Should we have 4-Day school week? Well, yes, but you’re asking the wrong question. ..

Is the 4-day school week a good idea?  Is the 4-day work week more productive? How beneficial is a 3-day weekend?

It’s questions like these that I’ve consistently heard and pondered the past year or so.  I’m currently a teacher at an international school in the UAE teaching in a four-day week context so I have a decent amount of insight on the topic.  But, before we answer that question, perhaps we should start with another, perhaps more pertinent question:

Why the five-day school week?

Or why the 5-day work week at all?  When you step back and remove yourself (as much as one can) from the societal routines that have been ingrained in you, the number seems fairly arbitrary.  Five days out of seven; not 4, not 6.  Five.

Since pre-industrial times religion has played a key part in deciding when a worker can rest but it hasn’t been the only contributing factor.  In Roman times, every eighth day was a nundinae, a market day on which students and the ruling class were exempt from school.  If you were a farm labourer, you were lucky enough to have a day’s reprieve from working in the field to take your produce to market  in the city. How decadent.  A change is as good as a holiday, they say. 

After all the blood and sacrifice of the Revolution, the French Revolutionary calendar only promised workers 1 day off in 10 in a week called la décade.  I’m sure it felt like a decade. 

The soviet calendar had a five or six-day workweek with a colour-coded system (various shades of red?) to identify who gets the day off.  

It wasn’t until factory owners and their workers in Britain’s industrial north made a mutual agreement that the modern notion of a weekend takes hold.  The agreement: let us finish work at 2pm on Saturday and we’ll come back to work on Monday well rested and sober (more or less).  Shortly after, in the early 20th century, a cotton mill in New England started giving workers all of Saturday and Sunday off so Jewish workers could practice the Sabbath. 

Things really started moving in the US when, for the first time, a workers union demanded and received the two days off, but it wasn’t until 1938 that a piece of legislation mandated the 40-hour work week in the USA.   That’s less than 90 years of the official five-day work week.

It would appear that the workweek has been gradually getting shorter, and with good reason.  With technology we’re able to do more.  Also, with modern understanding of human biology and psychology, we know that a rested and happier human is more productive.  But how far should it go, and where’s that sweet spot nestled somewhere between productivity, rest, and contentment? 

In my optimist spin on sometimes-frightening technological advancement, I see humanity eventually doing nothing but leisure activities and passion projects.  If we get it right, and technology allows us to end poverty and inequity, and automation takes care of our every need, we’ll have nothing but time.  Time to enjoy life with our families, engage in activities that move us, or to work on projects which we’re driven to complete for the benefit of all.  But that’s fodder for another article.

Back to the 4-day school/work week.

Should schools adopt a 4-days school week?  Yes. And maybe it could be a 3-day week, but it depends on what happens on those remaining days. 

Meaningful engagement in learning-rich activities – and there are many – is the key here. 

If we look at the research around academic achievement, the results are mixed.  While there have been some examples of four-day students in doing considerably better than they did on five days, more recent studies tend to report more negative, albeit small, impact on learning.  For the most part, the negative impact on student learning was relatively small (less than 1%) but there were some contexts in which the negative impacts were greater and cause for concern. 

There seem to be just as many positives as negatives but the simple truth is that the research is very young (most 4-day week contexts are in the first few years) The answer, however, could have nothing to do with the classroom at all.

It takes a village, and there are a lot of places to learn in a village

Reducing the amount of time in the traditional classroom is a great idea if the student is engaging in right activities in their time off.  Students can use that time to engage in what we, from the school perspective, call co-curricular or extra-curricular activities.  Often mis-understood as a fun compliment to a rigorous education, Music, Art, and Sports programs are a treasure trove of learning experiences that can trump classroom learning.  The best part about it, the students actually love to learn this way.  Perhaps we should call school ‘extra-avocationary’ learning.  I’ve already expounded the benefits of thinking having a wide ranging interests and thinking like a polymath.

More than that, a teenager could get a casual job.  What I learned about professionalism, accountability, and personal finance, has it’s foundations in an 8-hour Saturday shift at an auto-parts store. I didn’t know it at the time but I was also practicing a whole host of literacy and mathematics exercises throughout the workday. 

If they can’t get a job or are too young to work, they can help out a parent with their work, or at least around the house.  The rude awakening of my first share house and the amount of upkeep it required could have been dampened had I already known the full extent of what was involved.

Perhaps students will use the extra time to reflect on their studies, apply what they learned in class to a real world experience, and – this might sound crazy, but hear my out on this one – maybe even complete homework. 

Being social and amiable takes practice (some need more practice than others), and the structure and routine of a school often don’t let that happen as it should.  The extra day gives teenagers the time to play a part in organising their own social life without having to always choose between family and friends.  Going on holiday is a interdisciplinary project in itself, and can have greater educational benefits than you think.

As yet I haven’t touched on the benefits of being rested. At this stage, I shouldn’t need buckets of empirical research to demonstrate that students who are better rested and happier tend to learn more and achieve better results. We just need to find that balance. 

If the extra time is used to balance learning-rich activities with rest and social engagement, we can get the same results from our students and possibly much more.  The focus on achievement in the core subjects has created a high-pressure vacuum in which students can only be successful if they achieve within a narrow field of academia.   Until we figure how exactly how to balance that four-fay school week, and whether or not we adopt a four-day workweek, there will be some mixed results. 

As a society we should ask ourselves the question: Is academic achievement the main purpose of sending our children to school or do we strive for a different kind of holistic societal achievement? 

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