Planning a timetable for the school week

Should We Have a 4-Day School Week? Well, yes, but…

The four-day school week and work week has long been a controversial talking point but not many have attempted to launch it at a large scale. I’ve experienced this transition from five to four days of structured learning each week and now, nearly 18 months of shortened school weeks later, I’m here to hail it’s benefits but also make a few caveats.

For me, one of the best (and unexpected) perks of working at an international school in the UAE came about at the end of 2021, when the government boldly announced that the country would be switching to a 4 or 4.5-day work week.  At first I didn’t believe it, but it did in fact come to be, and here I am, using one of my extra days off each week to write this article. 

  The switch came about with the desire to align the calendar with the western markets.  And so, a Sunday – Thursday work week became Monday – Friday, but with only a few hours of work on Friday morning to accommodate midday prayer.  

Some Emirates within the country took it upon themselves to go even further, and mandate only four working days (Monday-Thursday).  My school happens to be in one of these Emirates so, after 18 months of four-day school weeks, I write to share my experiences.  

Is a 4-day work week actually better?  

It’s this question, and countless other similar questions that have been asked of me and by me.  Naturally there are positives and negatives to consider, and I’ll get to those. But, before we answer the big question, perhaps we should start with another, perhaps more pertinent question:

Why the 5-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 laborer, 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. 

Ancient Roman Market Painting
In Ancient Rome, the 8th day of the week was market day. If you were a laborer, you’d get the day off to take your produce to market.

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 color-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 took 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.  A tiny fraction when you consider the history of human work, but about half of our post-industrial revolution work history.

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.  I may be getting ahead of myself.

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 its 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.

A part time job offers learning experiences that schools cannot provide.

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 organizing 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-day 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? 

Enough with the academics and student achievement – what about us teachers?  The teachers that seem to be burning out in higher numbers each year, surely this should be a priority?  After all, what’s good for us will invariably have positive knock on effects for students.  

What about the Teachers?

For me, it has had a net positive effect.  A three-day weekend means I can take care of life admin, socialize, and have a day for myself every weekend.  I do, however, have to work for it.  

To be clear, the change to 4-day weeks wasn’t simply a case of truncating the Friday and being done with it.  To ensure students can ge through the same amount of content and fit in multiple classes of all subjects each week, each of the four days had to be extended by about 30 minutes.  It may not seem like much, but with possibly an additional 30 minutes of teaching each day, it does take it out of you.  

On top of that, to ensure that the necessary meetings and professional development can take place, an additional 15 minutes was added to a teacher’s ‘expected attendance’.  Generally, leadership will leave the organizing of personal planning time to the teacher’s discretion, but it’s worth noting that each of those four days are typically longer than a day in the regular five-day week.

So, in terms of total amount of time on the job, rather than simply cutting out the fifth day, teachers have four days + a couple of extra hours.  Each of my colleagues handles this a little differently.  

Some work as late as they need to on their workdays so as to not have any extra work to complete on their three days off.  Others leave as soon as they can on school days, enjoy their afternoons, and then dedicate a few hours to work over the weekend.  

I tend to fall into the former category, although at some times of the year I’ll take home some marking or complete some administrative tasks over the weekend.

Ultimately, for me, it makes for a much more sustainable work/life balance. I now have enough time on the weekends to complete some personal projects, and not simply just recover from the week that has passed.  I’d say the majority of my colleagues feel the same.

Adding to this are the travel opportunities that an extra day off each week affords, especially living in the international hub that is Dubai.  With a wide range of weekend destinations within a few hours’ flight from home, I can quite literally fly out on Thursday evening, spend a few nights on ‘holiday’ and fly back in time to get a good nights’ sleep on Sunday.

There are a couple, however, that would prefer to revert back to the five day week. For them, the augmented work days in the four-day work week are too long and energy draining to make the long weekend worthwhile.  

Even after 18 months of the 4-day work week, we still don’t yet know the full benefits, drawbacks, or long term effects.  This goes for both students and teachers.  My article on student achievement in a four-day work week sheds more light on this.

The truth of the matter is that at some point, we may need to decide whether we’re working to push students and ourselves to reach the highest academic results possible, or whether we aim for a higher purpose.  Perhaps there’s a more meaningful and holistic path of human education, one that values progress and achievement but not at the cost of societal values.

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