More work? More play? What’s really best for high school students?

Learning to smoke, and other useful skills
Learning to smoke, and other useful skills

Laura Capponi, student at the Lycée EIB Etoile, Paris, France

I am a student in a French high school, where I have always studied. The French educational system is different to many other countries because of the length of the day, which typically runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a half day on Wednesday. Students do not usually attend school on Saturday or Sunday. In comparison, school hours are usually from 7.30am to 2pm or 2.30pm in the United States, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Australia or from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. in Finland.

I chose to compare France and the United States as my American friend, living there, could describe her schedule from the students’ point of view.

Students of my age, 14/15 years old, would attend school an average of 8 hours (including lunch) in France with a required 1048 hours of compulsory instruction per year, compared to a 14/15-year-old American student who would attend school an average of 6 hours a day for approximately the same number of hours per year. The main difference between these two systems is the number of hours per day and the amount of holidays. This leaves American students more leisure time and therefore more time to develop other interests such as art, sport or other extracurricular activities. On the other hand, French students spend most of their day in school, leaving little time for anything else.

How do these countries rank in the PISA report by the OECD, which has tested high-school students since 2000, and what does this say about the different systems? Studies show that developing extracurricular interests is beneficial to a child’s education. However France, where students typically spend a lot more time in school, ranks ahead of the United States by 14 points. The top country in this ranking is China. A high-school day in China often starts as early as 7am and ends a 5pm or later. According to a Chinese Youth and Children Research Center (CYCRC) survey, the majority of Chinese students spend more time at school than their parents do at work and have little to no time at all to play or to enjoy any extracurricular activities, their time being taken up by homework. This system is more similar to the French one, which would suggest that spending more time in school during the day is more adapted to the students.

However, the survey also shows that Chinese children do not enjoy as much playtime as they would like. They do not meet the requirement of 9 hours of sleep, and only 4 in 10 of the survey’s participants claim they have any friends to play with.

Study pressure has led to an increase in stress, psychological problems and even tragedy. Recently, a 16-year-old girl from Chengdu, Sichuan Province, committed suicide after failing to pass the entrance exam for a respected senior high school. The level of competition in China to be accepted into college is extremely high.

“But tests only tell you so much about Chinese students’ smarts”, says Xiaodong Lin, a professor of cognitive studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “When they come to university in the US, Chinese students tend to struggle with analytical writing, critical thinking, and communication with peers and professors,” Lin wrote in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party.

“While Chinese education has focused more on mastery of knowledge, the American education seems to emphasise how to learn, even though we may not do as a good job as we wish,” she wrote.

While Chinese students tend to work very hard and succeed in school, American students are taught to be independent thinkers, challenge others’ opinions and be confident in their judgement, which could be considered more useful later in their lives. However they are often over-confident, and want to be “the boss instead of the soldier”.

Looking at the PISA study results, it seems that the highest-ranking countries were the ones which had longer school days, though some countries show that this is not the case. For example, the school system in Finland is different in many ways to China’s yet they have constantly ranked in the top countries of the study.

There are no mandated standardised tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of the students’ senior year of high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons between students, schools or regions. Homework is minimal and teachers, instead of spending more time in the classroom, use this time to build curriculums and assess their students. In this way, each student receives the amount of attention he needs.

Finland’s performance in PISA shows that increasing the length of school days and the amount of homework are not the only factors which increase scores in the test. It is also a balance between the Chinese and American systems which gives every student an opportunity to score well without extra work and pressure.

Useful links

Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves?

Every child has special needs: “secrets” of Finnish education

OECD work on education

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2 comments to “More work? More play? What’s really best for high school students?”

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  1. Patricia Almeida Ashley - 01/09/2016 Reply

    Dear Laura Capponi,

    I am pleased to read your article, from a perspective of the testimony of the author and a critical lense comparing PISA results, school time, social, leisure, sleeping and family time in high school models in France, USA, China and Finland.

    Not only informed but helped us to think about and bring to our own country example. I would suggest you continue your comparisons in your future studies.

    From my own 52 year experience, back in the 80´s, high-school in a private agostinian top ranked school in Rio de Janeiro City (Brazil) – Colegio Santo Agostinho – highly qualified teachers, lot of time spent in classrooms and homework, we could have time for leisure during daytime and family. We had classrooms since 7 am up to 12pm and sometimes extra activities in the afternoon for clarifications on topics and simulation of exams. That means 5 hours in school from Monday to Saturday, sometimes extra hours in the afternoon, but lots, lots of homework activities.

    However, not the same model we find in public high-schools, varying a lot. Nowadays in Brazil we are revising the national curriculum for primary and secondary education, with a trend to major revision in high-school model. Discussions are going on in the federal government and Brazilian congress.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughts.

    Kind Regards

    Patricia Almeida Ashley
    Nucleo Girassol de Estudos em EcoPoliticas e EConsCiencias
    Universidade Federal Fluminense – Brazil

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