Summer break is a staple of the American education system. I remember as kid I couldn’t wait for the summer to arrive sometime in mid-May where I could finally do . . . well pretty much nothing for three months. Winter break as well, though no so extensive, is still an important ritual in from kindergarten through grad school.
You see way back when public education was created (Horace Mann in the mid-19th century) there was a lot of talk about breaks and leisure time. Kids need to be creative. They need time to think outside the box. Isn’t this how all the greatest inventions were created? Isn’t this where the bright ideas for business come from? What about music and art? Sort of, but we’ll get back to that.
So going back several centuries let’s look at the lifestyle of American pioneers. Or perhaps let’s go back to Europe and see where their ancestors came from. Peasants in Europe in the mid-millennium worked extra hard in the spring planting crops. Then they rested during summer while they grew. Once again they worked hard bringing in the harvest during the autumn season. When winter arrived these people would often go into almost a hibernation state to preserve energy and resources.
When the pioneers came to America they adapted much of this same lifestyle especially in the north and in the mid-continental states. I remember reading classic literature from that time period where the pioneers would work from sun -up till sundown during spring and autumn. But often during the winter and summer months they spent much of their time doing nothing. So this precedent of working during parts of the year and resting from your labor during other parts became ingrained in our society.
So now, getting back to the public school system, it seems reasonable that this would be the manner in which a method of learning would be developed. (Note: Professor Bob Thaler of Saginaw Valley State University actually suggests another theory that it was cities that initiated summer breaks due to the unhealthy, hot and dusty environment of some cities during the summer. Once again a cultural aspect influencing our views on education). Schools actually did not normally have a break longer than a week (one week each quarter) until close to the 20th century. And once the agrarian (or urban depending on which view you take) reasons behind needing a summer break began to disappear psychological ideas about childhood creativity began to take root. These ideas focused on allowing children to express themselves uniquely and creatively which the frequent extended breaks seemed to allow for.
But what about Asian cultures? Well remember my post about the Asian culture of rice patties adapted from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers? Asian’s grew up with the mindset that “a man who works from sun up till sun down 360 days a year will never lack”. Their attitude toward work was less focused on survival and more focused on working till the job gets done and then continuing to work till you do a better job or learn a more efficient method or increase production. If you can’t plant a crop because its winter than weave a basket. If you can’t weave a basket, build a new ox cart. You get the idea. Interestingly, today Japanese education systems currently has almost 60 days more class time than American systems.
What have current studies found? Breaks may actually be more detrimental than helpful. While the mind undoubtedly needs rest (let’s say one day out of seven), school children may lose so much over summer break by just being creative and playing. In fact, by continuing a disciplined lifestyle all year round with short (week long) breaks every three months or so, children and adolescents could actually be far more intelligent without sacrificing creativity.
See what people don’t understand about creativity is that it requires a foundation on which to be based. Creative musicians must have a thorough foundation in music and an understanding of what sounds appealing to others ears in order to create successful new albums. Remember Thomas Edisonspent thousands of hours learning electrical intricacies before he create a light bulb. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t magically become computer geniuses without hours on end learning computer programming. And so on.
I recently heard a woman saying “if only I could invent something and get rich!” In fact, I’ve heard that from a number of people. What they don’t get is that no just invents great ideas. People aren’t just born with useful creativity flowing from their brains. All of my free creative play as a child was meaningless in my development. In fact, undoubtedly if I’d spent more time increasing my knowledge of writing, athletics, math, and science, I’d be a more successful person today. And consider real life. In real life you don’t get breaks during the summer. Could we be handicapping our children by giving them the first 22 years (or more) of their life an unrealistic bubble of breaks?