Still Ignoring the Evidence

2013fielddayaPlay – real, unstructured brain break time – is as important to a child’s learning as academic time.

So why are school leaders and decision-makers so reluctant to let go and allow more recess? I cringe whenever I hear a school leader lecture that there isn’t enough time in a school day to increase play or unstructured time. Two reasons come to mind:

  • Quantity not quality – somehow the misguided idea that number of minutes and time-on-task are larger concerns than actual learning,
  • Test preparation is driving the construction of a school day.

Quantity not quality assumes that a student can maintain peak brain function and learn every second of a lesson. Ken Wesson tells us that students can attend to a lesson launch for approximately the same number of minutes as that child’s age.  Here is a link to an article I posted some time ago outlining this thought as it applies to a classroom.  If we are serious about optimizing student learning and making sure academic time is effective, we should know how the brain functions. What is the point of just yammering for 60 minutes when a 10 year old brain turned off 40 minutes ago?

I often hear – and truth be told, sometimes would say – that school days are packed. At one point when I taught 4th Grade, there were more minutes of instruction required within the day than there were minutes in the entire school day. And in this day and age, there is test preparation, which has to come from somewhere. Just exactly how much time gets expended to prepare students for those high-stakes tests like PARCC or Smarter Balance?

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Professor of Education at Lesley University advocates for younger students to have more time for play and unstructured learning time as does K-12 writer Caralee Adams in the article “Recess Makes Kids Smarter“. Students are routinely asked not only to sit, but sit still for inordinate amounts of time when they developmentally are not ready to do so. Could misguided school policies requiring students to be on-task for long periods of time be driving the bulk of students perceived to have ADD or ADHD? Brain research makes me wonder.

For more about the importance of recess, free play, and unstructured time, the New York Times Parent Blog posted an article titled “Students Who Lose Recess Are The Ones Who Need It Most”. This article takes the importance of unstructured time a step further by advocating that taking away recess as a means of punishment for out of compliant behavior or for missing homework is counter-productive.  Losing recess may be a major factor in loss of self-control or executive function.

Our kids need to move, they need less chair time for their physical health and for their brains for function. Why do we continue to ignore brain researchers? To quote Ken Wesson, “If your job is to develop the mind, shouldn’t you know how the brain works?”

Brain Research Matters!

Ken Wesson, asks this question

 If it’s your job to develop the mind, shouldn’t you know how the brain works?

IMG_1532I would add, and if your job is to develop the curriculum or make an assessment of that young mind, you also need to know how the brain works.

The brain science, based on the work of Dr. Wesson, tells us that a child’s sustained attention can be predicted fairly accurately.

  • Ages 4-5   =  5 – 10 minutes
  • Ages 6-8   = 15- 20 minutes
  • Ages 9-12 = 22-35 minutes

This is real data based on real brain research. Data-driven. Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (the Two Sisters of the Daily Five), support this research in their work organizing and managing instructional structures for children (see prior post).

When reading Jeffrey Brosco’s article about increasing ADD/ADHD rates among young children (link to article above), and the array of pharmaceuticals and their side effects (WebMD), it makes one wonder about the numbers of children diagnosed as ADHD/ADD. Could the increased numbers of diagnoses be driven by children who are responding to inappropriately long and stressful attention span demands?  Is there an organic reason for a diagnosis? Or is the diagnosis driven by developmentally inappropriate demands on kids?

For the educational “experts” creating those packed curricula, demanding “time on task”, and sustained periods of testing, brain research must be considered. But it isn’t, of course. We continue to subject children to long periods of academics, especially high stakes testing, requiring attention beyond what they are capable.

Brain Research matters.





Connecting Dots

2013fielddaybNancy Carlsson-Paige, Lesley University Professor Emerita, recently stated the following during an acceptance speech for the Deborah Meier award. Dr. Carlsson-Paige cites a statistic from the DOE Department of Civil Rights which reports that 8,000 Preschool students (!) were suspended at least once in a school year.

“There is a connection, I know, between these suspensions and ed reform policies: Children in low income communities are enduring play deficient classrooms where they get heavy doses of direct teaching and testing. They have to sit still, be quiet in their seats and comply. Many young children can’t do this and none should have to.”

Anecdotally I know she is right, not only for low income early childhood classrooms, but upper grades as well. Kids may not always be direct in identifying what is bothering them; they sometimes show us with their actions. They “act out” with displeasure.

Brain-based research from experts such as Ken Wesson tells that children in Kindergarten are capable of 5-10 minutes direct instruction and learning before they become inattentive; fourth graders – my former wheel house – can sustain attention for 10-20 minutes.

The connection is that “mini” lessons, those short and focused bursts of direct instruction beginning a learning segment, are often 20 minutes or more. And when that is followed by more pencil/paper task work, there lies a recipe for disengagement. Now extend that: what happens when a 10-year old is asked to sit and engage in a high-stakes task such as our current MCAS test? Last spring most of my students wrote from 9 am to 2:35 with a 25 minute break for lunch during Long Composition, English Language Arts, and Mathematics Tests.

Teachers do what they can to make classrooms and lessons more active by allowing kids to get out of seats, work in different parts of the room, and through cooperative/collaborative learning activities. What is lacking, however, is recess and play time – time for socialization, for learning to negotiate with peers, for exercise, fresh air, and fun.

Make no mistake: play time is important to every child. And yet it is the first thing to be cut back when schedules are tightened to accommodate more time on tasks.

So when Dr. Carlsson-Paige is talking about a connection between allowing kids more recess and the number of discipline issues, we need to listen. Our kids are stressed out and need to get off the conveyor belt.