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Around the woodstove: Longer days in class don't equal more learning

Though he was a good and pious man, Father Edward was nicknamed "Mumbles" by his high school students after the cartoon villain in the Dick Tracy comic strip who was exasperatingly incomprehensible.

Though he was a good and pious man, Father Edward was nicknamed "Mumbles" by his high school students after the cartoon villain in the Dick Tracy comic strip who was exasperatingly incomprehensible.

His failure to connect while teaching us American history was due to his exclusive use of the least effective pedagogical method, lecture, a method for which he was particularly ill-suited. Mumbles would stand in his Friar's robe in front of the room, his hands clasped behind his back, reciting from memory the chapter and section headings from the textbook along with the little summaries he prepared for each.

The most maddening part was that his mnemonic technique for recall required rapid-fire recitation, slurred and bumbled through a mouthful of Luden's cough drops. He accompanied his chant with a rhythmic rocking to and fro on the heels of his sandals, with the result that we could neither understand nor take coherent notes, dozing instead for 50 minutes, hypnotized by the knotted rope that cinched his robe, swinging like a pendulum.

The current debate about lengthening the school day -- an idea recommended by Education Secretary Arne Duncan for states like Minnesota, where there is no statewide minimum length-of-day requirement -- caused me to think back to "Mumbles." I shuddered at the thought of an additional 10 or 15 minutes of such agony.

Do longer classes equal more learning?

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The quick answer, one that working teachers would give, is yes, but we mean a longer school year, not time added to a single day. Rather, altering summer vacation and establishing a year-round education with intermittent breaks makes the most sense to the folks in the trenches.

Those endless, idle summers, though legendary in film, memoir, and song ("Summer of 42," "Sealed with a Kiss"), are known by teachers more as a period of forgetting rather than debriefing. Primary- and middle-school instructors must devote weeks or months to review just to get back to the starting line.

And secondary teachers are painfully aware of summer's blurring of pupil focus and intellectual intensity, a fact corroborated by a 2004 Duke University/Harris Cooper study which determined that students in math lose a full month of learning over summer vacation as opposed to students in year-round schools whose retention is higher.

So spreading Minnesota's average of 175 hours of instruction over a year-long template would improve achievement without the need for tens of millions of dollars for longer days.

Good teachers know that piling more minutes onto a class session is not a panacea, any more than increasing the length of a poem, a song or recipe will automatically improve their quality.

Instead, planning succinct, retainable and vital lessons in the proper time frame is more important in the electronic age when competing for the fragile and limited attention spans of youths bombarded by pitches from computers, social networks, iPhones, video games and 300 channels on TV.

Yet the politicians and school administrators, whose imaginations are limited to workplace models, are trying to extrapolate corporate or assembly-line-product logic to the minds of children. To them, since adding 90 minutes to the work shift on a Ford assembly line can increase the number of cars built by 11 percent, the same kind of increase can occur in Little Johnny's brain.

Experts say no. Researchers at Duke University and at the University of Texas examined 15 different studies in 2010 and concluded it's not known that a longer day is beneficial except, perhaps, in areas of extreme poverty where even Father Edward's classroom is preferable to an environment where bullets are flying and survival is the priority.

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And the studies don't even take into account all of the collateral and logistical consequences for students in our rural areas or for students rising at dawn in order to be bused hours a day across the city, for whom school could end up being a 10- to 12-hour marathon.

Yes, students in Japan with similarly long schedules have high achievement levels. Remember, though, they have the world's highest rate of juvenile suicide and mental illness, as well.

David McGrath lives in Hayward and is in his fourth decade of teaching. He can be contacted at Profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com .

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