The Uses of Time for Teaching and Learning - October 1996
Our study of the uses of time for teaching and learning, with its multiple themes of quantity and quality of time in school and out, has brought together several streams of research literature and has caused us to think about issues, structures, and policies in new ways. As a result, we have uncovered a number of gaps and weaknesses in the knowledge base about educational time. Some of these may be relatively easy to correct. Others suggest the need for significant replication of previous research or new examinations of an issue using more rigorous research designs. In this chapter, we organize our ideas about needed research around our own three research foci: (1) quantity of time in school; (2)quality of time in school; and (3) out-of-school time.
Researchers and other close observers of the education scene have tended to approach the question of whether children should spend more time in school rationally and from perspectives in which they have expertise. For example, some policy analysts who specialize in international comparisons argue that if our children do not score as well on tests as the Japanese and if Japanese children attend school for more days, then we must add days to the school year. Economists respond that adding more time in school will cost the nation billions and will not yield a high enough payoff to support the investment. Both logics seem convincing, but they arrive at contradictory conclusions. Not surprisingly, given the mixed messages that they hear, Americans are ambivalent about the education system and especially about whether children should spend more time in it. There is the need for a well-conceptualized study that uses multiple methods to examine the full social and political context for how we, as a people, currently view our schools and how our schools could be changed to better serve their constituencies. We can guarantee that the issue of time will come up, but we would not lay any odds on consensus about whether there should be more of it, or less.
Other, more specific quantity of time studies that would be useful include the following:
Since we conducted our original research review in 1991-92, there has been considerable research on many strategies to reform curriculum, instruction, assessment, and school organizational structures--the core variables in our conceptual framework regarding quality of time issues. We therefore hesitate to put too much stock in the research gaps that we identified at that time since they may have been at least partially filled. However, one area that we targeted as deficient--the nature of teachers' time in a professional context--continues to need more attention, a fact that we reconfirmed in efforts to prepare a paper on this topic in the winter of 1995. We are currently conducting a study for ED that will compare the work lives of "typical" teachers in the United States with those of their counterparts in Germany, Japan, and a small number of innovative schools in this country. This study will help, but its research design is geared to finding some interesting ideas that can be widely broadcast to stimulate some debate about the status quo. It is not a scholarly effort, nor will it involve large or representative samples of teachers in any of the countries. There is much room for additional work in this area.
Another area in which the available research lacks rigor and tends toward the exhortatory concerns the organizational concept of nongradedness or multi-age grouping. Research continues to be added to the knowledge base on this idea in every decade, but we seem to get no closer to understanding whether it really makes a difference, and for whom. Research syntheses repeatedly report that the results of the most recent studies "are mixed." Meanwhile, schools, districts, and even states continue to be attracted to the strategy, which has considerable intuitive appeal as a reform. They have no trouble defending their choice, since there are research studies to support any view of nongraded structure that you like. What they should expect to happen as a result of adopting this structure remains unclear.
Finally, there is a great deal of current interest in the schools and districts about new alternatives for scheduling the traditional amount of school time. We have received a number of calls from the field over the course of this study, asking if we were aware of research demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of this scheduling plan or the other. We were unable to be very helpful, because the literature on scheduling is sparse and dominated by the people who invented the alternative schedules. Better descriptions of the various plans in action, including comparative views from student, teacher, and parents about the new way and the old way, would be very helpful to the field at this point. In the longer term, studies should be designed to evaluate the schedules that have been most widely adopted, such as two-hour blocks of time at secondary school level.
As we have noted in our research review for this study, most of the literature on quantity of instructional time has limited the definition of that time to what goes on in school and, even more specifically, in classrooms. In our view, the most pressing research need in this area is far better documentation of the kinds of learning--including academic learning--that children and youth acquire as a result of what they do when they are not in school. We believe that such research might well show that other educators in our society already complement and supplement what the schools teach to a significant degree. However, one or more well-designed studies of the skills and knowledge that students acquire through afterschool care programs, community-based activities, membership organizations, sports, extracurricular participation, and community service would allow formal and nonformal educators to better evaluate how they could work together to support student growth and development.
In addition to this research priority, we found a number of other areas within various research literatures that would bear further investigation:
The diffuseness of the uses of time theme led us to explore the available research literature in many areas. However, collecting and analyzing the data made us keenly aware of areas that we had neglected in our research review. A key one is student motivation. In the end, given adequate opportunities for learning, the decision to learn is up to the individual. That is what many of the schools and programs that we studied understood well and sought to develop both in the classroom and beyond.
[Implications for Policy and Practice Regarding Education Reform] [References]