x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Students will hate me, but summer break is a waste

As the school year winds down, an educator asks why we follow the archaic practice of shutting the doors of our schools for so much of the summer. There's evidence that longer academic years produce greater learning. Maybe it's time to re-think this.

As an educator I get great holidays, the longest of which is rapidly approaching. But even as I prepare to put my pencil down for the summer, I can't help asking myself why we still practise this antiquated tradition.

The school summer holiday has its roots in pre-industrial Europe, when most people still had connections to the land. During this time it made sense to let the kids have a summer break so they could help prepare for the harvest.

But the closest most of today's children get to farm work is rummaging for the prize in a box of wheat-based breakfast cereal. We've moved on, yet still we cling to this excessive summer recess for no other reason than it is what we've always done.

Hasn't the time come for education to reconsider convention?

Other disciplines have taken the leap. A few decades ago, health care experienced a revolution known as evidence-based medicine. Essentially, greater access to information technology massively narrowed the gap between medical research (evidence) and routine clinical practice.

This evidence-based orientation eventually permeated the whole of health care, until anything you did had to have an evidence base. We developed complex hierarchies of what constituted best evidence, from randomised controlled trials, to consensual expert opinion. Custom and practice became laughable; decisions had to be based on the best available evidence.

This concept of evidence-based everything has slowly permeated the corporate world, too. Even within government, one often hears talk of evidence-based policy, and evidence-based decision making.

Education, however, is still sadly lagging, and the protracted summer holiday is a great fossilised example of this.

There is no academic research or reporting that suggests any psychosocial benefits associated with a six to eight week study-break. The summer off idea is a decision based solely on tradition, and tradition is not always inherently good.

Historically in the UK, for instance, surgeons were barbers and hair dressers, though most of us would not be too excited at the prospect of a hairstylist performing our triple bypass, or even a simple amputation.

Rather, what education needs is a dose of common sense. While there is no evidence supporting the decision to break for as much as two months, there is substantial research supporting the benefits of a shorter break.

Nations ranked highest in terms of performance on international comparison tests are mostly East Asian countries, which tend to have more school days per year. Furthermore, certain schools in the US greatly reduced the duration of the summer break and reported substantial improvements in academic performance.

One study undertaken at the London School of Economics found that a short-lived policy to reduce the school year in West Germany resulted in a 25 per cent increase in grade repetition, suggesting weaker students suffered when forced to cram more learning into less time.

Generally it's the less gifted students, or those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who suffer most from the long break, a phenomenon know in the literature as "summer learning loss". Children with academically inclined parents may have summer holidays that include educationally enriching activities.

Many children however, simply watch television or play video games, essentially left to the mercy of vegetation technology. If the timing of a shorter break coincided with cooler winter months, or family holidays, kids might spend less time on these activities.

More school days per year would arguably improve the UAE's educational standing, and support the development of a knowledge-based economy. It would also close the gap between the strongest and poorest academic performers, making pedagogy and classroom management more effective.

I feel somewhat guilty suggesting these changes, as I recall fondly the never-ending days of fun during my childhood summer holidays. But this is little more than nostalgia, reminiscing about the good old days - like when the surgeon would give you a haircut and a shave after cauterising a wound or taking out your spleen.

Sometimes, the good old days did more harm than good.

 

Justin Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at Zayed University