Are High School Clubs a Bad Idea?

I teach at a wonderful independent school at which everyone gets along really well, the curriculum is rigorous and innovative, the students are kind and curious, and the faculty and staff are amazing. I treasure the commitment and dedication of everyone, faculty, staff, students. I love being in the classroom with my students or collaborating with my colleagues.

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From the BBC, “Lack of Sleep Blights Pupils Education,” 2013

But here’s the problem. My students don’t sleep enough. Many are dogged by stress and anxiety, much of it centering on “doing well” in school. This stress is compounded by weariness and a sense that the pace of life is too fast and that time to pause, rest, or reflect is unavailable. Why?

Here is one answer: there is a long and ever-growing list of school-related activities students participate in. Students at my school are required to take part in “community engagement,” activities that used to be called “community service.” These activities take place outside the 8 am-3:15 pm school day. Drama and musical rehearsals are also after school. All these activities require more time spent in cars. Our school is outside the city center and a 30-minute commute each way isn’t unusual.

Some students at my school miss days and even weeks of school to compete for expensive and time-consuming “club teams.” These sport teams are not affiliated with the school but many of our most successful athletes take part in them. Additionally, students interested in entrepreneurship attend a weekend-long “camp” at which they pitch ideas for companies to local business leaders. It is a terrific weekend and some of the student-generated ideas have become actual companies and non-profit organizations. Other students have begun similar organizations on their own. Although they are still fairly rare, student “start-ups” have become a part of the culture here, especially with the more ambitious.

In a given week, most students also participate in student organizations and clubs at school. Here is the list, copied from our daily bulletin, for a few days ago: Marimba Club; Taiko Club; Pegasus [our literary magazine]; Zine Club; YEP PDX; Math Team; Jewish Student Union; SAFE; Birding Club; Black Student Union; Model United Nations; Children of Immigrants Affinity Group. Here are tomorrow’s club meetings: Infinote [an acapella group], Design Club, Business Club, Booster Club, Camions of Care, Bridge Club, Chess Club, AWSEM [I’m not sure what that one is], Yearbook, InvenTeams, History Bowl, and Junior State of America. All this for a secondary school of 300.

All of these activities are worthwhile, as are sports, student theater, community engagement, and so on. But a 17-year old needs 9 or 10 hours of sleep every night, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. If they get up at 6:30, that means bedtime should be somewhere around 8:30-9:30 pm.

I haven’t mentioned homework.

Since I arrived at my school about a decade ago, we have cut the homework load twice for high schoolers. It’s hard to say how much it has been reduced, but I’m certain the reduction is on the order of 1-2 hours per day. Yet this hasn’t lead to a reduction in student stress. The number of visits to the counselor’s office continues to rise. I think my veteran colleagues would agree that students are less likely to hand work in on time than they were 10 years ago. Cutting the homework load created a vacuum into which other resume-building activities rushed. It did not lead to better-rested students.

Given the packed schedules and stressed lives of my students, I feel the need to ask: where is the wiggle room? How can I get my students more sleep? This question leads to some rather radical queries.

What is the educational value of school clubs and activities? I am searching but cannot find much of anything in the way of academic research on the pedagogical benefit of school-based clubs. There are studies showing direct correlation between extracurriculars and graduation rates, though both closely track income as well. In fact, many of the activities my students participate in cost money, some of them a lot of money. Clubs and activities can actually function as a way of increasing inequality in student experience, as the chart below illustrates.

A Child's Day: Living Arrangements, Nativity, and Family Transit
Are clubs, sports, and activities multpliers of inequality? Should we be more actively trying to level the playing field? From the Univ. of Maryland School of Public Health

My questions are different: I want to know why students engage in so many clubs and activities and at what point does it all become too much? Of course we want our students to pursue interests and to direct that pursuit themselves. But does this have to happen during the “school day” but outside of class?

Having spent much of last year visiting Finnish schools, I surveyed a few friends there about student clubs and activities. Obviously, educators the world over look to the Finnish education system, but often, I think, they overlook what happens (or doesn’t happen) outside the classroom. The daily lunch, free and nutritious, is one example. (When I searched for scholarly work supporting the American practice of clubs and activities, I came across more than one that cheered on lunchtime academic clubs. I can see the use of “lunch-bunches,” in which students share a hobby or a pleasure as they eat together, but I wonder about taking away the break and the focus on healthy eating in order to gain more instructional time.)

My Finnish friends answered my question in unison. One respondent wrote: “Clubs in Finnish schools? Never heard about them.” A friend noted that many secondary students take part in activities outside of school–theater, sports, music–but these are outside the purview of the school itself.

Taru Pohtola, who teaches at Martinlaakson lukio in Vantaa, Finland, gave me some nice detail While many students play sports or make music outside of school, school itself is academic:

“[Like] most Finnish high schools, our school doesn’t have any real clubs. The only extracurricular activities our school offers are: 1) Choir – students meet once a week for 75 minutes after school. (About 25 out of 440 students.) 2) Student council – students meet once a week for 75 minutes after school. (About 20 out of 440 students.) 3) Ecological team and Tanzania team – students meet about once a month and organize certain events. (About 20 students out of 440 students).”

Tarja Mykrä, who is Director of Development at Mercuria Business College (a vocational school in Vantaa) told me that in Finland’s robust vocational school system, “There are no clubs …. If they have a hobby, it is always outside of school.” Another friend, who teaches at a highly-respected normal school in Jyväskylä, told me that although her school has no clubs beyond a student council, students who are highly invested in their hobbies can be prone to weariness during the school day.

I am struck by the use of the word “hobbies” by my Finnish educator-friends. I don’t hear that word anymore in the US–at least not about children.

Is the American love of student clubs and activities related to its cultural fear of “loitering” teenagers, of young people with “nothing to do?” Or is it driven, like so much else in a high school student’s life, by the college application process? At my school, at least, students work hard to set themselves apart in the eyes of colleges. This is largely done outside of the classroom.

I will not pretend to write a summary or critique of the American college-application process here. But one outgrowth of the rigmarole is that somehow we have arrived at the point at which many students search for opportunities to show prospective colleges their “leadership,” “passion,” and entrepreneurial spirit. It is much easier to demonstrate these qualities outside the classroom than with mere grades and standardized test scores. The desire of colleges to judge the “whole student” has created new stresses on students to brand and present themselves in novel ways.

Simo Mikkonen, a Professor of History at the University of Jyväskylä who has also spent time at Berkeley and Stanford, confirmed my suspicion that Finnish universities do not offer weight to an application laden with extra-curricular activities. School in Finland largely means classes punctuated by breaks. No surprise then that universities are more concerned about academics than what students do in their spare time. This seems psychologically healthy to me.

Somehow the American system of presenting our entire selves to colleges–academic, social, casual, personal–suggests that the workaholism and lack of work-life boundaries that saturate American middle-class society have made their way into teenage life. That the less affluent may not be able to keep up with the privileged and harried is hardly a vote in favor of overscheduling.

Yes, the pace of my students’ lives is a sign of affluence. But I would rather they had more hobbies, things they do for fun, far away from the eyes of college admissions officers.

I would also like to see curricula that offer students more opportunities to try out new subjects and to follow their interests. Shortening the length of courses and moving towards mastery transcripts rather than rigid lists of requirements might help move worthy pursuits–like community service–within the daily, 8-3 schedule of school. But without some sort of limit on clubs and activities, I fear these progressive ideas might lead to even more hurried students.