Feral summers, Fighting boredom, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam are join by Julie Neal, Chief of Staff at Maths — No Problem! to chat about school breaks. Are breaks too long? Do kids end up forgetting stuff they’ve learnt? Plus, the gang discuss whether or not the exploratory learning that happens during breaks and through boredom is as valuable as classroom learning.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast.
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Welcome back to another episode of the School of School Podcast. We are here with our usual suspects, Adam Gifford.
And Andy Psarianos. Hi Andy.
And a special guest today. Oh my goodness. How excited am I to have her on. Julie Neal, our very own Chief of Staff at The Fig Leaf Group and at Maths — No Problem! So Julie, welcome to the podcast. We're going to talk a little bit about school breaks today because I know you and I have had this conversation about our own children. How long is too long. But before we get into it, do you want to give us a little bit more information about you and what you do here?
Sure. Thank you for the introduction and it's good to be with you all. It's a nice, exciting change of pace to what I normally do in a day. I've been with Maths — No Problem! for a little over six years now and have seen many sizes, shapes and colours of what we do, which I'm proud to say. And primarily came on when we moved over and developed a Canadian presence and Andy opened a Canadian office and all things around trying to make that happen, hire staff, sort things out and learn how to work with an eight hour time change. So my role is Chief of Staff, and I guess my primary priority is to try to support Andy and all the things he needs to accomplish in a day, protect his time, make sure his time is used as best and efficiently as we can and support the staff and allow that to be a really good, strong bridge between Andy and the rest of the company.
So Julie, you and I have had this conversation before, because it has been summer holidays here and we've chatted with our UK colleagues as well. And they had a six week break I believe. Here we've had at least an eight week, if not 10 week break for our kids. And the question is, because times have changed, haven't they, from when we used to have summer holidays in the sense that it was get us out the door and leave us up to our own devices, to figure out what we're going to do for the day. That's really quite different now with our kids. So are the breaks too long? Should we be shortening them down, having more during the year and less of one giant chunk of time for our kids. Julie, do you want to start?
Robin and I were chatting and I was saying it's really interesting because our kids go back here in Canada, September 6th and my son happened to be behind me and he was bouncing away in front of a video game. And the colleague I was on a call with just happened to bring up how long have your kids been off? And wow, isn't that hard for them. And it's interesting because we take it for granted because that's what we've always done here. But I do think there's an element of it being difficult. And when I ask my son, he's scared. They're dreading going back. He's scared to go back. And yet he doesn't want to let go of the break. He's bored. He will outright say he's bored, but how long is too long? Because if they hadn't have had this extensive time off and the ability to get bored, would he have this fear of returning? And Adam, it would be really interesting to hear also from your perspective, whether you saw that with kids in the UK.
Yeah. It's massively complex. In fact, I was in the car with my son yesterday and he was saying, "I can't believe the first month of my holidays are gone". I was thinking, "Oh, you poor fella. You only got a month to go, oh, my heart bleeds for you". But I wonder a few things. So one perspective is that I completely hear you Robin, that I was very fortunate when I grew up, I'd go off to my grandparents. They lived by a beach. I would go out first thing in the morning and I'd walk to the beach and I'd stay at the beach all day and I'd come back to be fed at lunchtime and then fed at dinner. And I would do that until my parents picked me up. And so I had no idea about how many weeks I was off, but there certainly wasn't, I don't think, the same societal pressure.
And I think I'm right in saying this that I don't think my parents felt they needed to keep me entertained. I don't think that my grandparents felt they needed to keep me entertained or to be doing things with me all the time or organising things and things like that. I think it was a lot of left to your own devices. The flip side of that of course, is that when you work in schools, you see some people, some children who are in environments that aren't as idyllic as what I've just described. And if they're not, that's a long time. That's a long time to be there.
So I think it's a tricky one because you could argue, should we as parents and this is a massive generalisation, so I could be completely wrong on this. Should we be allowing our children to be bored more often. Create their own fund more often. Let them go ferrell more often. Is that part of the problem? Is it our parental anxiety that tells us that if I let my children play in the backyard for six hours, then all of a sudden I'm a terrible father. So I don't know. I don't know. I think the experience is different for everyone. And I think that there are some children that'll benefit from it. It's a very woolly politician answer, and some children really won't. Does my son need two months off? No, I don't reckon. I don't think so.
