Needed: More Better Learning Time

What image comes to mind if I ask you to imagine students learning? Young people in small groups focusing on projects they designed? Or slouching at their desks in class, looking bored?

Sadly, the second image is more common. Each year, almost half a million 5th through 12th graders complete the Gallup Student Poll. In recent years, more than four in 10 reported that they were either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” with school. The percent who are engaged decreases steadily from 5th to 10th grades. The longer kids stay in school, the more they tune out .

It doesn’t have to be this way. Boredom and disengagement are not the inevitable byproducts of adolescence. Research suggests that they are the byproducts of lousy learning environments. Practice suggests that we can make these environments better — if we want to.

Reed Larson, a leading researcher on adolescence, has made a career of studying adolescent motivation. Years ago, he had teens carry beepers and record their responses to two questions when beeped randomly throughout the day: Are you concentrating? Are you connecting? When they were beeped in class, they usually reported that they were neither concentrating nor connecting. When they were with their friends, they were by and large connecting but not concentrating. When they were playing sports they were doing both. The highest levels of doing both (what psychologists often call “flow”) occurred when students were in structured, voluntary activities — that is, when they were doing organized things that mattered to them. Unfortunately, they spent the smallest amount of their time in these settings.

So increasing their time in school isn’t enough to increase learning. Kids don’t need just more learning time — they need more better learning time. When it comes to learning, the where and when don’t matter as much as the what and how.

This is a crucial point during a time when efforts are growing across the country to extend the school day, lengthen the school year and increase access to summer and after-school activities to close the opportunity gap between disadvantaged and affluent students. Communities should increase the amount of time young people spend in places where learning should or could happen: schools, after-school and summer programs, community organizations, museums and arts programs.

In the end, however, it’s the quality of these hours that really counts. Only quality environments engage young people in the kind of active learning that builds the “gateway skills” needed to do well in college, work or life — skills like problem-solving, persistence, self-regulation, teamwork and responsibility.

Just look at what we know about high-quality after-school opportunities. Research shows that high-quality after-school programs increase academic achievement and social and emotional skills. But low-quality programs have no impact on academic and pro-social skill building and may actually reinforce negative behaviors.

To see high-quality at work, look to California, which stands out for its commitment to afterschool program quality. This 15-minute video, compiled for Learning in Afterschool and Summer: Preparing Youth for the 21st Century, shows several examples of how students respond to learning that is “active, collaborative, meaningful, supports mastery and expands horizons.”

Building these gateway skills is what after-school programs are good at and want to be known for. But we can’t just hand off the quality improvement job to after-school and community systems. The math doesn’t work.

Again, look at California. It leads the nation in after-school participation rates and in enacting laws to fund those programs. One in five students participate, for an average of 9.5 hours a week. Compare that to school, where more than nine in 10 students log an average of 35 hours a week. Even in a leading state for after-school programs, kids spend a lot more hours in school than in structured after-school activities.

Here’s the challenge: Improving the quality of after-school programs is tough but doable, but it’s nearly impossible to grow those programs enough to give all kids all the time they need. Increasing school hours is tough but doable, but it’s difficult to improve the quality of school learning for all students.

There is no shortage of curricula or school reform efforts aimed at making learning better. But as the Gallup data about youth engagement suggest, too many schools emphasize what Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor and a leading voice on healthy public education, calls “a form of learning that is far too passive, too test driven, leaving too many students bored and disengaged.”

Because most learning time will always occur in school for most young people, we can change the odds for all of them only by making that learning time better. More “better learning time” should be the mantra everywhere — and the mandate for every place where young people spend time, and where parents and policymakers spend money.