Why do we teach English and maths in the morning?

The majority of primary schools give their morning over to English and maths. But is this the right thing to do? Dan Worth looks at the research – and the arguments
29th May 2020, 12:02am
Primary Maths & English Ideas


Why do we teach English and maths in the morning?


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Here’s a question for you: why do primary teachers spend their mornings teaching maths and English? It’s Tony Blair’s fault.

After being swept into power in 1997 on a platform of education reform (among other things), Blair, as the new prime minister, quickly insisted that all primary schools teach literacy and numeracy for an hour each day.

“Although it’s hard to imagine a time before daily maths and English lessons,” says Michael Tidd, head at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex, “that was the time when the expectations were really upped.”

Tasked with this requirement, most schools decided to schedule those hours in the morning to ensure that it was a clear focus for both teachers and pupils. And, as director of policy at the NAHT school leaders’ union James Bowen explains, it’s been that way ever since.

“Even though the strategy is no longer in place, the habit has stuck,” he says. “It’s a bit of a case that we have always done it that way, so we still do it that way.”

This is likely not the cast-iron scientific reasoning that you might hope would dictate your teaching schedule.

But bear with me.

While morning sessions may have come about more by accident than design, teachers do tend to believe that pupils perform better in the morning, so front-loading maths and English in the school day makes intuitive sense to many.

“There’s a general belief - shared by me - that children work hardest in the morning,” explains Jo Brighouse, a pseudonymous Tes columnist and primary school teacher.

Tidd concurs. But is there a danger that this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy? He thinks so. “I genuinely think that because so many teachers believe this, it actually leads to it being true,” he says. “If children come through school thinking that mornings are for the hard work, and afternoons are when you’re too tired so do less challenging things, they become accustomed to that approach.”

However, there is little evidence to suggest that this teacher perception is wrong.

“No one has really presented evidence that not doing it in the morning is better,” says Bowen.

On the contrary, there is a wealth of evidence that teachers may be right that the most effective learning takes place in the morning. In our first article in this special issue, Jared Cooney Horvath argues that mornings really are best for cognitively demanding tasks, if you consider two of the three learning functions of the brain that he scrutinises (see pages 12-14). So, have we had it right all along by chance?

Horvath says that, looking at the evidence, the answer depends on your educational aims, and he also points out that shifting lab knowledge to practice in the classroom is fraught with problems. Have we any specific evidence on what time of day it is best to teach maths and English to primary-aged children? The short answer is: very little.

There is some more general research that seems, at first glance, to compete with that presented by Horvath. For example, a study conducted in 2017 by Katharina Wulff and Christopher-James Harvey, at the time both at the University of Oxford, analysed the reaction times of 900 children in the morning and again in the afternoon. To do this, the academics asked the pupils to catch a ruler as it was dropped between their hands. This enabled them to measure the children’s speed of reaction using the point on the ruler where they caught it. Furthermore, the experiment was carried out both before and after the spring clock change, to see if that affected children’s reactions in terms of any lost sleep.

On both occasions, reaction times were quicker in the afternoon than the morning.

So, would our youngest pupils actually be better at processing sums and pinpointing sentence parts in the afternoons? That’s certainly how several media outlets reported on the research at the time.

But all is not as it may seem. Wulff, now a senior research lecturer in chronobiology and sleep at Umeå University in northern Sweden, says she does not think the experiment’s outcomes can be taken that far - chiefly because the results were more about physical reactions than memory.

“Reaction time is a physical task, not a mental task,” she says. “So while it was faster in the afternoon, whether we can say that would also relate to learning mentally demanding subjects in the afternoon I would hesitate to say, as we did not measure mental capacity or effort.”

Brighouse throws another problem into the mix: the fact that the twilight of the school day tends to be a maelstrom of pastoral issues. “If you’ve just fallen out with your best friend or if you didn’t get the chance to run off some energy because you’ve been confined to a classroom [because of bad weather], you’re not going to be in the best frame of mind to learn about fractions and percentages,” she says.

As fightbacks go, then, the argument for teaching key subjects in the afternoons appears a weak one. And yet, we should not rule afternoons out altogether, according to research from cognitive scientists: rather than switching from AM to PM completely, some argue that both may be optimal.

What we’re talking about here is interleaved study. Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at UCL Institute of Education, explains that this theory essentially suggests that breaking up study into smaller chunks, with a gap between them, is better for long-term learning. As such, he says that, following the research logic at least, it would make sense to have this sort of system in primary schools. “The memory research would suggest that it would be more effective to have 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon, because by then you have begun to forget what you have learned in the morning, so that second 30 minutes has a bigger contribution to long-term learning,” he says.

Is that practical, though? Bowen acknowledges the benefits that come from returning to English or maths topics in the afternoon when possible. But he can’t see primary teachers splitting a lesson in half that way. Instead, he says you are more likely to get more informal interleaving.

“If in an English lesson in the morning you’ve been learning about sentence construction and then in the afternoon they are doing something in history or geography, it’s going to make a lot of sense to refer back to that morning lesson as they do their work,” Bowen says.

“Or, you might do something like learning maths in the morning, then when the children come back from lunch or just before they go home you might do a quick five minutes on the topic you were looking at with a quick exercise on the board for them to work on.”

The great news, he says, is that most teachers do this already. And Brighouse agrees. “I do some maths and English in the afternoons but it tends to be things like playing a mental maths game or revising aspects of spelling and grammar,” she says.

“Maths and English skills are threaded through all aspects of a primary curriculum anyway. It’s hard to think of a science, geography or history lesson that doesn’t involve the need of reading, spelling and measuring skills.”

If primary teachers do this already, then it would seem that there is no compelling reason why you shouldn’t teach maths and English in the mornings. And there are few reasons why you should shift these subjects to the afternoons.

But this debate does raise an interesting question: if the morning is the optimal time to learn, as Horvath suggests, and if afternoons really are worse for pastoral reasons, then does our insistence that maths and literacy take the morning slots give weight to the suggestion that every other subject is sidelined in primary schools, that the curriculum is narrowed to two core subjects and every other subject is left fighting for the scraps?

This, in turn, leads to the question of what primary schools are for - which is a huge can of worms. There would be little argument that literacy and numeracy are essential skills to be taught, but should they be taught at the expense of everything else?

So, let’s rephrase our original question, dear reader: given the evidence about when we learn best, should we be teaching only English and maths in the morning in primary schools?

Dan Worth is a senior editor at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 29 May 2020 issue 

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