What about the learning itself? Do you think it's a too long period of time so that kids do start forgetting what it was they learned in the previous year?
Well, just very quickly. And then you guys can discuss this, but I mean, let's not forget they've just been out of school for a long time. The pandemic has absolutely smashed schools to bits. It smashed families, communities, children, to bits educationally. Do we need another two months? And I don't just mean that from an academic sense. I mean, from a societal sense. There are going to be plenty of children that aren't going to see their mates for two months and they might not have contact. These are things that perhaps having shorter, if you want the same days off, more regular breaks, but just so that cycle of schooling isn't going to be as deeply affected as if you have two months off over summer.
What happens if something happens in September and October? You know what I mean? I don't know. I think I'd rather have shorter breaks split up, but then again, I think that some of the experiences that some children have, really they benefit from that long time off. So it's really tricky. I think at the moment having that consistency of habit that schools provide, I think that that's a really important thing in a very recent period of time that's been so disruptive. I don't know. What are your thoughts, Andy? You've got children?
I just trying to think of what angle to look at this problem with and even question is, is it a problem? The thing that you said that really resonated with me is should children be allowed to be bored more often? And I think it's a responsibility to make sure that your children are bored a lot of the time, because otherwise, if you feel that your role is to just keep your kids entertained all the time, I don't think you're doing them a service. You're going to create children who don't know what to do when nobody tells them what to do. And then maybe that's a travesty. Maybe some people will overcome it and become independent, but some people never will. And so that's dangerous to over, I don't know what's the word, plan for your children and whether it be through planning through school or planning through activities or in the summertime. Everyone needs to learn how to be bored.
Cause out of boredom comes all kinds of things. Let's think back about what did it mean to be a child in different generations? This idea that we have a childhood today is very, very different than what it meant to be a child a couple of hundred years ago. So the idea of childhood that we have today is a modern manifestation, some modern construct that we've created. In the past, you had to grow up a lot earlier and take on a tremendous more amount of responsibility from a younger age. I don't think there isn't an ultimate right answer to this question. The question should be what kind of experiences should children have and are we doing the right thing? And then from that then, because we need a lens to judge it by. And I don't think there is a clear lens to judge it by.
Look, I don't have a problem with long summer holidays. And I think that if you took that away from me as a child, I would've felt like I had been ripped off. I remember being bored a lot of the time when I was a kid. Most of the time, probably, but somehow I treasure those moments now when I look back on them. And we had nothing, my parents didn't have money. We didn't have very many toys. We were just sent outside and said, "Okay, just get on with it. Do what you want to do". I don't regret it. I think it was great. We used to play with the ants. We were that bored. I used to play with insects. I got joy playing out of insects. My kids are scared of insects.
That's a whole other point. So you found joy in playing with the insects. And nowadays when my kids are bored, it's not about, "Okay, just find something to do. Go off and..." They don't. They probably go on a device and it's a whole different level of boredom. Something that we didn't experience as children.
We were better equipped to deal with it, I guess, is what it comes down to.
Yeah. We didn't have phones.
But I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I guess that's what I'm saying is we don't really have a good lens to judge it by. I'm not saying that we should bring everybody back to the dark ages, because life was so much better and so much more simple then. On what criteria do we judge it? Is it what's good for the kids and what is good for the kids mean? Or is it what's good for the parents because that's also a factor too. If you got young kids running around the house for eight or 10 weeks in the summer and you're trying to work full time, that's not easy. That's a huge burden on the parents or is that important?
Or what's the thing? Is it schooling? Does it matter that the kids forgot everything and did they really forget? Or they just need a couple of prompts to get them back? Is that even an issue? Maybe it is an issue. If the most important thing is the grades that they get at the end of school is the most important thing in their lives, then the answer is clear. But if the most important thing is something else, then maybe a different answer is clear.
That was going to be one of my questions/comments is from a learning perspective, I've heard that the retention loss, given the amount of time the kids are off, is actually more significant than you would think. And I'm not going to try to quote it because I'm not going to get it right. But I guess that's where I wonder are we losing time in the classroom trying to repeat what happened last year, because nobody can remember. Is that a big deal? Is that a lost opportunity?
