Peter Blatchford, professor of psychology and education at the UCL Institute of Education, wants you to think about breaktimes: what they are for; how important you think they are; and, most importantly, what impact you think they have on your lessons.
He asks because he is pretty sure they are more important than you think they are and that they have a substantial positive impact on your lessons. Blatchford has spent a lot of time looking at breaktimes. He was involved in groundbreaking research into the significance of school breaks for the BaSiS (Breaktime and Social Life in Schools) project in 1995, which was then followed up by the same team of researchers in 2006.
“Back then, nobody knew much about breaktimes in school,” he says. “There was no information available about the length of the breaks, the interaction of the children, the supervision and so on. It was like a parallel world outside the classroom that wasn’t considered to be important.”
What he found was that breaktimes are a key feature of the school day for social and learning outcomes. “Interactions and relationships between children are important,” he explains. “The way they maintain attention on an activity, develop friendships, loyalty and trust, and deal with conflict, these are all skills that they need to learn in order to learn effectively in the classroom and work as a team member.
“They need unstructured play time in order to do this, and breaktimes provide an opportunity for spontaneous social behaviour in children’s play.”
But the 2006 survey suggested that break and lunchtimes had been substantially reduced since 1995 and that afternoon break had been abolished completely in many schools. That trend, the researchers believe, has continued and a new survey went live last year to find out exactly what is happening.
There are various reasons for breaktimes being cut short, explains Blatchford. “Partly it’s the demands of the curriculum,” he says. “Schools are under pressure to maximise learning time, so they are skimming time from breaks to add to teaching time.
“Bullying and behaviour issues have also played their part: it’s difficult to manage behaviour in a playground context, so some have felt that the best way to deal with it is to cut breaktimes to the bare minimum so there is less chance for poor behaviour and conflicts to develop.”
Impact on social relationships
Whatever the reason, the consequences of these cutbacks for children are “dire”, he says. “Children are not getting a chance to interact at school and, as opportunities to meet out of school and play outside have also declined, this is having a detrimental effect on children’s social relationships. In turn, this affects their ability to work together in the classroom because social skills essential for this have not been learned.”
The biggest victim of the cutback in breaktimes is, he believes, group work, as breaktimes provide the foundation skills for such work to be effective. And effective group work should be a bedrock of good teaching, he says.
“High-quality group work is so beneficial in the classroom. We learn and develop, and take on differing opinions, by talking and listening and interacting. But, in order for [group work] to be effective, it has to be done well,” he adds.
How much of group work in schools is currently done well? If you believe those who are against using it, then very little. They argue that it is too difficult to get right and too time-consuming even if you do get it right.
And they argue that students don’t like group work, either. Some pupils don’t want others to “steal their ideas”, some don’t have the confidence to speak up in a group situation, while others believe that their peers “steamroll” over the rest of the group and can’t compromise or listen effectively.
To counter the first argument, Blatchford says studies have shown that high-quality group work has positive effects on pupils’ academic progress in all key stages, especially in subjects where problem solving and inferential thinking are used (for one of those studies, he was part of the team, see: bit.ly/Leedsstudy).
And as for the second point: “This is why we have to train pupils to interact effectively in groups and rethink how we see group work,” says Blatchford.
He believes there are three key areas to address in order to get maximum benefit from group work:
* Train children to work well together from an early age, using age-appropriate activities, conversations and games to promote these skills: “We need to teach children to listen effectively, take turns, negotiate, manage conflicts and reach a joint conclusion. If we start doing this from the start of key stage 1, they will do it automatically by the time they enter key stage 2,” he says.
* Use the teacher’s role effectively: “Think of yourself as a guide on the side,” says Blatchford. “Brief and debrief the children. Ask them leading questions, such as ‘what went well?’”
* Consider the classroom context: “Think about the composition of the group – four to six children per group is enough, and the younger the children are, the smaller the group should be,” says Blatchford. “Position the pupils so that they are facing each other. Give them only one worksheet so they can’t drift off and work alone. And think about getting a good mix of characters in each group, especially with younger children.”
“This model is similar to the way that pupils will work in the workplace,” he says.
“And that’s important; do we just want pupils to leave school with qualifications? Or do we want them to leave with a set of skills for work and life? If you don’t learn how to interact effectively with people, you’re not going to have a very fruitful career.”
He admits that some teachers may be uncomfortable using group work but says the benefits mean they need to overcome their fears. “Teaching children how to work as a group can seem quite daunting, especially in terms of classroom organisation and managing behaviour,” says Blatchford.
“Teachers are stressed out – they have a lot to do and to think about. But once pupils have learned how to interact this way, classroom management becomes so much easier, as disagreements are easily addressed and solved using the skills that they have developed.”
And a teacher’s job will be much easier if breaktimes are safeguarded, he argues. “Children need time and space for spontaneous social behaviour in order to help them to work better together and learn effectively,” he says.
“Who is it really benefiting if you cut afternoon break or shave another 10 minutes off lunch time? You might fit in more teaching time, but are you really doing it in the children’s best interests?”
Lisa Jarmin is a freelance writer