Why do short and long school hours both work?

As you know, different countries take quite a variety of approaches to educating their populations. Some have long hours, some short. Some give lots of homework, some none. It’s amazing to see that two countries at either end of the school-homework spectrum both top world rankings in recent years. If no single approach is a silver bullet, what is the secret to success?

Our local Curriculum

I teach in New Zealand where we have one of the world’s most flexible systems. The country’s National Curriculum is only a guiding document of principles and values. It asks schools to build a “Local Curriculum” in consultation with their direct community. Some New Zealand schools love exams and some avoid them at all costs. We can do this because our assessment systems at all levels are designed to accomodate and report progress and success in all these multiple formats. This allows schools work towards matching their use of time and resources to the expectations of the people they serve.

The state schools in New Zealand may take very different approaches to assessment, homework, school hours and learning, but I wonder if this matching of school priorities to local community culture is what leads New Zealand to often feature near the top of world rankings, albeit through the full spectrum of educational philosophy.

Cultural mismatches

Looking at the USA and the UK as a comparison with New Zealand, they are two countries that boast higher economic status than mine, who pride themselves in their dedication to personal freedom, democracy and open markets. In contrast to their culture, they run far more national, fixed syllabus, standardised curriculums and testing than New Zealand. State-wide, public (government) schools in the UK and the USA are expected to essentially behave the same and deliver almost exactly the same learning. I use to work in the UK and a teacher from England recently reminded me that the whole of the UK education system is indirectly controlled by the examination boards (exam writing companies). Americans say similar things about SATs etc.

Source: oecd.org/pisa/

Singapore on the other hand, has a national culture of strict rules, compliance and ranking, they match this in education, issuing the largest amount of homework in the world and have vast amounts of standardised testing. One of these tests (Primary School Leaving Examination) defines your education future at the age of 11. Whichever you may like the sound of, Singapore and New Zealand have vastly different approaches to education but in both cases it matches the wider culture the learners live in. I question if the UK and USA do not do enough to match their culture of personal freedom with a flexible  approach to education and thus score worse in international benchmarks, despite having more money and resources. Is it a cultural mismatch between education and society that can make school a more alien environment to the learner and increases conflict and other challenges.

Match thy learners

It seems to me that rather than consider there is an optimum amount of homework or school hours, education systems and individual schools need to ensure they understand the expectations and mindsets of the learners and communities they serve. Where there is alignment of societal and educational cultures, there seems to be greater success. That being said, I like my relaxed New Zealand life where school is 9 until 3, offering a range of styles and approaches, influenced by their local community to compliment the local community.

Note: find out more about NZ education in my book A Learner’s Paradise

Author: Richard Wells
Deputy Principal in a New Zealand High School
Teaches grade 6 to 12
Top 40 in edublog awards 2013
Top 12 Blogger – The Global Search for Education
Known for Educational Infographics (see Posters)
and an International keynote speaker.
Twitter :  @EduWells

This post is written as part of  The Global Search for Education: Our Top Global Teacher Blogs: A series of questions that Cathy Rubin is asking several education bloggers.