Should Boise School District students head back to school earlier in August? As an educator, I’m interested in the question of whether a calendar shift is educationally significant.
I spent much of my academic career having the privilege of teaching Educational Psychology to undergraduate pre-service teachers and those going into human services fields. I’ve looked closely at whether a shorter summer break reduces “brain drain.” There is some evidence of minimal loss over summer vacation; presumably it’s even less over the winter break. More importantly, however, we have known for some time from the research on teaching and learning that sitting at a desk with a lecture-style teaching model, then doing homework, and then taking a test shortly thereafter is one of the least effective ways humans learn. This is why hands-on learning is so critical, particularly for those students who are ill-served by this model and who are often the students who are the most impacted by learning loss over summer break.
Research indicates that what students learn while visiting national and state parks, raising livestock, swimming in public pools or lakes, camping, picnicking, and other non-structured activities allows students to make connections and learn more broadly, and enriches their experience back in the classroom. This is one reason we find the ubiquitous, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” essay.
Returning to school earlier in August is intended to allow the district to schedule testing so that there would be slightly less time between lecture, practice and the district’s own high-stakes testing, which is not mandated by state or federal law. However, there is a difference between higher final exam scores, which the district claims will result, and higher achievement. True memory consolidation is a complex dance of neural connections between wanting to learn, short-term memory acquisition, long-term storage, and the retrieval process. It takes time for a memory to be fully consolidated. And it’s why my 65-year-old friend with a traumatic brain injury can remember his high school locker combination but not what he ate for breakfast.
Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, says children need time to wonder and explore. Could there be a connection between the alarming rates of depression and anxiety among young people and not enough time to explore and wonder? Though the district is not suggesting a longer school year (at least not yet) — just fewer summer days in August (even with their revised schedule) — there is not enough evidence to support their assertion of resulting higher achievement. Rather, a great deal of evidence and scholarly thinking supports the many physical, mental and emotional benefits of giving young people more opportunities to explore, wonder, and learn during all of Idaho’s long summer days.
Written by Dr. Jill Haunold, Ed.D., a former professor of psychology at the College of Idaho. She and her husband Chris have owned Idaho Mountain Touring since 1988.