Well, let me throw a twist on that. And then I think let's throw it at Adam because he's the most qualified to answer it. Does it even matter? Are we sending kids to school in order for them to remember a whole bunch of stuff or are we just trying to teach them how to think? If we're trying to teach them how to think, does it matter that they forgot a bunch of stuff? I don't know. So Adam, come on. What's the answer?
I think I've said this before, so I'll keep it short because I want to try not to repeat myself on here. One of the most powerful things that I heard when I was teaching, there was a girl that came into my class and she was brilliant. She was just wonderful at everything. I don't just mean the subjects in academia, she was just a really great human being and her parents were really great human beings. They were both very clever people, both consultant doctors, and one was a surgeon and one did something else. And they were by, I suppose, any measure successful, including certainly outwardly happiness. And I remember there was a big societal pressure to do tutoring at the school that I was working at. And they came in of quite distraught one day and they were really, really anxious and really worried about this. They'd come from another country.
And they said to me, "Mr Gifford, do you think that our daughter needs tutoring"? That was an entry to get into a selective school. And I said, "No, no I don't". And they said, "But our worry is not so much academic. It's more societal that we get this pressure". And then the dad said something that I think that I've had certain fundamental shifts in my educational thinking and this was one of them. And he said, "You know what I don't understand? I learned so much from walking through the woods with my grandfather when I was young and the times after school and on the weekend and in the holidays". And he said, "I just don't understand why there's this thinking of more work, more work, more work". It is just like Andy said, if we just concentrated on two subjects, English and maths and that's all we did. And we could be the world's best at English and maths.
Does that make humanity better? And those lessons that dad was talking about from his grandfather, did it do him any harm? He's at the top of his field. No, I don't think it did do him any harm whatsoever. And it wouldn't do any harm if he was having the same conversations with his daughter after school. In fact, I would say that would benefit his daughter about a bazillion times more than doing extra papers that she didn't academically need to do. They weren't really going to make that much of a difference to her. So I think it's about what people get out of it. It's far too simplistic to say yes, just going to school for more days in the year equals better society. Because I don't think that that's true.
And I think that we have to accept that over the school holidays, some children win some of it, and other children don't win some of it and it's frivolous. I guess that's society. But I do think that the idea of letting children, I just use that phrase go ferrell because I quite like it. You want children to get out there, digging for bugs and getting dirty. All that sort of stuff that I think that that's somehow now been related to being a negligent parent because I've not organised a play date at the science museum. Come on, please. Andy, colonies of ants. You spend a long time observing that. I guarantee you're going to learn a hell of a lot, simple as that. So yeah, I just-
And there's an endless supply of ants, by the way.
So I don't know. I think that perhaps we're so worried about getting it wrong and I'm sure every generation of parents have had that worry, but I'll tell you one thing, I think my parents disguised it better than I did because they seemed to have no problem with me shooting down to the beach from whatever age and doing whatever. Going into the bush and just doing whatever I did.
But I think part of the issue now though, so what makes it very different from then Adam, is that in those days, I played with ants, not when I was 15, but when I was small. I remember maybe being four or five and that's what we did. Just in the backyard or in the back lane, just me and the other kids that were around my age, just doing stuff with very little. Little popsicle sticks or whatever were enough for us to have fun with, but we didn't have a choice. So we had to, but now it's like, kid is bored, they automatically gravitate towards flashy device that has all the entertainment you could possibly imagine. So what's not happening in those long breaks now, is when I was really, really bored about the age of 13 or 14, I became very interested in music because I had long periods of time to fill in and begged my parents to get me a guitar and eventually convinced them that it was a good idea, which was really hard.
And then out of that came a lifelong passion for music that actually grew out of boredom. And I know Adam for you, probably your passion for reading comic books and all that stuff probably came from, I'm only imagining that if you didn't have long periods of time with nothing to do, you probably wouldn't have found that passion or whatever it is. But nowadays that won't happen. It won't happen because your passion will be for some particular video game or something, which is an end in itself in a way. It doesn't really tend to lead to something else or if it does, I don't see what it is.
