rebel to be systemized yet!
Siobhan, you wrote: I am not certain that more hours in school (as opposed to a complete overhaul of the curriculum) will accomplish [more and stronger skills].

I think your problem is thinking this is either/or. I don't disagree that some overhaul of the schools is needed. I do strongly disagree that absent an overhaul, it's better to just leave people to do it on their own. As I said, I've got no problem with a parent saying "I want to have my Johnny get his lessons in a foreign language from me or from a neighboring college or a community ed center, so I want him exempted and to be given credit." I have a lot more problem with us as a community saying "if we just let kids have less hours at school, they'll fill the time studying foreign languages". Think Reagan: Trust, but verify.
More time in school? Not really. It's important for them to play, too. Playing is a necessary part of development.
Here's another reasoned and thoughtful take on this subject:
I think that instead of learning about deceased public figures, we should learn more about ourselves in school.
It is crucial as an individual to know how you're wired, what makes you tick. That would be awesome for a change to know how our minds work, how to devellop self esteem, etc...
Crucial issues, yet never addressed. For we all have a mind and (hopefully) we use it every day, unlike third degree equations.
Read an excerpt from my book at