This story went viral in China. From Liao Yunyi:
A high school in central China’s Henan Province triggered criticism online lately over a seemingly unprecedented move said to improve students’ productivity and academic performance.
The school decided to take away the seating in the cafeteria, forcing students to eat while standing so that they’ll return to their studies faster. A video which surfaced on Weibo, China’s microblogging site, showed no signs of seats in the dining hall in the high school in Shangqiu City’s Sui County.
…As it turned out, the school removed the seats on purpose for it believed eating while standing would help cut short students’ lunch break and give them more time to get more schoolwork done, since a few extra minutes can make or break their future.
The move was said to have borrowed experience from other high schools well known for brutal schedules where students start school at 5:30 a.m. every day in order to achieve high scores on Gaokao, China’s notoriously difficult college entrance exam.
On one hand, sure, studying hard for the “Big Test” a good idea. That’s particularly true for kids in poorer families. The exam may be their only path to college.
On the other hand, I’m skeptical of this move. If we ran an RCT comparing comparing schools with lunchroom seats versus schools without, would the “standers” end up with higher test scores? I’d bet: no.
For 2 reasons.
Taking breaks tends to improve short and long-term memory. Research supports this. If a school is “10 out of 10” in intensity, and strategically dials it back to an “8 out of 10,” they might actually see higher test scores. There are tricks to figuring out how to do this well (for example, from our friends at HBS, surprise breaks may be more valuable than expected breaks)
Second, each “little move” within a school affects “overall mood.” That, in turn, affects anxiety. Anxiety reduces learning. See here for example, in a U Chicago study of math:
“The effects of anxiety are true, even in countries that we think of as being really high-performing in math—Singapore, Korea, Japan, China,” said co-author Julianne Herts, a doctoral student in psychology. “Even students in those countries who perform very well in math and score very high on tests still show this relation. That’s something we didn’t know would be the case.”
Behavioral and neuroimaging studies reviewed by the researchers suggest why anxiety has such a powerful and universal impact. To do math, humans need to be able to hold information in their minds and manipulate and remember it.
“The students who normally do really well have a large capacity to hold information in their minds and use advanced strategies that require a lot of cognitive resources,” Foley said. “But when they’re math anxious, the anxiety and the emotion system of the brain interfere with their ability to hold onto information, so they end up performing much worse than they otherwise would if they weren’t anxious.”
My school in China, if I ever start one?
Yes to a sense of urgency around learning, but the optimal means to that end…includes breaks, joy factor, exercise, and more autonomy.
Maybe 2 lunch rooms: one with seats, one without…but the latter is for kids who want to eat fast and do something fun.