So sorry to jump in. And I'm keen to hear Julie and Robin, your thoughts on this. Now, this might sound really stupid, but say going back in the days, you see those movies where records and the portable record player came in, people listening to rock and roll music and parents horrified and all the rest of it, because they didn't know what was going to happen if their children listened to rock and roll. Are we in a stage now? When I was a kid, we had two channels on New Zealand television and the children's part of it was about at tops one hour a day, absolute tops. So all of those options, like you said, Andy, weren't there. Now we've got these. Are we like the rock and roll parents that we don't know the impact of them having all the accessibility to all of this stuff. And in years to come, we'll realise actually, do you know what, it wasn't so bad that they spent two hours on the iPad or three hours on the iPad. I don't know. I'm just throwing it out there because I don't know.
I don't think any of us know, but yeah, what do you guys think?
Andy, hearing you talk about finding the ants and finding the guitar, immediately what comes to mind for me is that that boredom pushed you to curiosity and curiosity create a natural learning environment. And I guess if we don't let our kids get bored, that would be the sad reality is that they won't stumble upon things that they wonder about.
Yeah, absolutely Julie.
And boredom is the cradle of curiosity. So unless you have time and space to be bored, you don't have time and space to be curious. How often do you come with some wonderful insight when you're really, really busy trying to crunch something out. Not often really, because usually you're so engulfed in what you're doing, that you're using all your capacity to finish the task. You think of school that way. But you think about all the great discoveries of mankind, that's often done by people just sitting around thinking about stuff because they had nothing else to do. All these Greek mathematicians that came up with the laws of geometry and people who came up with... What was his name? Algebra or whatever that came up with algebra and Newton who came up with... Newton came up with calculus when they closed the schools because of a pandemic.
He was bored stupid. So he invented calculus. Cambridge was shot because of the plague so he went home. And what did he do in his spare time? He invented calculus. What do you think Pythagoras, what else did he have to do? Was working out triangles or Euclid and the laws of the Euclidean geometry. He's probably sitting around in the fricking middle of nowhere, thinking what the hell am I going to do? So he just took a stick and drew some triangles in the sand and said, oh look at this. Okay, clearly it's not that simple but if those guys didn't have the time to sit around and think about stuff, even Einstein came up with his most important thought experiments when he was working in the Swiss, I think it was the Swiss patent office and he was bored out of his skull. So if you're never bored-
Great. So you've summed it up. It's the fun fact of the week, I guess, or the tip of the week, which is make sure they're bored. Let them become curious. And they will discover something like calculus and algebra in the process.
But I know we need to wrap this up, but Julie, just before you go, because we all know you're very busy. You told me once about a holiday that you went with your kids where there was no internet and it started off, I think it was Cuba or something. Does that ring a bell? Was it you who told me that story?
Yeah. Yeah. We have been to Cuba. So it could be me.
Yeah. And there was no internet available. What happened?
What I would say is they figure it out. You just have to give them time. And I think that our parenting generation, we over programme, we helicopter, we do all the bad things that we've been told we do. And we just don't wait long enough to let them see where the next 10 minutes, 15, half an hour, is going to take them. And what did I say? Go on, tell me.
Well, what you said to me, now this is going back probably six years now. And I think you went to Cuba and you got there and it was like effectively zero internet access, which meant that social media was off, a lot of the access to video games and things that they were accustomed to were no longer accessible. And your kids panicked at first, but then had one of the best holidays they ever had, once they got over the initial shock of not being able to spend all the time on their phones. And it totally resonates with me. I've sat in situations where maybe we're on a family trip or something and we're driving somewhere. Let's say through the Coquihalla Highway, it's one of the most scenic, most beautiful things in the world. And I'm like, "Wow, look at this. Look at that". And my kids are in the back looking, staring at their phones, went "Yeah, sure dad, whatever". And it's like, they should have stayed home.
Well, they'd be watching the Coquihalla Highway on YouTube, so they would've stayed home and go, "Dad, check this out. This is amazing".
Yeah. Yeah. Well, there's a whole programme on the Coquihalla Highway. How it's the most dangerous highway in the world and people are crashing all the time and stuff. I don't remember what it's called, but it's like highway to hell, I think it's called. It's a documentary thing where there's always these crashes there because it's like one of the most treacherous passes for cars and my kids are going through it and they're looking at their phones. But then you'll see, they'll be watching the YouTube videos of other people crashing in the Coquihalla Highway. Anyway, Julie, thanks so much for joining.
Thanks for having me. It's been a blast.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School Podcast.