Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Time on Task = Better Learning = Fallacy

I was reading Jay Mathews' Class Struggle when I came across Read to expand school day where Jay was suggesting that we need to enforce reading over the lunch hour. Jay Mathews writes:

Do away with hot lunches. Serve box lunches, or let students bring their own food. Hand out the food at their desks as their pre-lunch period ends, and have them stay here, with a book of their choice and a teacher reading her own book. Everyone sits and reads, and eats if they want to. No exceptions. Try to arrange that pre-lunch class so friends are not together. It is quiet time, to feed the soul and the mind, and calm everyone down for the rest of the day.

Here is the comment I left:

"We know that we need longer days in schools full of kids who need to catch up to grade level."

Stop right there, Jay! Are you sure this is true.

Saying that kids that simply spend more time on task (ToT) will learn more is a gross misassumption and the proof is in the reasearch. (see sources below) Alfie Kohn writes about this extensively in his book "The Homework Myth."

"More time usually leads to better learning", is very misleading. Alfie Kohn (p.103) writes that years ago, the proponents of ToT were forced some years ago to revise their original proposition. In the amended version, learning was said to improve in proportion to the quantity of engaged time on task.

Enforcing our will on those kids to read during their lunch hour may gain more time on task, but you will be hard pressed to enforce their authentic engagement.

What will happen is you will wind up with a whole bunch of fat, ticked off kids who hate reading.
If we want kids to improve and enjoy reading more - rather than doing things to them - we need to work with them.

Check out:
Anderson, Richard C., Jana Mason, and Larry Shirley. "The Reading Group: An Experimental Investigation of a Labrynth." Reading Research Quarterly 20 (1984): p.34


Do you see how we get ourselves in trouble? This entire idea was based on a misconception about learning. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens far too often. We make suggestions for schools, teachers and students based on misinformation. Makes me appreciate Mark Twain when he said:

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

There is a lot of good educational research out there, but you have to wade through the educational myths and folklore to get to the truth.

Your first homework assignment Jay Mathews is to read The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn. (And yes I see the irony in that statement)


  1. I worry about Jay. Thanks for dropping a little reality on him. It's amazing how people who don't work with children can come up with ideas that are actually bizarre. They may be children, but they're people. School already does too much to control children and restrict their choices. One of the first tests for an idea like this should be how would you like it? Would your own children like it? There may be a few who would, but if they're honest and fully aware of the rest of the school day, the vast majority of people would see this idea as ridiculous.

  2. It's part of the old belief that 'the teacher is in control of learning' . It's time for people to realize that's not the best model. When kids have more responsibility for their own learning, the learning is much more meaningful. Our job should focus more on ways to motivate them to WANT to learn (or read, or whatever)...


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