I stared into the students eyes and said, "When you leave the deep practice zone you might as well quit." The students sat stunned. Charlie raised his hand and said, "You mean we don't have to practice?" I responded "No, you should stop. In fact, I would put your instrument away and go do something else. If you are not concentrating you are wasting time."
The belief that TIME = EXCELLENCE is only partially true. Daniel Coyle has taught me in his book "The Talent Code" that practice is really only effective when students are engaged in the process or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call "Flow". A similar logic seems to permeate schools as well.
I have found that schools believe that student time spent "off task" during lunch, passing time and recess should be reduced so that more time can be spent in the classroom. In fact, time spent in non-tested subjects should be reduced so that more time can be spent in subjects that will lead to higher test scores. In other words, the more time spent "on task" in subjects "that matter" will result in better educated kids.
In 2007, the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University found that 62% of school districts had increased the amount of time spent on English language arts or math in elementary schools since 2001, while 44% of school districts had cut down on time spent on other subjects. The survey showed that 20% of school districts had reduced recess time. According to the 2016 Shape of the Nation report, just 16% of states require elementary schools to provide daily recess. (Reilly, Katie. “Is Recess Important for Kids? Here's What the Research Says.” Time, Time, 23 Oct. 2017, time.com/4982061/recess-benefits-research-debate/.)
I believe that allowing students frequent "brain breaks" is not only important, it is necessary. More time on task will not equal excellence unless the students are engaged. Any teacher can tell you that students (heck, humans) will reach a point of saturation. Brains just need time to linger with ideas, to absorb information and to disengage.
Schools tend to avoid "unstructured" time with students for obvious reasons - they are concerned about kids getting into trouble and making poor choices. The solution is to restrict this time and to place students in highly structured environments. Yet, this is not what is best for learning and does not help our students who struggle with mental illness and trauma.
Recently, I finished a book called Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms by Timothy D. Walker. As you can imagine the book reveals insights into what makes Finland so successful in regards to their education system. What was unique about this book is that the author, Walker, was a teacher in the United States before moving to Finland. His perspective is that of a US teacher trying to fit in a new educational climate. In the book he writes:
Anthony Pellegrini, author of the book Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota—has praised this approach for more than a decade. In East Asia, where many primary schools provide their students with a ten-minute break after about forty minutes of classroom instruction, Pellegrini observed the same phenomenon Walker had witnessed at his Finnish school. After these shorter recesses, students appeared to be more focused in the classroom (Pellegrini, 2005).
Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a U.S. public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less focused when the timing of the break was delayed—or in other words, when the lesson dragged on (Pellegrini, 2005).
In addition to this, a number of recent articles has also talked about schools realizing the importance of breaks during the day: Texas School Beats ADHD by Tripling Recess Time.
I'm sure many administrators would shutter at the idea of providing more "breaks" for kids. But what if we actually gave students what they needed? What if we helped those students who need mental health supports and wrap around services? What if we supported all learners (and teachers) with appropriate breaks? What if we realized that there is more to education than the subjects tested on most standardized tests and invested in those subject areas rather than siphon minutes and resources away from them?
Time does not equal excellence. More is not necessarily better. We need to provide teachers with the autonomy they need and deserve to make the best choices for their students. We need to treat teachers like professionals and provide them with more opportunities to research what successful schools are doing. We need to provide schools with the resources necessary to take care of our kids - each and every one of them so that we can focus on teaching and learning. Time does not equal excellence. More is not necessarily better.