One Surprising Secret to Engaged Students

July 24, 2014 — Leave a comment

Authentic Maturity

Yesterday, I blogged about schools in Finland and how they seem to be able to engage their students so much better than we do in the U.S. The students appear to enjoy the learning process, often do work with little or no adult supervision, and score higher in comparable tests in other nations. Teachers say the students are:

  • Engaged
  • Happy
  • Curious
  • Genuinely learning

Regardless of whether you’re an educator, coach, youth director or youth pastor, you gotta love this. So what’s the big secret?

Better, more frequent recess time.

Schools in Finland see it as key to the educational process, not a distraction from the process. They take a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction time. During a typical break, students head outside to play around, socialize with friends or remain inside for time to connect and decompress. During that time, teachers disappear to the lounge to chat over coffee.

I know. It seems soft. What a bunch of lazy slackers, right?

Hmmm. Nope. They actually do better than we do academically. In the U.S. we often pride ourselves in several hours of rigorous classroom time, believing kids learn better with longer stretches of instructional time. If you look at the numbers, however, you see our system isn’t as effective. Our “system” has pushed teachers to spend more hours, not less, with the students, thinking more hours will help us catch up and produce better kids. But does it?

I recall my days in class — wishing for a break after 45 minutes, and I was a good student. After an hour, feet are dragging, attention spans have slipped, and brains need a short break. Science even tells us this…but science class doesn’t practice it. In fact, come to think of it, longer stretches only work on paper. They don’t produce the results we’re after — even if it appears “soft” or undisciplined.

The Facts About This Groundbreaking Discovery

Frequent breaks keep students fresh throughout the day. Finnish schools have been practicing this since the 1960s. These breaks result in:

  • Focused students – They know their needs will be met soon.
  • Fresher students – They’ve just had a break and are ready to dig back in.
  • Fulfilled students – They’re energized by social time and curious to learn.

One teacher who decided to do class the Finnish way said, “Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my students would — without fail — enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.

The Research Behind This Groundbreaking Discovery

Perhaps you’ve heard of the work of Anthony Pellegrini, author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, who has praised this approach for over 10 years. In East Asia, where most primary schools give their students a 10-minute break after 40 minutes or so of classroom instruction, Pellegrini observed this phenomenon. After shorter recesses, students appeared to be more attentive in the classroom.

Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a 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 attentive when the timing of the break was delayed — or in other words, when the lesson dragged on.

In Finland, primary school teachers seem to know this intuitively. They send kids outside — rain or shine — for their frequent recesses. And the children get to decide how they spend their break times. I realize that unleashing fifth graders on the playground every hour would be a huge shift for most schools. According to Pellegrini, breaks don’t have to be outdoors to be helpful. In one of his experiments at the public elementary school, students had their recess times inside the school, and the results matched those of other experiments performed outside.

Give Me a Break!

What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work. When break times are teacher-directed, Pellegrini found, the recess loses its value. It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge, they also learn to cooperate, communicate and compromise — all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.

So, how could you adjust your student programs to get more engaged students?

 

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