The school summer holiday approaches and is greeted with a cacophony of cheers and groans. The annual media frenzy framing arguments for and against a lengthy summer break has been in full flow for a few weeks now, and will doubtless be continued after children have returned to school at the beginning of September.
The debate around the long summer holiday focuses largely upon the retention of learning. A recent article in the Times Educational Supplement School’s out for summer – and so is the learning – July 18th 2014, is quite typical in expressing the concerns of some head teachers that during the summer holiday children’s learning regresses and they forget some of the skills and knowledge acquired during term time. There is certainly some justification for this concern and I recall in my days as a teacher in schools that the first few weeks of the autumn term were often spent going over previously learned materials.
I think that it is important to recognise that this discontinuity in learning is a natural phenomenon and one that most of us learn to cope with quite well. For example, occasionally in my work as an educational researcher I am required to use statistical procedures that I may not have practiced for several years. This usually involves me reaching for a text book that outlines how to complete the process and reminds me of learning that I acquired thirty years ago and could then manage without an aid memoire. The lack of frequency with which I complete these tasks today and my failure to have retained the required formulae means that my need to reach for the text book is heightened. However, this does raise a series of important questions about learning. Am I a poor learner because I cannot retain the information that was once available at my fingertips? Did those who taught me statistics fail in their task? Or did they perhaps teach me other skills, such as the ability to use sources of reference to compensate for this lack of retention, that now serve me well? Am I a better learner because I can apply approaches to supporting and supplementing my own learning? If learning was simply a matter of memory and retention of information I believe that teaching would look very different and would be far more likely to fail. On the other hand if it is about equipping children (and adults) with the skills and confidence to handle information and understand how to use those sources that can support us in our daily lives, we have increased opportunities to develop effective learners.
Maybe we should be worried about those things that children might forget over the course of a school holiday. Perhaps we should also consider that in many instances the extended break is an opportunity to encourage other forms of learning. My own school holidays tended to be occupied with a series of events, including attendance at scout camp, playing a range of sports, extended walks in the Gloucestershire countryside around my home and spending time with friends and family. It was also a chance to read books other than those that appeared on school syllabi and to become acquainted with authors never discussed in class.
I know that the activities I have just described may not be available to all children and that some parents are less able to encourage their children to participate in a broad range of experiences, However, I do think that it is important that we recognise that as well as being a break from school, the extended summer holiday can provide a chance for children to gain knowledge, skills and understanding that are beyond the remit of formal education. On a recent walk in the local countryside with visiting friends from India I was asked how I had learned about the many wild flowers, trees, butterflies, birds and insects that we encountered along the way. The answer was really straight forward. As a child I had been encouraged to spend time amongst these natural phenomena and frequently carried field guides and other sources of reference in order to understand what I was seeing and hearing. This was never a part of my formal school curriculum, but something I learned with the encouragement of friends and family during those school holidays.
My personal experiences were I know, very different from those of some of my peers and I am not suggesting that all children today have the opportunities for learning that I experienced. But I do believe that when we debate the impact of the summer holidays on education we need to broaden our perspective. Learning does not take place solely in schools, though this is obviously the most critical place for some of the education essential to all children. I suspect that teachers are for ever destined to address difficulties with the retention of skills and knowledge, but perhaps we could also celebrate those other aspects of learning that take place outside of the classroom and enrich so many of our lives.
I do hope that all teachers about to begin their summer holiday here in England enjoy a break and recharge their batteries. I also hope that all school children will enjoy the freedom of the summer and may have opportunities for new and even unexpected learning.