Tag Archives: education

Thoughts on Schools and Education

hooray for school

To me, education is the foundation upon which a successful society is built.  A good education offers benefits you can’t always truly measure, and a bad education or a lack of education can limit a person for their entire lives.

I feel strongly that a quality public education is a right, not a privilege, and I believe that public schools have the potential to provide that if they are properly funded and if they rely on an organizational method and curriculum that is designed specifically to serve the children as the #1 priority.  I do not, however, think that this is always how schools are run. 

It’s unfortunate, because I think that the widespread existence of poor and mediocre public schools is what causes parents to seek alternatives for their kids, which I fully understand and believe is admirable — my priority as a parent is that my children get the very best education possible.  But that leads to parents enrolling their children in charter schools or private schools which then causes money to be diverted away from the public schools, which then causes those schools to become less and less effective.  It’s a bad cycle.

I’ve probably already said it one million times, but the thing that has had the single biggest impact on our lives since moving to England is the kids’ new school.  By far and away the school has had the most positive affect on all our lives, more than any of the other changes and experiences we’ve had.

When we lived in D.C., my kids went to public school.  We liked our schools a lot; there were dedicated teachers and nice classrooms and everything was just fine.  We felt like the kids were getting a pretty good education, although we definitely had complaints.  The kids really didn’t LOVE school, but I thought that was normal — what kids LOVE school???

Here in England though, my kids go to an Independent school (which would be called a private school in the U.S.) and it has been eye-opening.  Because here, my kids actually, seriously LOVE school.  The school days are absolutely designed with children in mind — as I’ve said, there’s far, far more activity in their days and weeks — and the school community is really strong.  There are tons of extracurricular activities, they have far more responsibility and independence, and school here is just FUN.  Because they look forward to going to school now, they are getting better grades and learning more than they ever did before we moved.  There’s no downside.

Frankly, though, they only go to this school because Matt’s company pays for it — it costs more than we could probably realistically afford on our own.  Although having now seen what a difference it makes in all our lives, I would bend over backwards to try to provide this to them if his company didn’t pay.  What’s more discouraging is that the school here actually costs about HALF as much as a comparable school in America, so it would be even harder to make it work when we move back home.  It’s really, really disheartening to think of eventually leaving this school and going back to the way things were before.

But, on the bright side, I don’t think that the things that make our school in England so amazing are actually based on the school’s budget.  The way the days are organized and the focus on what’s best for the children in terms of scheduling, curriculum, activity, and community have very little to do with funding and very much to do with priorities.  All of what we love about our school here is achievable without spending almost any extra money, to be honest.

I don’t have solutions for everything that ails so many public schools in the U.S., but I do have some pretty strong ideas now about how small changes could be made that have nothing to do with money that would make any school – every school – a better experience for a vast majority of the students.  And I think that’s a goal worth working toward.  In fact, I’m writing a book about it.

I’d love to hear what you like and don’t like about the schools your kids attend, what types of schools they are, and your thoughts on everything I’ve said about our school here.  And please, if you work in education, share your views from that perspective.  Or if you know anyone who does, please share this post with them.  The more points of view I can learn about, the better!

As parents, we all have a strong interest in doing what’s best for our kids, and improving schools can only help us all.  Change often starts at a grassroots level…let’s get the ball rolling.

What On Earth Happened?

what-on-earth-happened-main-image

Last month we went to a presentation one evening at the kids’ school called “A History of the World in 20 Objects”.  The presentation was given by author Christopher Lloyd, who wrote the book “What on Earth Happened”, and it was nothing short of amazing.  The kids loved it, Matt and I loved it, and it’s actually resulted in multiple family discussions on historical events that have been both fun and interesting. 

As devout history nerds, Matt and I both wanted to see the presentation as soon as we read the email sent out by the school.  The kids were so annoyed when we announced that we’d reserved tickets: “Why do you make us do stuff like this?!?” was the general, moaning consensus among the children.  Undeterred, Matt and I both looked forward to it.

