Is more time spent in the classroom helpful for learning?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

In OECD countries, between the ages of 6 and 15 – this is the age-bracket covered by compulsory education, including primary and lower secondary education – children are supposed to spend their days at school. All countries attach great value to schooling and expect children to learn the foundation skills during their time spent in formalised instruction. Therefore, one would expect there to be a shared view on how much time exactly children should spend in school.

The most recent issue of the Education Indicators in Focus series shows however that there is actually no common view. The data on the total number of instructions hours in primary and lower secondary education per country (see chart above) show a surprising variation in the number of hours OECD countries expect children to be at school. The OECD average total intended instruction time is 7 751 hours, but the instruction-time requirements range from 6 054 hours in Hungary to 10 710 hours in Australia. This means that the total time Hungarian children spend in school is only 56.5% of what their Australian peers have to spend. Even if we forget the outliers, we cannot ignore that the discrepancies between countries with very similar educational systems and histories are striking: the total intended instruction time in the Flemish Community of Belgium is only 71.5% of that in the Netherlands. And yet, both countries’ educational systems share many features and are performing very similarly in many educational outcome measures.

How much does instruction time actually matter then? Comparing country-level data on instruction time with PISA 2012 data on learning outcomes for mathematics does not seem to support the hypothesis that more instruction time leads to better student learning outcomes. As far as there is any relationship, it actually goes the other way: the 10 countries with the highest instruction time have a mean PISA score for mathematics, which is 20 score-points below that of the 10 countries with the lowest amount of instruction time. More than 2 700 hours of instruction in primary and lower secondary education do not seem to make a difference in learning outcomes at the end of that period. And at first sight more instruction time does not help reducing the proportion of low-achieving students either: the 10 countries with the highest number of instruction hours have 47% of 15 year-olds achieving at or below level 2 on the PISA math scale, compared with 40% for the 10 countries with the lowest amount of intended instruction time. It is likely that the amount of instruction time educational systems have settled on is related in quite complex ways to historical patterns and social conditions in countries. Or it may be a mere product of pure coincidence and tradition having gradually lost its social significance and relevance.

Of course, children do many more things than just sitting in the classroom, and they learn through many more daily activities than just going to school. After all, total instruction time in schools comprises an estimated 15% of total non-sleeping time of children aged between 6 and 15. From a learning perspective the remaining 85% is interesting. Some activities are school-related, such as homework, others expand formal learning into parallel environments, such as private tutoring or music lessons. In some countries these activities significantly increase the formal learning time beyond school-based instruction.  Children also participate in non-formal learning, such as sports, youth work and cultural activities. We should also not forget that children need time to play with friends, to engage in family time with parents and siblings, to learn from surfing the internet, to participate in social media, to watch television or just to enjoy being on their own. Very little is known about this crucial dimension of time of children and how it may contribute to learning. But several countries – mainly European ones such as Germany, Belgium, Austria, Nordic countries, etc. – who do not consider a very long school day for children as optimal for learning and well-being, attach great importance to safeguarding children’s play-time and joyful informal learning.

Completely different views on children’s learning time exist as well. In some countries activists and movements concerned with maximising learning opportunities for disadvantaged children seek to increase school-based instruction time, because they think it’s the only way to offer more favourable learning conditions to disadvantaged kids than the home or the street. Historically, this thinking aligns with some of the considerations which led to the implementation of compulsory education legislation one century ago.

There are many good reasons to bring children together in schools to offer them a powerful learning environment. But there doesn’t seem to be a shared view on exactly how much time children should spend in schools.

Education Indicators in Focus, Issue No. 22, by Eric Charbonnier and Nhung Truong
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus:
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators:

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