What happens in schools?

Class, race and school enjoyment Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work  provides a snapshot of what American teenagers want to be when they grow up and looks in detail at how their workplace skills and attitudes are developed.

Published in 2000, the book is based on a national longitudinal study of American adolescents from 1991 through 1997. Our 2011 economic and technological landscape is quite different from that 20 years ago; however, some of the data the researchers discovered may be worth looking at now in spite of or because of those changes.

In this post, I’ll focus on some of the findings about students’ experiences in and attitudes toward school. I’ll save findings about career aspirations for another day.

The authors

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is best known for his studies on flow, the mental state in which people are totally engrossed in an activity that is highly challenging but not beyond their capabilities.

Barbara Schneider is currently at Michigan State University. Her research interests focus on how the social contexts of schools and families influence the academic and social well-being of adolescents as they move into adulthood.

The study design

Led by a multidisciplinary team, the study looked at adolescents in grades, 6, 8, 10 and 12. They followed more than 1,000 students in 13 school districts representing a cross section of American communities and schools.

Researchers used a variety of methods to get data, including:

  • A survey to collect data about what students know about the world of work and factors that may contribute to that knowledge,
  • Daily sampling to determine how students spent their time and how they felt about what they were experiencing
  • Interviews with teens, their parents, and school guidance counselors;
  • Analysis of publications of the schools the teens attended, such as mission statements, budgets, and curriculum descriptions.


1. How students’ school day is spent

Researchers found that only two-thirds of the students’ school day—four hours of a six-hour day—was spent in classes.

  • Students were in core academic classes (math, science, English, foreign language, history, social studies) just over half (55%) of the school day.
  • Students spent about 12% of their school day in classes outside the core subjects, such as art, physical education, and vocational training.
  • Students spent a third of their school day in unstructured time on school grounds outside of class—the halls, lunchroom, gym, library—or outside the building.

The authors point out that the amount of unstructured time is very high compared to many other countries. In Japan, for example, spent almost the entire school day in class, even eating at their desks.

2. How students’ class time is spent

Researchers also examined what students did during the four hours they spent in classes. Their findings are summarized on this pie chart, patterned after Figure 7.1 in Becoming Adult:

Here’s the actual breakdown of class activities by percentages:

23% of class time listening to the teacher lecture
23% of class time during individual work
14% of class time taking tests or quizzes
11% doing homework or studying
9% watching TV or video
6% listening or taking notes
5% in discussion
4% talking to friends or the teacher
3% in group work or lab
2% in other activity

3. How students feel about school activities

What is more interesting than the numbers is the way students felt about various activities. It should be no surprise that students said lectures are neither enjoyable or challenging. However, it may be surprising to learn they regarded classroom lectures and video content as unimportant to their career goals.

School activities that students said were engrossing, challenging, and important to their future goals were:

  • Taking tests and quizzes.
  • Doing individual  work.
  • Doing group work.

Group work came in well behind the other two activities, however.

The only parts of the school academic program that matched tests and quizzes in their ability to engage students were the non-core classes like art, music, and computer classes. Although kids said they really enjoyed those activities, they also said they were not important to their future goals.

Musings: If things haven’t changed much

If student attitudes haven’t changed since this study was done—and that’s a big if—we might need to rethink:

  • whether tests are really worthless,
  • whether homework is bad for kids,
  • whether the flipped classroom with video content at home is a cure for education’s ills,
  • whether group work increases learning that students perceive as valuable to their careers,
  • whether we can make students’ perception of the career value of non-core classes more positive.