We didn’t realize, however, that Gabe would be seeing the presentation that morning during school.  It turned out to be great that he did, though!  A budding history geek himself, Gabe SO loved the school day presentation that he could. not. wait. to go see it a second time, and he convinced his siblings that it was going to be so fun and so cool

The idea behind the presentation is that many (most) of us know bits and pieces of the history of the world (going all the way back to the VERY beginning with the Big Bang), but that we don’t know it in a complete, chronological narrative.  The other point was that many (most) people also know bits and pieces of history, but we don’t make the connection between concurrent events to be able to see the relationships between them (i.e. it’s hard to reconcile the the “Wild West” portion of American history was happening at the same time as the Victorian Era in England).  I love this whole concept — viewing history from this perspective makes it so much easier to see the inter-connectedness of multiple different events. 

Gabe insisted we get to the auditorium early so we could get seats right up front.  And then he spent the entire time practically leaping out of his seat, hand raised, bursting with the desire to answer every question because he was SO EXCITED about all of it.  At one point I actually had to hold my arm across his chest to keep him from jumping up.  Later, I had to make him promise not to raise his hand for at least 3 or 4 questions to give someone else in the audience a chance to participate.  It was comical.  I almost felt badly that he was SO into it that he was barely giving anyone else a chance to speak up, but it’s hard to get mad at a kid for being that excited about learning important historical events.  Although Gabe was by far the most enthusiastic of my kids, all four of them paid rapt attention, answered questions, and were kept completely engaged for the entire presentation.

Christopher Lloyd, the author and presenter, was absolutely great with the kids (and the adults) in the audience, and he really, really made the topic just incredibly interesting and unique.  We ended up leaving the presentation having bought not just the full book, but several of his “wallbooks“, which are ingenious fold-out timelines depicting different perspectives on history.  I don’t doubt that we will eventually end up with the full collection.  To make it all even cooler, we were able to get our books signed by the author, who wrote a note to the kids to “Never stop asking questions!”.  Gabe was absolutely OVER THE MOON about it, and it all took place on Gabe’s 10th birthday, actually, so he was simply beyond thrilled.

what-on-earth-happened-wallbook

Matt and I have both read at least part of the main book now, and on several occasions, I read excerpts out loud that I found surprising or enlightening and we ended up having family discussions on the size of the universe, the evolution of man, and Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.  Anything that gets my kids thinking about that kind of stuff is good with me.  My kids will randomly flip through the books (which I leave out on the coffee table in the living room intentionally) and ask about stuff they see.  It’s been such a great conversation-starter.

If you’re into history at all, or if you’re not but you want to be, or if you want to show your children an amazing way to look at the interdependence and connectivity that exists between seemingly separate events going back pretty much as far as history goes, this is simply one of the best ways to do it that I’ve seen.  I can’t say enough good things about it.  This isn’t a paid post, I’m not being compensated, I just really, really love this whole line of books and activities and think they’re an amazing tool for teaching kids and adults alike.  Check out the website, watch the presentation online, get the books, and see history in a whole new way.

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School Differences: Classroom Time vs. Non-classroom Time

O xcountry meet

Since the beginning of the new school year last September, Matt and I have discussed many times how much the children seem to be learning — as I said before, they have quite a few more subjects in their schedules, and they are expected to work hard and really do their best.  But we’ve also noted how much happier the kids are about school here.  They are, all four of them, simply more invested and engaged and they ENJOY school more than ever before. 

Why, I wondered, are my kids so much happier about school here when they seem to have more work than ever before? 

The answer, I strongly believe, lies in the way the school day is structured: there is significantly more activity and movement built into their days and weeks here than in their average school week in America.

The current school day for Gabe and Owen lasts 7 hours — from 8:50AM to 3:50PM each day.  The school day in our American school lasted 6h 40m — from 8:40AM to 3:20PM.  (This year, though, the county where we lived extended the school day by 15 minutes and the days there now last 6h 55m, so really the school days are about the same length.)

Each day here, the children have two 10-minute homeroom periods — one at the beginning and and end of each day.  They also have a 10-minute “registration” period just after lunch to take attendance and make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be.  Each morning after homeroom, there is a 20-minute school-wide assembly.  There is a 20-minute break after second period when the kids just go outside and play.  The lunch/recess period lasts 65 minutes.  In addition, the students change classes multiple times throughout the day, so they walk between classes across the school.  That all adds up to at least 135 minutes (2h 15m) of non-instructional hours in each seven hour school day, most of which are physically active times when the kids are walking, running, or playing. 

Through the course of the 35-hour school week, that adds up to 11.25 hours NOT spent sitting in a seat in class.  Only 4.75 hours are spent sitting in class each day, and of those hours, some of them are in PE and Games and Art and Music.

Here’s 7- year old Owen’s timetable (British Year 3, equivalent to American 2nd grade) so you can see how the day is structured (this schedule doesn’t include the 10-minutes of homeroom at the beginning and end of each day):

Owen timetable

The kids here have 60 minutes of PE every week AND 180 minutes of Games (sports practice, which I explained in my last post about schools here) every week.  They have 90 minutes of Swimming every other week. They have 60 minutes of Art and 60 minutes of Music every week.  They also have 60 minutes of Design Technology (DT) each week, which is essentially Home Ec and rotates between sewing, cooking, and shop class.  That adds up to another 7h 45m per week of physical activity, bringing the total number of hours of physically-related activities up to 19 hours out of 35 available in the school week.  (And yes, I count Art and Music and DT as physical activities — those are classes based on movement and development of gross and fine motor skills.)

In our school in the States, lunch lasted 30 minutes and recess was 20 minutes.  The kids only moved between classes a few times a day: to go to and from lunch/recess and to go to specials like PE, Art, and Music.  On average, the kids had 100 minutes of PE, 100 minutes of Music, and 60 minutes of Art each week.  There were occasional assemblies, but not daily, school-wide gatherings.  Sometimes the kids had more physical-related lessons in a classroom, but those weren’t guaranteed in any given day.  That adds up to only 310 minutes, or 5 1/3 hours of reliable non-seated, physically-related activity total in the school week.  That’s A LOT less time spent moving and a lot MORE time spent sitting.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison (for the sake of simplicity, I generalized a bit and made the 7hr British school day and the 6hr 55min American school day both add up to 35 hours per week):

Brit v Amer School chart

See the red?  That’s time generally spent sitting in a classroom.  

No wonder my kids are happier in school here — they never have to sit in a seat in a class for more than 90 minutes in a row at any point at all during the school week.  I’d also be willing to bet that because of the amount of physical activity built into each day, the kids are better able to sit still and focus when they do need to because they’re not spending their days bottling up all of the energy that is just part of being a kid. 

I often read articles — like this one — that explain why it’s so important for kids to move and be physically active.  Or articles like this that describe how difficult it is for children to sit still for long periods of time, especially for little boys.  Having now experienced a school where daily physical activity is guaranteed and built into the week, I can say with absolute certainty that it makes a huge difference in my children’s attitudes toward going to school, their level of happiness during the school day, and their ability to learn.

I do believe my children are learning more in school here than they were in their school in America.  It is NOT, however, because they’re going to a private school or because teachers here are better or because the curriculum is of a higher quality.  It is NOT because they are spending more hours in school or more school hours on instructional time. 

In fact, the opposite is true: they are learning more because the school day includes more of the physical activity that is absolutely crucial for children.  They are learning more because they are able to focus better during instructional time.  They are learning more because they’re not bored or fidgety.  They are learning more because the school day here is structured in such as way as to incorporate the play and movement that is most beneficial for children.

In short, my kids have fewer classroom hours here, but they are learning more.  And they are HAPPIER.  And that makes me happier.


Also, here are my other posts on school differences.


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